The nation is reeling from the Covid-19 pandemic, an economic collapse of historic proportions, and the corruption and dysfunction of the Trump administration. Add to these the worst racial justice crisis since 1968. But it may well be that a fifth major crisis awaits us with the 2020 election.
We approach the election with an irrational president who has little respect for democratic norms or institutions, the rule of law, civil liberties, or honesty. He is supported by a Republican Party with a recent history of undermining free and fair elections. It is possible we will face a 2020 election influenced by unlawful and anti-democratic behavior on a scale we have never seen in the United States.
Democracies rest upon at least six foundations: popular sovereignty, free and fair elections, the rule of law, an independent judiciary, freedom of information, and individual rights, such as freedom of speech and religion. All of these are under attack, not just the electoral process.
President Trump has undermined the rule of law repeatedly by demeaning both individual judges and our system of justice, as well as by his own corrupt and illegal behavior. Attorney General Bob Barr has lied to Congress and uses the Department of Justice to benefit the president’s criminal friends and to investigate Trump’s real or perceived political enemies. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has perverted the judicial confirmation process to promote a judicial system under partisan, ideological control. These are the actions autocrats, like Hungary’s Victor Orban, use to undermine their democracies.
Trump attacks America’s free press regularly with a vitriol and level of inaccuracy that is unprecedented. He uses his bully pulpit to promote delusional conspiracy theories and untruths. During his presidency Trump is responsible for 20,000 lies, factual misstatements, and totally fabricated comments, and he continues to spout falsehoods daily. His perversion of truth and his undermining of reliable information is also a cornerstone of autocratic rule.
But the most basic democratic principle is that of free elections. Republicans have been working since the 2010 “Tea Party” election to make it difficult for many people to vote or to deny them the right to vote entirely, and to produce unfair, or rigged, results in favor of Republicans.
“Extreme gerrymandering” is the most obvious election rigging technique. Contorted electoral districts, designed largely by Republican legislatures, lead to unequal results despite competitive elections. North Carolina’s now-unconstitutional gerrymander, which produced a ten to three Republican Congressional representative advantage despite Democrats getting 47% of the vote, is just one example.
Following the 2013 Supreme Court gutting of the Voting Rights Act, over 1,700 voting precincts were closed, mainly in Southern states, making it much harder for traditional Democratic groups like the elderly, the poor, and minorities to vote. Voter ID laws where there is no evidence of identity fraud, shorter poll hours, and limited early voting are other voter suppression technique used by Republicans.
Massive purges of voter rolls, in states like Georgia — 500,000 before the last election — and Wisconsin, may have denied enough legitimate voters the right to vote to swing the results to Republican candidates.
Republicans will continue working to keep Democrats from voting. Russians, weaponized social media, PACs with their secret “Citizens United” money, a Supreme Court that failed to address unfair election practices, and a Republican Senate that refuses to pass legislation to make elections easier and safer will also undermine our 2020 election in varying degrees.
Expanded voting by mail would help in the midst of a pandemic, as with recent successful primaries in Iowa and Montana, but Trump and the Republican National Committee strongly oppose that. Their belief — since extensive fraud with mail voting is disproven — is that the more democracy we have, the more Democrats are likely to win.
So let us watch the 2020 election like hawks and participate vigorously. Our democracy may depend upon it.
David Darby is a political scientist, former state and federal government official, and senior US foreign advisor. He lives in Billings.
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