What would happen if President Donald Trump were to refuse to accept the 2020 presidential election results? In a Zoom webinar with nearly 600 attendees on Sept. 10, James J. Grosfeld Professor of Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought Lawrence Douglas addressed this question alongside attorney and CNN “Early Start” anchor Laura Jarrett ’07, who moderated the event. Douglas shared ideas from his new book, “Will He Go?: Trump and the Looming Election Meltdown in 2020.”
With the election fast approaching, the topic of the discussion was strikingly current, but according to Douglas, the premise of the book occurred to him in 2016 during Trump’s inauguration, when he began wondering whether the Constitution and federal system would be prepared to meet the challenge of a president who is unwilling to leave office. Trump’s questioning of the results of the 2016 Iowa Republican presidential caucuses and of Florida’s 2018 midterms led Douglas to think about the fallout that could occur if Trump tried to undermine the legitimacy of the next general election as a sitting president. Douglas suggested that Trump’s desire to “protect his name” would prompt the president to reject election results, and even the entire electoral process, in order to avoid the embarrassment of defeat.
With the coronavirus pandemic, the 2020 presidential election will take place in especially unusual circumstances that will only increase the ways Trump can, and has already begun to, sow doubt about the validity of the election results, Douglas said. For example, he pointed to the repeated statements that Trump made to undermine mail-in ballots, which millions of Americans will be adopting as their method of voting this November given the public health risks of in-person voting. Despite Trump’s claims, voter fraud by mail-in ballots are rare, studies have shown.
Douglas also noted that the use of mail-in ballots will likely be much more prevalent among Biden supporters than Trump supporters, which, for him, explains why Trump has been so aggressive in denouncing the integrity of such ballots. To support his claim, he cited a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll that found “some 47 percent of voters who back Mr. Biden … plan to vote by mail rather than in person, compared with 11 percent of Trump supporters. By contrast, 66 percent of Trump voters say they plan to cast ballots in person on Election Day, the poll found, compared with 26% of Biden supporters.”
In an interview with The Student, Douglas added that in-person voting could be a way for Trump supporters to show approval for the president’s handling of the pandemic response, which would partially account for the discrepancy with Biden supporters.
“We’ve seen this very steady pattern of tweets issuing from the White House saying this is going to be the most corrupt election in American history,” Douglas said. “It’s going to be just a big hoax, that the mail-in ballots shouldn’t be counted. This is all a way of Trump trying to anticipate the fact that the mail-in ballots are going to break heavily in Biden’s favor.”
Douglas pointed to another complication with mail-in ballots: the differences in state procedures regarding when to count the ballots, as well as the sheer amount of time it takes to count all of them. Since some states will not be counting mail-in ballots until after Nov. 3, Trump could take the lead on election day but lose it once more Biden votes come in. For Douglas, this poses a danger in allowing Trump to potentially claim victory in the interim before all the votes have been counted.
“I think it is absolutely critical for the media to get out in front of that claim and to push back very, very aggressively, to say that if it is the case that Trump is enjoying a lead, that that is simply a provisional lead and reflects the fact that tens of millions of votes are yet to be counted,” he said. “It would be incumbent on the media not to treat this election like they treat most elections, that is, as if we’re kind of watching this Super Bowl, and by the time we go to sleep on Nov. 3, we know who the next president is going to be.”
Apprehension over the uncertain and unprecedented nature of the election taking place in just 50 days or so loomed in attendees’ reactions to the webinar. In the Q&A portion of the event, one asked whether public disappointment with the election results could manifest in violence; others wanted to know if it was too late and whether there are still any situations under which Trump would actually accept the election results if he lost.
For Cal Gelernt ’24, who attended the event, the biggest takeaway from the discussion was how fragile democracy really is. “We tend to think of democracy as this bulwark that guarantees peaceful transfer of power, guarantees an election will always be fair, and guarantees that there will never be any problems in the system,” he remarked. “That’s the American ideal, the democratic ideal. But I think what Professor Douglas made clear is that that’s not really true.” Gelernt referenced a quote from Douglas’ book that he found to be particularly eye-opening: “Our constitution does not secure the peaceful transition of power, but rather presupposes it.”
Indeed, Douglas explained, “presidents can be removed by the electoral process, but that presupposes this confidence in the electoral process, that the electoral process is functioning. What is particularly toxic about Trump is that he’s eroding the constitutional mechanism that was designed by the Framers of the Constitution for the purpose of removing a president who the people have now rejected.”