“Ladies and gentlemen, I want to make a major announcement today. I would like to promise and pledge to all of my voters and supporters, and to all the people of the United States, that I will totally accept the results of this great and historic presidential election,” presidential candidate Donald Trump said in 2016, pausing to look and point at the camera. “If I win!” The crowd around him erupted in cheers.
After watching two debates and a town hall, after reading tweets and watching ads, after being politically aware in this country for the past few years, I know that the future is uncertain. Each time I talk with someone about the state of American politics, I can’t help but wonder what might happen this election.
To be completely honest, I cannot tell you for sure. I’m not a history professor, a constitutional scholar or a politician. But I have read a lot of what those people are saying about the 2020 presidential election. To summarize, it’s not looking too good for the American people.
It’s important to understand a few things about the American presidential election process. First off, state governments get to decide how their electoral votes get distributed. Voters elect electors, not candidates. Those electors can theoretically give their votes however they want, but the expectation is that votes will go to the candidate who won in that state and aside from a few cases that has always happened.
But here’s the most startling thing to me: There is no central mechanism for deciding who “wins.” Sure, someone might win the popular vote or the electoral college, but who tells the loser they lost? No one. In every single presidential election in American history, one of the candidates has conceded the election to the other. Except in the election of 1876.
In 1876, Republican nominee Rutherford B. Hayes ran against Democratic nominee Samuel J. Tilden. There was some voter suppression from Tilden, and many voters were illiterate. The Democrats put the Republican symbol on their ballot, leading many illiterate Hayes supporters to cast their ballots for Tilden. To top it all off, in the state of South Carolina, 101 percent of registered votes were counted. Weird.
Although Tilden won the popular vote, Hayes won the electoral college vote. Sound familiar? A very similar thing happened in 2016; Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, but Republican nominee Donald Trump won the electoral vote. Thankfully, in 2016, Clinton conceded the election and avoided escalating the situation. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for 1876.
Tilden refused to step down. Sitting president and Republican Ulysses S. Grant threatened to institute martial law. For the sake of keeping peace, Tilden then conceded the election. But Trump, an incumbent? That’s a different story.
Trump has never committed to a peaceful transfer of power, often saying that he will accept only the results of a fair election. The issue is that there is no verified national group that currently ensures a fair election and even the term “fair election” is incredibly ambiguous. Trump can decide for himself what counts as fair, as can Biden, as can all of their supporters.
So what happens next? What happens in an America where Joe Biden clearly wins, but Trump refuses to step down?
The answer to that question is very unclear. There are plenty of legal loopholes Trump can use to stay in power. He can theoretically contest the results of the election all the way up until noon on Wednesday, January 20, when the Constitution says his term is over. If this does happen, if Trump contests the election all the way to January 20 and Biden refuses to back down, it will not be pretty.
At this largely hypothetical point in time, Trump would have have employed all of the legal tools and loopholes at his disposal. He may show up to the Capitol, having clearly lost the election, expecting to be sworn in. That has never happened in all of American history.
But America is not supposed to be like that, at least according to what I was taught in kindergarten. America — the land of the free, home of the brave, the oldest still “functioning” democracy in the world. The greatest country on Earth, right? Not really.
According to The Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index, the United States only placed 25th in 2019. For a country that prides itself on being one of the greatest, it seems to me the United States should get its own democracy to function well first.
So here we are. The year is 2020, 8 days out from the election. We have a president who refuses to step down, and there is no agency that can force him to. We have a just okay democracy, voter suppression and Republicans putting fake ballot drop off boxes in California.
In the case that there is no peaceful transfer of power, many will fight back. They will go protest violently, and be met with violence. That will fail.
In the scenario that I just described, there is only one thing that the American people must do, regardless of party. Protest — peacefully. It is quite possible that those protests will be met with violence, as Black Lives Matter protests were this summer. It is quite possible that this time the line will be blurred between non-lethal crowd control and lethal crowd control. But that is why we must protest.
We must put ourselves in harm’s way because of the astronomical consequences of this election. We must turn out in droves in major cities, in small towns, everywhere. We need to send a clear message to Trump that he is not welcome.
If after the election we sit at home and call congress members, or donate to charities, that may have little effect. For if Trump refuses to step down, why would he listen to Congress members? The only thing he will listen to is us, and we must force him to listen. This country was constructed on the premise that we always have the right to rebel against a repressive government and come November 3 it may be time to use that right. He will not stop to question his actions until we force him to. If we don’t, who knows what will happen to this country.
A lot in this article is hypothetical — the worst case scenario. I really hope that what I just wrote turns out to be horribly incorrect. But I don’t think it will. So while you still can, contact our congressional representative Anna Eshoo and express your concerns. Contact the Republican leaders who are enabling Trump. Vote. Do everything you still can, because as much as I hope this isn’t true, there may soon be a time when you can’t.