What Would A Contested Election Look Like?

Earlier this year––a year racked with coronavirus, political instability, and uncertainty––about 100 of America’s top officials, advisors, and leaders met secretly in the summer heat, a scene reminiscent of a similar summer meeting that took place over 200 years ago. Like that fateful gathering all those years ago that ultimately signed the Declaration of Independence, the meeting held 200 years later would be an important turning point in American history. But while the Second Continental Congress marked the birth of a democracy, the event earlier was born out of concern that that very same democracy was dying. 

Over the course of June 2020, Georgetown Law professor and former senior Pentagon official Rosa Brooks along with UC Berkeley chancellor and historian at the Berggruen Insititute Nils Gilman led officials in conducting a series of nonpartisan war-games to examine the possible, unprecedented scenarios that could rise from the 2020 election. The so-called “Transition Integrity Project”, prompted by a concern that the unprecedented and destructive actions of the Trump campaign could be taken a step too far. The group’s four games each had incredibly distinct outcomes––ranging from small, easily resolved disputes over election results and unsuccessful attempts to sabotage the incoming administration, to more troubling outcomes, like two competing claims to the presidency on inauguration day, and large-scale violence on American streets––a possibility that could break down our entire electoral system. 

At first, the Transition Integrity Project’s 22 page report can seem alarmist or exaggerated. Indeed, many right-wing commentators questioned if the games were truly non-partisan, and accused the project of encouraging violence if the Democrats don’t win. But as the months went on, the TIP’s gamed-out scenarios no longer seemed like fiction. Now less than a few weeks from the election, the Trump administration has attempted to sabotage the system that would be responsible for transporting the majority of American ballots this year, and Trump himself has refused to concede or disavow any violence by white supremacist groups if the election doesn’t swing in his favor. Contestation (predicted in all four TIP scenarios, but with varying degrees of success) is looking more and more likely as we move closer to election day. It’s improbable that the public will know who won the election on the night of November 3rd.  

Contestation has happened before––most famously, in 2001, with Bush and Gore in Florida. However, the TIP warns that the contestation in 2020 may be unprecedented as it may be purely political in nature, and have no legal basis. However, how successful any contestation will be is wholly dependent on the election results. The darkest scenarios that TIP gamed out were ones in which the popular vote and the electoral vote diverged. A clear Biden win, in which he wins both the popular vote and electoral college, ensured that any contestation did not go very far. 

The takeaway from the project’s findings? Vote. A Biden landslide, though not avoiding a messy process, is the best scenario. The project also emphasized that public engagement, in the wake of a contested election, could be the crucial factor in ensuring the integrity of the contestation process. The message is clear––though things look bleak, the American people have more power than they can fathom. 

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