In recent weeks, President Trump has been escalating his attacks on the election and our democracy. His increasingly authoritarian tilt and the post-election doomsday scenarios are terrifying and overwhelming. But we cannot let him suppress our rights as citizens and prevent us from voting in the election this year.
It is easy to understand why people feel we’ve reached a new low; even after four destabilizing, painful years, where chaos and calamity have reigned, nothing is beyond the imagination. Trump is using his platform to bully us into believing that our laws don’t apply to him, to trash our democracy and to scare us into thinking our ballots won’t be counted.
But the record must be set straight: Here in the United States, we elect our leaders. We are a democracy, and Trump is not a king. If Trump loses this November, he will leave — as has been the case since John Adams replaced George Washington in 1797.
Right now, the polls say Trump is losing the election. Fearful of losing, he is flexing power he doesn’t have to discourage people from exercising the power they do. But Trump succeeds only if voters fall prey to his intimidation tactics and decide not to cast their ballot. We cannot let this happen. Every vote matters. And if in November the people say Trump must go, he will have to go.
Authoritarian regimes take root when citizens give up on their democratic institutions as rigged and illegitimate; voters succumb to their fear of the party in power and choose to sit out. That’s why it’s vital to clarify what a U.S. president can and can’t do.
If Trump loses, and wants to say the election wasn’t fair, he can say what he wants. But there is a system in place that he doesn’t control. A sitting president wields no direct power when it comes to how Americans vote. In nearly every state, local boards of election count the ballots. State election authorities verify these counts. Governors or secretaries of state certify that the final tally is correct. The electoral college does not depend on the president accepting the results. And a new Congress in January counts the tally transparently. There are firewalls that separate this process from the president — firewalls he has no power to override.
In addition, each state has security measures to ensure that votes cast are counted, whether they’re cast by mail or in person. Ballots stay in the hands of local officials — whether cast at a polling location or filled out at a voter’s kitchen table. This chain of custody ensures that local officials designated by state law to certify election results are the only ones who have access to the original ballots. These measures are not new; neither is voting by mail. Our armed forces first voted by mail during the Civil War, and states as different as Oregon and Utah are among those that conduct elections by mail fairly and effectively.
Americans are already voting. And we aren’t talking enough about that: In focusing on what can happen in the days and weeks following Nov. 3, we miss the opportunity to avert those bleak scenarios through high voter turnout. High turnout trumps everything. In 2000, the Supreme Court was important because the election came down to 537 votes. But the court didn’t decide the election in 2004, 2008, 2012 or 2016. That’s the difference between 537 votes and 10,000. The voters have the power to put this one out of the legal system’s reach.
Massive participation is the surest way to inoculate our democracy against authoritarian threats. The career officials of the federal government — including the military — took an oath to defend the Constitution, which entails responding to the person that we, the people, choose. At noon, on Jan. 20, 2021, the winner of the 2020 election will be inaugurated and those familiar with White House security procedures say that the Secret Service will escort anyone who doesn’t fit that description off of the White House premises.
Trump is far better at the art of distraction than understanding the powers — and limits — of the presidency. Every minute we spend talking about whether he is able to steal the election is one less that we’re focusing on the reasons to send him packing: more than 200,000 dead from covid-19 due in part to his malfeasance and incompetence, the impacts of the pandemic on our economy and our children, our destroyed reputation abroad, barbaric immigration policies at home, the embrace of white supremacy and police brutality, and the list goes on.
We don’t expect Trump to welcome a fair contest. Trump is nothing if not a bully — and he could give a master class on sore losing. But the choice of who wins this year’s election is not his to make. It’s ours.