Apr 19, 2020

What Happens in November

By Matthew R. Bishop / filmsforaction.org
What Happens in November

In the fall of 2009, I interviewed a Holocaust survivor from the Lodz ghetto. As a young girl, she had seen her whole family lined up and executed by a Nazi firing squad in a spray of machine gun fire, alongside hundreds of the people she had grown up with.

At the end of the night, I stood with her on the sidewalk while she hailed a cab. I asked her one final question: If you could say only one thing to the next generation, one lesson they can learn and remember, what would that be?

“Always be vigilant,” she answered immediately, without needing one second to think of the answer. “Evil is everywhere. If you are not vigilant, evil will win. Every time. Always be vigilant.”

This is one of the most important and difficult articles I have written. I have tried to be vigilant without sensationalizing conflict or contributing to unrest. But Munich and Lodz have taught us the same lesson: If we are not vigilant now, if we are not prepared today, then we are to blame for what happens tomorrow.

This is what happens in November.




I: What Happens in November?

The question first appeared as soon as states like Ohio delayed their March primary elections. That initial decision was itself nothing short of chaos.

Poll workers went to bed the night before with conflicting orders about whether or not they should staff the polls in only a few hours. Governor Mike DeWine had issued an executive order postponing the election. Franklin County Courts overruled that order just hours later, ruling that the election must proceed as planned. Governor DeWine then wrote to his poll staffers, telling them not to go in to work the next morning at the polls. The county court ruling was in an expedited overnight appeals process.

At 7:00 A.M. the morning of the election, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled in favor of Governor DeWine, postponing the elections which had been scheduled to open at that precise minute. Virtually no one had shown up to staff the polls in case this appeal was denied. The Ohio Supreme Court ultimately had no choice. Had they ruled that the election would proceed, the results would have been completely illegitimate.

This situation was about as chaotic as anyone could imagine it to be at the time. It forced the nation to reckon with some frightening possibilities, namely: What if this happens in November?

In answer to this national outcry of concern, Democrats attempted to place a provision into the CARES Act stimulus which would have enabled nationwide secure, reliable, vote-by-mail ballots for the November general elections. For a moment, there was hope.

But Republicans, firmly in control of the Senate, required that this provision be eliminated from the bill. Ultimately, Democrats agreed to withdraw the provision. No electoral promises or protections of any kind were included in the final CARES Act when it passed.

The alarm bells redoubled only a few weeks later, when a United States Supreme Court decision ruled in favor of the Wisconsin Republican Party, on the grounds that absentee voting is unreliable and insecure.

Following the legal reasoning of the Supreme Court—that absentee or mail-in voting cannot be used to determine an election—we now have every reason to expect, beyond reasonable doubt, that November elections will not go as planned.

As if the situation were not dire enough, it now looks as if the postal service will become insolvent and bankrupt. President Trump has announced that he will refuse any legislation to disperse aid, and has gone on record stating his desire to privatize the postal service.

While a relevant issue in any other year, it is a uniquely dangerous choice when the postal service might literally be our only instrument to uphold American republicanism. To an outside observer, it even looks like a deliberate choice to prevent the possibility of an election in 2020 altogether—and it very well might accomplish that goal.

To answer the question of What Happens in November, I have shortlisted the four most probable scenarios: The Uncontested November Scenario, the January 20th Scenario, the Contested Election Scenario, and the Rogue President Scenario.

Included with each of these is a brief roadmap description, along with a relative probability value and a relative threat value. Threat, in this case, is understood to be measured by the potential for violent conflict, civil war, or the secession of independent states. A value of 1 represents the highest probability or threat, as opposed to a value of 4, representing the lowest probability or threat.

Note that these are preliminary values, and that they are certain to change in the time between now and November. Therefore, we should expect and prepare for each of these four scenarios as if they are all equally plausible.




II: The Uncontested November Scenario

Probability Value: 4 (Very Unlikely)

Threat Value: 4 (No Conflict Risk)


An uncontested November election is the safest option for the country. Ideally, one candidate will win both the electoral and the popular vote, although this rarely happens anymore. The key variables here are high voter turnout, perceived electoral legitimacy, a peaceful concession on the part of the loser, and equality of participation across both geographical and ideological lines. The failure of any one of these variables alone could be enough to ruin this scenario.

