2020: The Day After

A nationwide survey released this week bears disturbing news about the 2020 presidential election.

According to the USAToday/Suffolk University Poll, a large proportion of the American electorate would not accept a victory of the opposition as having been obtained “fair and square.”

If the candidate they support should lose, nearly four in 10 overall expressed “little or no confidence” that the election had been fairly conducted.

This lack of confidence in the integrity of the electoral process has infected both sides of the partisan divide: 30% of Republicans and 45% of Democrats harbor such skepticism.

At the same time, the poll found that an overwhelming majority — over eight in 10 people — said they believe that “the fundamental values of the United States were being tested in 2020 more so than in previous elections.”

In other words, the election will be less credible than ever before in deciding fundamental issues facing the American people.

“It’s not the voting that’s democracy, it’s the counting,” said British playwright Tom Stoppard. As important as it is for everyone legally entitled to have the right to vote, that alone guarantees nothing if the counting of their votes is rigged — or even if the voters merely believe their votes were not honestly counted.

The great strength of the American system has been, as Ronald Reagan said in his first inaugural address, in the “orderly transfer of authority.” He noted as well that it is “in the history of our nation … a commonplace occurrence,” though “few of us stop to think how unique we really are.”

Indeed, throughout history, regicide, assassination and civil war have all-too-often been the occurrences that determined who would be in power. The United States has also had its share of assassinations and civil war, but the nation has survived those trials with democracy still intact.

Actually, one of the most perilous moments in U.S. political history occurred not during a time of open warfare but in the election of 1800, when Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr tied in the Electoral College, and the matter was referred to the House of Representatives to decide who would be president.

After 35 ballots, Jefferson was finally chosen. It was the first time that the leader of a rival party (though parties as such didn’t exist yet), Jefferson, of the Republicans, took over the presidency from a rival faction, John Adams of the Federalists.

But there was more to it. While the House deadlock dragged on and mutual suspicion grew, Pennsylvania Gov. Thomas McKean made concrete plans for 20,000 militiamen to prevent the Federalists from stealing the election from Jefferson.

It didn’t happen — but it could have, like in a lot of other countries.

It is one thing to grumble, grouse and rail at the outcome of an election. That is human nature. After months (these days, years) of arduous campaigning, of mutual attack ads and dire predictions of what terrible things await should the other side win, it is only natural that many people will react to the results as if to an apocalypse. They will talk about the illegitimacy of the victor, about leaving the United States, and so on.

The bottom line is acceptance, however grudging. After the bitterly contested 2000 election, the Democratic candidate Al Gore conceded defeat by saying, “This is America and we put country before party; we will stand together behind our new president.”

Gore’s honorable comment stands in contrast to that of former president Jimmy Carter, who shockingly accused President Donald Trump of being an “illegitimate president…put into office because the Russians interfered on his behalf.”

This time around, given the deep divisions in the country and the manifest anxiety about the legitimacy of the process, it is imperative that all the candidates affirm their confidence in the outcome.

The efforts underway to upgrade cybersecurity at state and local election boards and on the part of political parties has to be followed up. Progress has been made, but the job is not done. Given the ever-changing cyber-battleground, securing the system — which is tantamount to securing American democracy — requires constant vigilance and ingenuity.

The conversion to voting machines with paper trails to verify the count in case of dispute has also progressed well; however, some states still lag behind, whether for lack of funds or lack of motivation, or both. The money must be made available, and excuses not tolerated. Too much is at stake.

Confidence in the electoral process has to be restored — so that the orderly transfer of authority should continue to be the common occurrence, and common blessing, of the United States of America.