Twenty years after the disputed election, cyberhacking, disinformation and coronavirus are new threats – and some experts fear the president will sow doubt
David Smith in Washington – The Guardian
Ron Wyden: ‘We already know that Donald Trump is going to say the election has been stolen from him, no matter what.’ Photograph: REX/Shutterstock
Ron Klein survived the trench warfare of one disputed presidential election. As co-chair of the Al Gore campaign in Florida two decades ago, he watched lawyers brutally slug it out for weeks over vote recounts. “Republicans were very aggressive,” he recalls, “and they beat the Democrats in court.”
Twenty years later, America is now staring down the barrel of an election that could make the shenanigans of Bush v Gore in 2000 look like child’s play.
Many voting systems across the US are still rickety and unprepared for a massive surge of mail-in ballots. Cyberhacking, disinformation and the coronavirus are new threats. Most ominously, this time there is an incumbent in the White House many fear will sow doubt, thrive on chaos and simply refuse to accept defeat.
“The business community is really getting concerned about the integrity of this election,” Klein added. “They’re concerned that it is being set up in a way that if it doesn’t go a certain person’s way, that person may claim that he still has the office and won’t leave. They just feel in terms of the stability of the United States and likelihood of disruption, it’s very, very dangerous.”
The race to succeed Bill Clinton in 2000 came to hinge on swing state Florida. Katherine Harris, the Florida secretary of state and co-chair of George W Bush’s statewide campaign, announced that Bush had won the state. Gore called his opponent to concede but, as the margin narrowed, phoned back to withdraw his concession.
Democrats demanded a recount in Florida but Republicans said no. Lawyers joined the battle on both sides, wrangling for five weeks over what voters had intended with poorly designed punch-card ballots (“hanging chads” and “dimpled chads”) and why likely Democrats appeared to have voted for Pat Buchanan, a conservative Christian running as a third-party candidate.
Republicans, future Donald Trump ally Roger Stone among them, seized the narrative with hardball tactics that included rowdy protests outside meetings of election officials. The battle went all the way to the supreme court which, in a 5-4 vote, ruled that no alternative method of recount could be established in a timely manner. Bush would be the 43rd president; Gore said he disagreed with the verdict but accepted it.
Two decades on, both sides are already hiring lawyers for a bitter struggle that might go way beyond a handful of counties in a single state. A preview was offered by a recent primary election in Georgia, where voters waited up to five hours to cast ballots at some polling places due to equipment problems, workers being unfamiliar with a new voting system and pandemic-related physical distancing measures.
Many voters showed up to vote in person because absentee ballots they requested never arrived by mail. Officials said thousands of mailed-in ballots may not have been counted because of faulty software or badly calibrated vote-tabulation scanners. To avoid similar setbacks in November, Democrats and voting rights activists are pushing for a massive expansion of mail-in voting.
Ron Wyden, Democratic senator for Oregon, which already votes by mail, warned in a Medium post this week: “If Congress and states don’t act immediately, our country could face an electoral Chernobyl this fall.”
In a phone interview, Wyden added: “We already know that Donald Trump is going to say the election has been stolen from him, no matter what, so we’re trying all the things to take away those kinds of arguments from him. For example, our focus on having the state and federal governments do everything to prepare for expanded voting right now is absolutely key to minimizing the questions.”
But Trump has threatened to pull funding from states that have tried to get absentee ballots to all voters. The president has frequently asserted, without evidence, that mail-in voting leads to “total election fraud” and his Republican allies in Congress have repeatedly opposed funding to expand it.
It is a claim Trump is likely to make loudly if he is polling badly in November. There are also concerns that he may seek to exploit any hiccups or irregularities; Florida, for instance, is a crucial swing state with a long history of glitches. Election experts have warned that results could be delayed in many places, maybe by days, so that the winner is not known on election night – might Trump use that time to spread conspiracy theories and declare victory? Amplified by conservative media, he could establish a momentum that would be hard to stop, reminiscent of Bush in 2000.
Klein, who went on to serve in Congress and is now a lawyer based in Fort Lauderdale, said: “President Trump is splashing water on this notion that we’re not gonna have a fair election because there’s fraud, unproven, like he did last time. It’s very troubling to have the person who has the biggest microphone put out those kinds of thoughts and intimidate and scare people into thinking that no matter what the outcome, they’re not going to believe it’s fair. That’s a threat to democracy itself.”
Trump’s challenger, Democrat Joe Biden, told Comedy Central’s Daily Show recently: “This president is going to try to steal this election. This is a guy who said that all mail-in ballots are fraudulent, voting by mail, while he sits behind the desk in the Oval Office and writes his mail-in ballot to vote in a primary” – referring to Trump himself voting by mail in Florida.
But noting that military leaders have recently been willing to speak out against the president, Biden added: “You have so many rank-and-file military personnel saying, ‘Well, we’re not a military state, this is not who we are.’ I promise you, I’m absolutely convinced, they will escort him from the White House in a dispatch.”
There has never been such a scenario in a country that prides itself on the peaceful transfer of power at each inauguration.
Klein remarked: “It’s pretty amazing to think that we’re even having this conversation: that a president wouldn’t leave if he or she was not successful and Biden’s comments that the military will have to intervene and take him out of the White House. That is just like Venezuela; it doesn’t sound like the United States. But I think at this stage, people have come to expect Donald Trump is capable of doing anything, so who knows?”
Grassroots activists are mobilizing to prevent such a constitutional crisis.
Last week the groups Indivisible and Stand Up America launched Protect the Results, a joint effort to mobilize millions of Americans should Trump seek to undermine the outcome of the election. The plans include protests and potential work strikes, calls to state and local election officials to ensure that every vote is counted accurately, and applying pressure on officials to defend democracy.
Ezra Levin, co-founder and co-executive director of Indivisible, said: “You’d have to be living under a rock for the last three and a half years to think that Donald Trump is going to go willingly.
The Trump campaign gives short shrift to the concerns. Courtney Parella, deputy press secretary, said: “The Democrats are the only ones trying to create chaos in our election system by pressuring states to switch to universal vote-by-mail, something election experts have already warned that states cannot and should not attempt to do by November.
“The media and Democrats, like Senator Wyden, continue to spread fear to keep voters away from the polls while enthusiasm for the president is at a record high. Preventing Americans from voting in-person is voter suppression and pretending that fraud doesn’t exist in mail voting is both dangerous and irresponsible. Make no mistake, if Democrats in Washington take control of elections, we will never see another free and fair election.”
But just as in 2000, there appears to be one guaranteed winner of the 2020 election: the legal profession.
The looming dispute offers rich pickings. Laurence Tribe, a constitutional law professor at Harvard University, observed: “Both sides are lawyering up to the eyebrows. There are lawyers in every state, both for the Democrats and for the Republicans, trying, depending on how you view it, either to protect the integrity of the vote or to subvert it.
“The worst part of that is people are essentially primed not to trust the process. They know it’s easily manipulated and that makes people more prone to listen to Trump and his minions when they say that the vote was stolen from them.”