Here elections proceed more or less as planned, whether in-person, by mail, online, or as a combination of all of the above. Results are largely uncontested, outside of perhaps some minor arguments. There is wide turnout, low voter suppression, and no lockdowns determining how the states cast their electoral votes. No conflict occurs, and the remainder of this article becomes irrelevant.

Everyone hopes for this scenario, but we cannot assume this will happen. Subsequent possibilities are more dangerous and more complicated. Unfortunately, from where we stand today, they also appear to be far more likely.




III: The January 20th Scenario

Probability Value: 3 (Unlikely)

Threat Value: 3 (Mild Conflict Risk)


Constitutional law experts and political science professors were quick to respond to the great crisis of our democracy at the end of March and the opening weeks of April, offering guides on what will happen next: According to the rules established by our Founding Fathers (and subsequently upheld in several Late Modern Era SCOTUS decisions), a President can suspend an election on the grounds of public emergency, but is then required to surrender his office willingly and hand the powers of his office over to the next-in-line on or before January 20th of the following year. We can call this the January 20th Scenario.

This does not mean Mike Pence, since he is on the same ticket as the Trump Presidency. As things stand, the three most likely candidates to assume the Presidency, in the January 20th scenario, are Nancy Pelosi, Pat Leahy, or Chuck Grassley. Which one of them assumes power is a question these scholars will need to work out, not journalists.

Here we have a peaceful, albeit delayed, transfer of power. This is considered to be one of the best-case scenarios still available to us.

A President is legally required to follow the rules of this scenario, regardless of the rationale, whenever it is impossible or exceedingly dangerous to hold an election. So we should hope that this is the case. But that does not mean this particular President will acknowledge his legal obligation to do so.

One can barely imagine the President willingly stepping down after he has already gone through the great pains of postponing or suspending the November election. Combined with what we know of his character, we must consider this an unlikely scenario. However, it is also our only hope to avoid widespread civil conflict if for any reason it is genuinely too dangerous or impossible to hold the election in November. For this reason, we need to keep this plan in our pockets, and we should be ready to bring it out at a moment’s notice.

Should the election hold in November and be considered illegitimate, the January 20th Scenario also serves as the only remaining exit strategy to save the nation from civil conflict.




IV: The Contested Election Scenario

Probability Value: 1 (Most Likely)

Threat Value: 2 (Severe Risk of Conflict)


By a long shot, this is the most probable scenario. Nationwide, the States will attempt to hold their elections in November, or else shortly thereafter. It is the right thing to do. But our republic is in a fragile space. It could only take one State to throw off the whole election.

There are a huge number of ways that the electoral process could be jeopardized and the results rendered invalid. The most important thing we can do right now is to break down this scenario and foolproof the various spoiler-type variables which could ruin election results and shatter the long-standing tradition of a peaceful transition of power in this country.

High-risk variables determining election legitimacy and the severity of subsequent civil conflict include:

+ Lack of standardized election rules across the States

+ Closing of municipal voting inside of electoral battleground States

+ Flawed voting procedures in any State, but especially in contentious battleground States in a tight Presidential race where the results could go either way

+ Unequal voter turnout across party lines, State lines, racial lines, etc., and across what is sure to be different lockdown protocols

+ Uniquely low voter turnout nationwide or within key States

+ Perceived legitimacy of election results on a sliding scale, from completely invalid to mostly valid

+ Closing of some States, but not others, effectively silencing entire State voices

+ Plus all previous variables in all previous scenarios

The opportunities for spoiler events in this election cycle are innumerable. But there are more serious variables still to consider.

Currently, too many States and municipalities require that mail-in voters print their own requests using an at-home printer, include a driver’s license, and associate their ballot with a physical home address. These simple requirements, right off the bat, disenfranchise so many tens of millions of American voters that any election held in this way cannot be considered legitimate. This is one of the most likely spoilers. We will see this in November.

Of course, there are numerous States which do not have effective mail-in or absentee voting structures at all. If these States close in-person voting, we cannot even speculate what will happen.

If in-person voting does take place, it must take place in equal ways nationwide, not statewide, because this is a national election. States following contradicting election rules cannot cumulatively elect any official and expect the results to be considered valid. The same goes for the Office of the President.

