The election is just days away, and it still seems likely that Trump will lose to Joe Biden. But that doesn’t mean that Biden will be sworn in as our 46th president.
In a close election, it’s possible that Trump will launch an all-out attack on our electoral system designed to thwart the will of the people and usurp the presidency. He’s already repeatedly said that he may refuse to accept the results of the election if he loses.
It might work. Our electoral system runs on good faith and a shared commitment to the law. Trump and his Republican allies have neither. The key point of vulnerability is the Electoral College. If Trump tries to steal the election, his plan will focus on efforts to short-circuit the process by which Electoral College votes are cast and counted.
On election night, Trump will declare victory and assert baselessly that any ballots counted after Election Day are fraudulent. He and his Republican allies will then attempt to disrupt the post-election ballot count by launching legal and administrative challenges against ballot-counting and inciting violence against election administrators.
Amid the disruption, Republican-controlled legislatures in pivotal swing states will attempt to appoint fraudulent Trump electors while arguing that the election has been corrupted by fraud, that an accurate ballot count is impossible, and that Trump is the rightful winner.
That will throw the election to Congress, where Trump can count on Republicans in Congress to violate any political and procedural norms—and even to break the law—to count Trump’s fraudulent Electoral College votes.
Let’s not mince words. What we’re talking about is a coup. If all of this plays out, it will be spun as a fair and legal process, but it’s still a coup. The good news is that we can stop him—both by turning out to vote in such overwhelming numbers that Biden’s victory is inarguable, and by taking decisive action immediately after the election.
To stop a Trump coup, an unprecedented number of Americans will have to take to the streets and stay in the streets until he concedes the election and leaves the White House. But protest won’t be enough. To stop Trump’s coup, Democrats will have to be prepared to go as far as Republicans in casting aside political norms and playing political hardball. If Democrats act like legal scholars while Republicans fight a guerrilla war to make Trump the president at any cost, Democrats risk losing the presidency despite winning the majority of electoral votes at the polls—again.
In a constitutional crisis, Joe Biden and elected Democrats at every level of government need to rally the American public to their side and declare that they will do whatever it takes to ensure every vote is counted, that the Electoral College votes reflect the will of the people, and ultimately to thwart Trump’s coup. We recently published a road map to stopping Trump from stealing the election. Here are the three key things that we found that Democrats must do to stop Trump’s coup.
First: Joe Biden must not concede unless and until a complete and fair count of every ballot cast shows conclusively that he is the loser.
In 2000, Al Gore allowed George W. Bush to steal the election by telling Democratic Party–aligned activists to stand down and ultimately conceding for the sake of national unity rather than taking the fight all the way to Congress. If Joe Biden does the same, he will silence the voices of millions of voters by handing Trump an election he did not win.
Second: Democratic governors must appoint Biden electors if Republicans make it impossible to count every ballot before the Electoral College votes on December 14, or if Republican state legislators appoint fraudulent Trump electors.
In every game, cheaters are disqualified. Our electoral system should be held to at least the same standard as a game of cards. If Trump and his allies try to prevent every vote from being counted or to overturn the results of the election, Trump effectively forfeits his right to win an Electoral College majority.
Third: Congressional Democrats must play hardball by using every political, procedural, and legal tool available to them to exclude Trump’s electors from states where he didn’t win the popular vote—or where Republicans attempted to prevent a full count.
Ultimately, Congress decides who wins the presidency when it counts Electoral College votes. Whether Trump’s fraudulent electors are counted will likely come down to votes in Congress.
Once the fight moves to Congress, Democrats must put everything on the table, including refusing to seat incoming Republican senators in order to create a Democratic majority in the Senate when it counts Electoral College votes on January 6, ordering the sergeant at arms to remove Mike Pence and the Republicans from the House chambers in order to indefinitely delay the counting of Electoral College votes until Trump concedes, and organizing protesters to physically shut down the Capitol with nonviolent civil disobedience in order to prevent fraudulent Electoral College votes from being counted.
These are extraordinary actions. Nothing like them has ever happened in our country’s history. But neither has a presidential candidate refused to accept the results of an election and tried to usurp the presidency. An extraordinary crisis calls for extraordinary action.
We need elected Democrats in swing states and in Congress to use every legal, procedural, and political tool at their disposal to stop Trump. Democrats control many of the key levers of power. But we can’t take for granted that they will pull them.
Over the last 10 years, Republicans in Congress, in particular Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, have effectively shut down the Legislative Branch. While Democrats have attempted to negotiate bipartisan compromises, often by undercutting progressive priorities before negotiations even begin, Republicans have shut down the government, blocked virtually every piece of legislation Democrats have proposed, rammed through massive tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires, packed the federal courts with ultra-conservative judges, and even denied President Obama the opportunity to appoint a justice to the Supreme Court in 2016.
In the most important political fights of the last 10 years, Democrats have over and over held themselves above the fray, put their faith in institutions and political norms, and told progressive activists to stand down rather than taking the fight to the streets. This time can be different. There’s little that Democratic elected officials can do to stop Trump from trying to steal the election. But if he tries and succeeds, they’ll have no one to blame but themselves.