Episode: Unpeaceful Transition of Power

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Unpeaceful Transition of Power

[Episode originally published June 25, 2020, updated July 7, 2020]

Voters, hold on to your hats. The U.S. election system could face an unprecedented array of challenges in November, from the coronavirus pandemic to the prospect of cyberattacks to the depradations of President Trump himself. And that means there’s a non-zero chance that the election will misfire, leaving us with the wrong president—or no president at all—come noon on January 20, 2021.

At least, that’s the argument legal scholar Lawrence Douglas lays out in Will He Go? Trump and the Looming Election Meltdown in 2020, a new book that goes into extreme and eye-opening detail about the flaws that make the Electoral College system uniquely vulnerable to a disruptor like Trump.

In the final presidential debate of 2016, when moderator Chris Wallace asked Trump whether he’d accede to the outcome of the election if Hillary Clinton were to win, Trump refused to answer. “I’ll keep you in suspense,” the candidate said. Douglas tells Soonish that this intentionally subversive response raised a specter in his mind that he hasn’t been able to dispel.

“Whatever damage a candidate could cause to our system by refusing to concede, imagine the kind of damage that an incumbent could cause to our system by refusing to concede,” Douglas says. “How well equipped is our system to deal with that type of eventuality? The rather alarming conclusion is it's very poorly equipped indeed.”

The problem isn’t merely that the the Electoral College system is unrepresentative by design, or that its winner-take-all nature makes it possible for a candidate to assume office without winning a plurality of the popular vote (an outcome that befell the nation in 1876, 1888, 2000, and 2016). It’s also that the Constitution and the laws Congress has put in place around national elections fail to specify which votes count in the not-so-rare cases where electors don’t vote as pledged, or where states nominate competing slates of electors.

The opportunities for mischief multiply when an election is so close that the outcome might turn on contested ballots, such as the notorious hanging-chad punch card ballots of 2000 or the mail-in ballots that coronavirus-wary voters are likely to use in record numbers this fall and that Trump is already noisily denouncing. “At times I've described it as this Chernobyl-like defect built into our electoral system,” Douglas says. “If everything lines up the wrong way, this meltdown could occur.”

Chapter Guide

00:00 Hub & Spoke Sonic ID

00:08 Opening Theme

00:21 "I'll Keep You in Suspense"

02:05 Trump Defeats Clinton

02:19 How Donald Thinks

02:51 Meet Lawrence Douglas

04:35 Bad Design and Total Election System Failure

06:19 Dear Listeners

08:07 A Warning to Americans

09:24 What Makes a Victory Decisive?

11:27 Trump Moves the Goalposts

12:14 Faithless Electors

15:26 Update: SCOTUS Rules on Faithless Electors (added July 7, 2020)

16:56 SpongeBob for President

20:34 Competing Slates

25:54 Lies and Meta-Lies

29:05 Spoiler #1: Election Day Snafus

31:14 Spoiler #2: Foreign Interference

33:16 Spoiler #3: Covid-19

37:06 Beyond Ordinary Politics

39:07 "If I Don't Win, I Don't Win"

40:16 Short-term Tactics for Preventing Election Disaster

41:22 Long-term Strategies for Fixing our Elections

43:07 The Constitution Kinda Feels Like a Suicide Pact

43:33 End Run: the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact

46:08 My Simple Hope

46:44 End Credits and Hub & Spoke Promo

The Soonish opening theme is by Graham Gordon Ramsay.

Additional music is from Titlecard Music and Sound.

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Marine One photo by Victoria Pickering, shared on Flickr under a Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license

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