The level of hostility between the States and the federal Trump administration is another key variable. If Trump continues to behave in such belligerent ways, Democratic governors will gain votes, power, and popularity by mutinying against federal power, and ultimately by declaring secession in a worst-case scenario where election results are perceived as completely invalid.

One dark possibility remains, and this brings us into the final scenario: Donald Trump could unilaterally invalidate the election results and declare that he will not cede power. This could take the country into civil war.




V: The Rogue President Scenario

Probability Value: 2 (Plausible)

Threat Value: 1 (Civil War)


Reviewing the developments of this past week is like reading a bad dystopian fiction novel. For this reason, I have upgraded the probability of this scenario from 4 to 2.

This past week, Donald Trump encouraged armed rebellion within the States against State governments, calling for his proxy militia-type followers to “liberate” their States from Democratic governors in a series of furious all-caps tweets via the social media channel Twitter.

Following the President’s call to arms, armed militia groups swarmed State capitol buildings, intimidated State officials, and demanded the States reopen.

State governments and the free press all responded in a fury. The Governor of Washington publicly accused the President of the United States of “fomenting domestic rebellion” and said that Trump’s statements will lead to civil conflict within the States. On Senate floors around the country, State Representatives accused the President of trying to instigate a civil war. The Washington Post accused President Trump of “inciting insurrection…against the duly elected governors of Michigan, Minnesota and Virginia”.

There are those who will say Trump has no actual understanding of the gravity or consequences of his own actions. That is possible. The darker alternative is that the President is deliberating provoking violent conflict within the States in an attempt to destabilize the nation. He can then use this conflict as an excuse to suspend or cancel elections, or to intimidate those who would vote against him.

In issuing his call to arms, President Trump accomplished a key goal: He measured his own power to mobilize armed proxy militias within the States, and to direct those militias against dissenting State governments. We should prepare for him to call on these militias in the event that he loses an election or is forced to leave office under the laws of the January 20th Scenario.

Also last week, President Trump threatened to unilaterally adjourn the United States Congress in order to unilaterally install his own picks for major judicial and executive appointments without any legislative oversight.

He is clearly capable of such tyrannical feats. It is naïve and derelict of us to say that the Rogue President Scenario is implausible. On the contrary, it appears increasingly likely with every week we inch closer towards November.

We cannot predict how this scenario might end, but it is reasonable to assume that powerful progressive states like California will declare national sovereignty and secede from the Union to challenge what they view as an illegitimate, unelected, fascist federal government.

Several States will join in this declaration of united independence, and migrations will occur around the country as both liberals and conservatives flee to their respective safe havens.

Widespread violence will then occur if the Trump administration continues to refuse popular calls to hold an election or abdicate the Presidency.

Beyond this, things become complicated. Our country does not resemble the United States of 1860. Today, liberal and conservative pockets co-exist inside of each individual State. The Rogue President Scenario will not lead to a clear, decisive, two-party civil war. What it will lead to is just plain chaos. We will see multiple wars within individual States.

A vacuum of power will then emerge, where the executive branch can consolidate federal power, eventually to such a point where the President will feel comfortable dismissing the United States Congress. By this time, Congress will wield so little power that it makes no effective difference when the President adjourns them.

A protracted civil war will then occur, and it is not certain that all of the States will reunite.




VI: Before November

Political science works like this: If we plug in different variables, we can hope to produce different outcomes. There are more than a dozen major variables shortlisted within these four scenarios. We need to make sure we are plugging positive values into those variables, not negative values.

The Rogue President Scenario is the outcome of worst-case variables. The Contested Election Scenario, while the most likely of all four, can become dramatically less likely if we demonstrate the collective foresight to take the necessary basic precautions well in advance of November.

You should be alarmed. We must all be alarmed. If you are not alarmed by the current state of politics, then you have no right to be terrified when the worst-case scenario does occur. Just like if you mock science, shout that this virus is a hoax, and disregard all medical advice, you have no right to be horrified when your negligence kills someone you love.

It will be too late to address these concerns in a few months. The country must address them beginning today. We cannot address them each as fifty separate, sovereign States. We must address them as one United States of America.



Matthew R. Bishop is a political journalist and novelist who served two tours as a federal crisis responder for the United States. He lives in Columbus, Ohio.

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