America’s system of voting is under attack and therefore, so too is its system of representative democracy. The attacks are coming from foreign governments and incredibly enough from the president of the United States, who refuses to commit to a peaceful transition should he lose. Americans could have responded to efforts to question our election process by staying away from the polls. Instead, they are voting early and in record numbers. Here in New York, where we began early voting for the first time this past Saturday, people waited in lines for hours to cast their vote. In his feeble and failing effort to suppress and discourage voting during a pandemic, President Trump attacks (but often uses) mail-in voting and so, the public’s response to threats to mail-in ballots has been to vote in person.
According to the Wall Street Journal’s Cameron McWhirter and Chad Day:
“Almost half the states in the country have blown past the number of early votes they saw four years ago, with many Americans motivated to cast ballots early because of the pandemic and an eagerness for the election to be over. At least 23 states have topped 2016 early-voting levels, including the presidential battleground states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan, according to data compiled by the Associated Press. Several other states, including Texas, North Carolina and Georgia, are on track to surpass their 2016 levels within days. More than 53 million early ballots were cast across 47 states and the District of Columbia as of Friday. With approximately another week of early in-person voting left and many still voting absentee, the national total is likely to surpass the 2016 early-vote total of 58.8 million soon.”
Early voting has now reached 60 million ballots. Turnout is undoubtedly fueled by the intensity of the support for the president and by the opposition’s visceral hatred of Donald Trump. But I also think it is a way for the average person to demonstrate their confidence in our democracy. America’s presidential election process is of course a flawed system. The will of the majority must overcome that undemocratic relic called the electoral college. The argument for the electoral college is that it ensures that all parts of the nation have a voice in the selection of the president. Without the electoral college, small and less populated regions with their own distinct culture could be ignored by national candidates. But with the electoral college process, the multi-million majority of the vote that went to Hillary Clinton in 2016 could be ignored. Given global communications and the homogenization of America’s culture, the electoral college may well be too out of step and undemocratic to retain, but the possibility of amending the Constitution to end it seems remote.
Trump has never enjoyed the support of the majority of the country, but his intense base of support has benefited from its geographic concentration. His effort to delegitimize the election and suppress the vote has been a sad reflection of his personality and his presidency. Afraid of losing, he continues to argue that the process is rigged and mired in fraud. The process of voting in America may not be perfect, but it is quite honest and run fairly. While election fraud was common in the 19th century, it is rare today. Efforts by foreign hackers to attack our electoral process have largely failed due to our vigilance and transparency. And as much as the president is trying to attack the system, other forces in society are attempting to reinforce it. Perhaps most notable has been the effort by LeBron James and the NBA to encourage and facilitate voting. As Candace Buckner reported in the Washington Post:
“Teams have held drive-in registration events, installed ballot drop boxes on their privately owned sites and scheduled Nov. 3 as a paid day off for employees. And while other leagues, notably the NFL and WNBA, have promoted voting, the NBA has pooled its resources for what will be the most organized and largest political effort executed by a professional sports league, with 22 of 30 teams turning either their arenas or practice facilities into polling places. It’s a show of corporate strength… But it has largely been the players, reckoning with their past apathy while realizing their power as political influencers, who have made increasing turnout this election a personal issue.”
Powerful and influential people and institutions have responded to the attacks on our system of voting by putting their institutional muscle behind encouraging the vote. My employer, Columbia University, has made its newest public space, The Forum, located on 125th street and Broadway, available as an early voting site. Like sites all over New York last weekend, it was a festival of democracy as people lined up for hours to cast their ballots.
While the support for voting is reassuring and affirming, we should think of this period as the mid-term exam, the big test will be the final exam. That takes place after the polls close. The deepest threat to our democracy may take place during the vote count and when the results of the election are confirmed. If, as polls now predict, Donald Trump loses, he may contest the result and seek to delegitimize the process. That will be the moment when our democracy may be in true peril. If Republican leaders join Trump in questioning the result and Fox News does the same, our political system and our democracy will be in great peril. There are places at the state level and in Congress where the will of the majority can be thwarted. The system has always been dependent on a reverence for custom and a certain level of propriety. This would not be the first time in American history that the system has broken down. We did, after all, have a Civil War. To some degree, I suspect the issue will depend on the margin of victory, should Biden prevail.
If Trump should win, I am confident that Biden would not contest the election and perhaps might match the eloquence of my colleague professor and former Mayor David Dinkins when he lost his rematch with Rudy Giuliani in 1993. At that time, there was real concern that racial tensions might lead to violence, but Dinkins would have none of it. While painful, he knew his job on election evening was to be gracious in defeat. Dinkins quieted his angry and disappointed supporters and memorably stated that:
“The people have spoken and I respect their decision… Mayors come and go but the life of a city must endure… We must all reach out… Never forget that this city is about dignity. It is about decency.” Listen to Dinkins demonstrating his commitment to democracy and to New York City and its people in his remarkable concession address.
Such a grace note is unlikely in today’s hyper-partisan world, although America, like New York City in the 1990s, would benefit from an effort to reach across the ideological divide. For all his political skills and rhetorical genius, Barack Obama was never able to unite the red and blue states under the banner of the United States. Donald Trump not only never tried, he worked actively to increase that divide, seeing an energized base as his best path to electoral victory. Losing would enable Trump to regain his status as an aggrieved outsider and he would undoubtedly do whatever it might take to retain the public’s attention, even if he decided to cooperate in a normal presidential transition.
Regardless of the president’s behavior, the hunger for democracy and the value Americans place on having their voice heard is real. Early voting and projections of high turnout are signs of health for our civil society. Low turn-out and apathy would be evidence of public surrender and demoralization. The attack on America’s democracy is real and in a matter of weeks, we may learn if it is successful, or if the attack has been repelled.
Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.