WASHINGTON — Prime state officials for the possibility of a contested election. Prepare for the mass mobilization of peaceful protests. And get the public ready for the idea that Election Day could essentially last for weeks as a wave of mail-in ballots are counted.
Those are some of the recommendations released on Monday by the Transition Integrity Project, a bipartisan group of political operatives, former government officials, and academics who quietly met four times in June to game out what would happen if the apparent losing candidate in November’s general election refused to concede, as President Trump has hinted he might.
“We assess with a high degree of likelihood that November’s elections will be marked by a chaotic legal and political landscape,” the group wrote in a 22-page report. “We also assess that President Trump is likely to contest the result by both legal and extra-legal means, in an attempt to hold onto power.”
The group used a tabletop exercise, a fixture in national security and military circles that involves elaborate role-playing and a 10-sided die, to explore worst case scenarios for the 2020 election as Trump signals a willingness to question the legitimacy of aspects of his reelection contest with former vice president Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee.
With Democrats playing Democrats and Republicans playing Republicans, they used the game to play out four Election Day scenarios — a narrow Biden win, a Biden victory with a bigger margin, a Trump victory in which Biden wins the popular vote, and an election that is too close to call for weeks. The scenarios followed chaotic twists and turns that stretched political norms to the breaking point, resulting in massive street protests and, in some cases, constitutional crises.
The very existence of the exercise, which was reported in detail by the Globe last month, underscores the fear among experts that the nation could be in for a dark fall and a difficult transition of presidential power if Trump refuses to accept the results of an election that does not go his way.
Participants in the Transition Integrity Project were once secretive about the details of their games, but now they are hoping that their efforts can help galvanize local officials, civic groups, and others ahead of a long election season.
“The purpose of this report is not to frighten, but to spur all stakeholders to action,” the report said. “Our legal rules and political norms don’t work unless people are prepared to defend them and to speak out when others violate them.”
One Republican participant in the enterprise, however, said the games had simply underscored how ill-prepared Democrats are to go to battle with Trump if he tried to sow doubt about the election results and ultimately refused to concede.
“I felt like a lot of Democrats who were participating in these games really expected him to play by the rules and be above board and honorable,” said that person, who requested anonymity to honor the agreement of the game.
The person added: “I thought it was absolutely terrifying how unprepared a lot of Never-Trump forces are to actually deal with what could actually go down on the day.”
The Transition Integrity Project was co-organized late last year by Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown law professor and former Department of Defense official, and Nils Gilman, a historian who leads research at the Berggruen Institute, a think tank.
Overall, 67 people participated in the scenarios, while more offered feedback. The group is bipartisan, although the Republicans were described as being opposed to Trump. They operated under the Chatham House Rule, which allows participants to discuss what was said in a private meeting, but not who said it.
In recent days, new details about the games have come to light. John Podesta, the chairman of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, played Biden in one scenario. Liz Mair, a Republican strategist who previously worked for former Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, at one point played Trump. More political operatives have been willing to be named as participants, including former Democratic National Committee chair Donna Brazile, former Democratic Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm and former Republican National Committee chair Michael Steele.
Games like these are not meant to be predictive, but rather to explore what is possible in complex situations so officials can begin to prepare. The participants imagined that both parties would view the election as an existential moment and that both Trump and Biden would be loath to concede a close contest.
In their game play, Trump and Republicans sought to win by stopping the counting of ballots, sometimes relying on federal agents or the Department of Justice as they sought to secure victory.
“An incumbent running for reelection can use the powers of the presidency to great advantage, particularly if traditional norms are viewed as unimportant and the incumbent is willing to take the risk that a court will eventually rule his actions to be unlawful,” the report said.
The report offered several general recommendations to avoid a crisis, although it is not clear with all of them how they would be implemented.
“Planners need to take seriously the notion that this may well be a street fight, not a legal battle; technocratic solutions, courts, and a reliance on elites observing norms are not the answer here,” the report said.
The group urged the media to prepare the public for the idea that a long period of ballot-counting should not cast doubt on the final election results, given that some states have expanded access to mail-in ballots due to the coronavirus. Mail-in ballots, which Trump has railed against, take longer to count, and results may be delayed past Election Night.
State officials play a key role in formalizing election results. In the contested election of 1876, some states sent two sets of results to Washington, plunging the final results into chaos.
The report and participants in the games have urged officials including governors, secretaries of state, and legislative leaders — especially in swing states with divided government — to consider the choices they might have to make in a contested election.
“They can sit down now, before the election, and agree on how they are going to adjudicate potential contestation,” said Gilman. “I think that can head off a great deal of mischief.”
The report urged congressional leaders to conduct oversight hearings around the election and to set clear expectations and urged military and law enforcement leaders to be “attuned to the possibility that partisan actors will seek to manipulate or misuse their coercive powers for inappropriate political ends.”
It also urged political leaders and the media to push back against unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud by Trump, who has repeatedly and baselessly questioned the legitimacy of mail-in ballots. It also urged civil servants and government officials to anticipate a rocky administrative transition, no matter what happens.
Edward Foley, an election law professor at Ohio State who observed the games, said both sides seemed to be primed to dig in.
“You need an ever greater margin of victory to cause the other side to walk away from the fight,” he said.