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Prepare for the presidential election to end in disaster

An Amherst professor has been gaming out how it could all go wrong — and what will come after.

President Trump disputed the results of an election he won. What's he going to do if he loses?
President Trump disputed the results of an election he won. What's he going to do if he loses?Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press

An uneasy hush fell over the White House when President Trump flew to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to receive treatment for his coronavirus infection.

Now that he’s back — mask torn off on a White House balcony — he’s as pugilistic as ever.

He’s made the requisite broadsides against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, but most worrisome of all: his attack on democracy.

On Twitter, the president is again raising doubts about the legitimacy of mail-in balloting — resuming his efforts to undermine public confidence in the election.

Those efforts — plus his repeated refusals to commit to a peaceful transition of power if he loses to Joe Biden — have awakened many to the possibility of a coming electoral crisis. But Lawrence Douglas, professor of law, jurisprudence, and social thought at Amherst College, has worried about the possibility for some time.

After the last presidential election, when Trump made the baseless claim that Clinton had won the popular vote only because millions of unauthorized immigrants had cast fraudulent ballots, it was widely dismissed as an absurd spasm of Trumpian narcissism.

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Yet in a January 2017 opinion piece in the Guardian, Douglas warned that a similar attempt to cast doubt on the 2020 election results by a sitting president could do enormous damage. And in a book he published this spring called “Will He Go?: Trump and the Looming Election Meltdown in 2020,” he ran through some of the most worrisome ways the contest could go sideways.

Douglas recently spoke with me via Zoom, from his home in Sunderland, Mass., about the harrowing possibilities — and about where a bitterly contested election would leave the country. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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How worried are you?

I’d say I’m very worried. In the book I lay out three catastrophe scenarios. The last one I described, I think, is more than likely to actually happen.

You call this the “big blue shift” scenario. Can you explain?

The “blue shift” is a phrase that a colleague at Ohio State University named Ned Foley coined. And it simply recognizes that if you look at past elections, provisional and mail-in ballots tend to break for Democratic candidates.

That’s, in part, because urban returns take longer to count and provisional ballots tend to be cast by younger, lower-income people.

And [the phenomenon] is going to be all the more pronounced in this election [with the pandemic]. There was a poll that was released on Aug. 26 that suggested that about 20 percent of Trump’s voters intend to vote by mail-in ballot and about 60 percent of Biden voters intend to vote by mail-in ballot.

These mail-in ballots, once they’re counted, are going to break overwhelmingly in Biden’s favor. And that, of course, explains why Trump is engaged in all these baseless, preemptive attacks on the integrity of mail-in ballots.

So Trump basically tries to leverage whatever lead he has on Nov. 3 into a claim of reelection — [dismissing] the evaporation of that lead, with the counting of mail-in ballots, as the product of fraud.

Take us to a swing state like Wisconsin. If it has a close and disputed result, how would that play out?

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If the election turns on very narrow margins in a handful swing states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, then I really do think that we could see something very chaotic happen. The count of mail-in ballots — at best, it’s going to take a long time, and at worst it’s going to be disorderly, heavily litigated, and the source of all sorts of rumors.

And if the count really drags on in states like Wisconsin, it could start pushing against statutorily important dates. States really have to figure out who won their state by Dec. 8. And Dec. 14 is the date on which electors go to the state capitol and actually cast their votes.

What you could imagine happening in the swing states is that the Republican legislatures could agree with Donald Trump and they could basically say, “The count of these mail-in ballots, it’s been incredibly messy, and mistakes have been made, so we’ve got to go with these Nov. 3 results.” And they certify Trump as having carried their state.

It’s critical to point out that Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania — they all have Republican legislatures and Democratic governors. And that increases the possibility that the legislatures will say “Trump carried our state,” the governors could come along and say “No, Biden carried our state.” And then you have a situation that the country last saw in 1876, in the notorious Hayes-Tilden election, where you had three states — at that time, it was Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina — submit these competing electoral certificates. And then it’s really Congress’s responsibility.

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What happens if you have a divided Congress?

Then you have a stalemate. A serious mess.

You’re saying we could have an election without any outcome?

Yes.

Then what?

One thing that could happen is, by the terms of the Presidential Succession Act of 1947, you could have Nancy Pelosi inaugurated on Jan. 20 as the acting president.

But that would play itself out against the backdrop of Trump continuing to insist that he, in fact, has been reelected and that the “radical Dems” are simply trying to steal his victory from him. That would probably gain traction from his megaphones in the right-wing media — the Sean Hannitys and the Rush Limbaughs of the world. You could also add to the mix a disinformation campaign coming from foreign adversaries, such as Russia, also trying to insist that the Democrats are staging a coup.

Liberal activists are already planning mass demonstrations against any effort by Trump to muddy or overturn the election results. How effective could they be?

I don’t think any kind of street protests would be all that effective. I hate to say it, but even extremely large and peaceful demonstrations — it just becomes a recipe for even more chaos. We’ve seen Trump is more than willing to engage in a very heavy-handed response, with federal force. We saw that going back to Lafayette Square. And we saw it, of course, in the response in Portland.

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Let’s say Biden is eventually declared the winner after a bitter fight over the results. Where does that leave us? Will that poison the well for the 40 percent of voters who are Trump’s hardcore supporters? What happens to our democracy?

I do think it will be very hard to walk things back. The incredibly dangerous game Trump is playing is that he’s eroding our confidence in our electoral system. A constitutional democracy can’t really survive if people don’t believe that the outcomes of that system are trustworthy. And if you don’t believe the outcomes are trustworthy, then your attack on the system can be packaged as a defense of democracy, rather than as an active usurpation.

The thing that we need to bear in mind is he’s not going to disappear if he loses. He’ll be out there, continuing to insist that Biden’s not a legitimate president and that our system is corrupt. And perish the thought if he loses this election, he could still run in 2024.

Do you see any way that this goes well?

I think the best-case scenario is for him to lose very decisively. The election really turns into a referendum on his toxic politics, and it shows that the American people have rejected his toxic politics.


David Scharfenberg can be reached at david.scharfenberg@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dscharfGlobe.