WASHINGTON — In October, President Trump declares a state of emergency in major cities in battleground states, like Milwaukee and Detroit, banning polling places from opening.
A week before the election, Attorney General William Barr announces a criminal investigation into the Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden.
After Biden wins a narrow Electoral College victory, Trump refuses to accept the results, won’t leave the White House, and declines to allow the Biden transition team customary access to agencies before the Jan. 20 inauguration.
Far-fetched conspiracy theories? Not to a group of worst-case scenario planners — mostly Democrats, but some anti-Trump Republicans as well — who have been gaming out various doomsday options for the 2020 presidential election. Outraged by Trump and fearful that he might try to disrupt the campaign before, during, and after Election Day, they are engaged in a process that began in the realm of science fiction but has nudged closer to reality as Trump and his administration abandon longstanding political norms.
The anxiety has intensified in recent weeks as the president continues to attack the integrity of mail voting and insinuate that the election system is rigged, while his Republican allies ramp up efforts to control who can vote and how. Just last week, Trump threatened to withhold funding from states that defy his wishes on expanding mail voting, while also amplifying unfounded claims of voter fraud in battleground states.
“In the eight to 10 months I’ve been yapping at people about this stuff, the reactions have gone from, ‘Don’t be silly, that won’t happen,’ to an increasing sense of, ‘You know, that could happen,’” said Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown University law professor. Earlier this year, Brooks convened an informal group of Democrats and never-Trump Republicans to brainstorm about ways the Trump administration could disrupt the election and to think about ways to prevent it.
But the anxiety is hardly limited to outside groups.
Marc Elias, a Washington lawyer who leads the Democratic National Committee’s legal efforts to fight voter suppression measures, said not a day goes by when he doesn’t field a question from senior Democratic officials about whether Trump could postpone or cancel the election. Prodded by allies to explain why not, Elias wrote a column on the subject in late March for his website — and it drew more traffic than anything he’d ever published.
But changing the date of the election is not what worries Elias. The bigger threat in his mind is the possibility that the Trump administration could act in October to make it harder for people to vote in urban centers in battleground states — possibilities, he said, that include declaring a state of emergency, deploying the National Guard, or forbidding gatherings of more than 10 people.
Such events could serve to depress or discourage turnout in pockets of the country that reliably vote for Democrats.
“That to me is the frame from which all doomsday scenarios then go,” he said.
To ward off such a scenario, Elias is engaged in multiple lawsuits aimed at making it easier to cast absentee ballots by mail and making in-person voting more available, either on Election Day or in the preceding weeks.
Biden, for his part, has suggested more than once that Trump might try to disrupt or delay the election. And his campaign grew very concerned this month when it was announced that election security briefings, which in past cycles had been delivered to candidates by the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, would now be the province of the director of national intelligence. That post is currently held by John Ratcliffe, a Trump ally who was confirmed to the position Thursday.
“Since 2016, Donald Trump has shown that he is always ready to sacrifice our basic democratic norms for his personal and political interests,” said Bob Bauer, a Biden senior adviser who is a lawyer for the campaign. “We assume he may well resort to any kind of trick, ploy, or scheme he can in order to hold onto his presidency. We have built a strong program to plan for and address every possibility to ensure that he does not succeed.”
Trump has said he expects the election to be held Nov. 3 as scheduled, and under federal law he does not have the power to postpone it. But a comment by the president’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner about whether the election would be held as scheduled — “I’m not sure I can commit one way or another,” he said — renewed fears that Trump would try to move the election or discredit the process if he thought he was going to lose.
Trump’s campaign derided the anxiety over the election as irrational hand-wringing driven by Democrats’ inability to accept his victory four years ago.
Brooks’s group at Georgetown is not the only one forecasting doomsday scenarios for the election. Ian Bassin, executive director of Protect Democracy, a nonprofit group dedicated to resisting authoritarian government, last year convened the National Task Force on Election Crises, a bipartisan 51-member group dedicated to envisioning scenarios that could wreck the presidential election.
The task force sees eight potential calamities, including natural disasters, a successful foreign hack of voting machines, a major candidate’s challenging the election and seeking to delegitimize the results, and a president who refuses to participate in a peaceful transfer of power.
“We hope there are safeguards in place,” said Norman Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who participated in the task force. “Let’s face it, those safeguards ought to include the Senate of the United States and the Justice Department. There’s reason to be nervous.”