There’s little doubt that Donald Trump is willing to do anything at all to hold onto power. He’s already proven that with the actions that ended with his impeachment, and expanded on that proof to a horrific degree when he purposely discarded a national testing plan for COVID-19 out of hopes that more people would die in Democratic states. When someone is ready to discard hundreds of thousands of people just on the chance it will bolster their odds, it’s hard to think there’s any lines that can’t be crossed in trying to keep his stubby hands on the reins.
To that end, Trump has already spent the first part of this year:
- Tearing apart the Postal Service
- Spreading lies about vote by mail
- Testing the use of force to block protests
- Fomenting violence in democratically led cities
To prepare against the day when the numbers show voters want him to leave their house.
But there’s one more step Trump is taking that’s designed to ensure he can’t lose. Like … really can’t lose. That step goes back to one of the least favorite parts of the system created by eighteenth century people unable to imagine a world in which electronic communication could tie the nation together in an instant: the Electoral College.
Like the Senate filibuster, the Electoral College is an institution that ensures a handful of people can control the fate of vast issues. Everyone recognizes that it’s undemocratic. Only those who absolutely depend on it—like Republicans who have lost the popular vote in six of the last seven elections—have anything nice to say about it. It was an overly complicated idea in 1788. It’s a ridiculous relic today.
Barton Gellman's latest article in The Atlantic is notable for the forthright discussion of how Trump is unlikely to be pried from the White House without, at the very least, a legal fight. One of the biggest reasons that the Republicans are hurrying to get a fresh Trump appointment into the Supreme Court—even if that means making the selection while Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is still lying in state at the Capitol—is precisely so that there will be a heavily Trump-friendly majority on the court when the lawsuits inevitably arrive on its doorsteps. After all, Republicans don’t want to take the chance John Roberts has a twinge of conscience.
But in addition to laying the public groundwork by disparaging mailed-in votes and planting false stories of foreign nations seeding America with fake ballots, there’s another big step that the Trump campaign is making more quietly in the effort to prepare for a loss at the polls. After all, Trump doesn’t have to win at the polls to secure his spot in the White House—he already proved that in 2016.
However, 2016 swung on a very small number of votes in a few swing states. Right now, Trump is further behind in the polls than he ever was in that cycle, and he’s well behind in several states that he won last time around. But that may not be an issue.
The meeting of the Electoral College in December, and the count of those votes in January, immediately after Congress is seated, are supposed to be formalities. Sure, the college itself is a democracy-warping relic that gives way too much power to small numbers of people in specific states while disenfranchising tens of millions. But at least the process of executing the vote is more or less ceremonial. Except when it’s not.
In 2000, with the vote in the Electoral College looming and many people urging him to fight on, Al Gore went before the nation to say “Tonight, for the sake of our unity as a people and the strength of our democracy, I offer my concession.” It is impossible to even imagine Trump making such a speech. If Trump refuses to concede, no matter what the outcome in the popular vote or the Electoral College, there is no real procedure in place for making him go.
And there’s another threat: the electors themselves.
We are accustomed to choosing electors by popular vote, but nothing in the Constitution says it has to be that way. Article II provides that each state shall appoint electors “in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct.” Since the late 19th century, every state has ceded the decision to its voters. Even so, the Supreme Court affirmed in Bush v. Gore that a state “can take back the power to appoint electors.” How and when a state might do so has not been tested for well over a century.
Republican sources report that the Trump team is already conducting a low-level campaign to test their ability to seat electors who are “loyal” not in the sense that they vote according to the outcome of the election, but in the sense that they vote for Trump, no matter what.
Six of the most critical states—Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—have both chambers of the state legislature controlled by Republicans. What happens if the voters of Florida or Pennsylvania give Biden a solid victory, but the legislatures of those states seat electors who all promise to vote for Trump? It would go to court, of course, but how would a newly appointed Trump justice rule on a case about “in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct?” The Supreme Court, the with Ruth Bader Ginsburg Court, recently ruled that states could pass laws prohibiting faithless electors. But it’s unclear if those laws would stand up to deliberate meddling by Trump-favoring legislatures. Some state officials are currently denying this effort, which means about as much as a denial from Trump.
As with every other contingency, the possibility of Trump exercising these anti-democracy measures drops with every percentage point of his defeat. Trump doesn’t just need to lose, he needs to lose so badly that everyone, top to bottom, gets the message. So badly, that everyone sees that opposing the will of the voters would not mean a protest, but a revolution. So badly that everyone will be buying new ten foot poles just to keep him at a distance.
Trump will try to cheat. If there is any possible means in which he can claim victory, even it means doing to the Constitution what Mitch McConnell has done to the Senate rules, he will go there. His rejection must be visceral and decisive, because anything else he will read as weakness.