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Why the presidential election result could take days or weeks — and become chaotic

This year’s presidential election faces unprecedented challenges, between the pandemic and President Trump’s efforts to sow doubt about the integrity of voting by mail -- and whether he would accept an election loss. Is American democracy positioned to handle the threat? William Brangham talks to Barton Gellman, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The Atlantic, which recently covered the story.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    This election year is unlike any in modern history, and the challenges are many.

    Part of it is voting during a pandemic. Part of it involves the president's statements and actions sowing doubts about voting by mail and the integrity of the process, potentially even challenging the results of the election.

    Our system has weathered chaos in the past. How well-positioned is it now?

    William Brangham begins there.

  • William Brangham:

    We are 39 days from November 3, and a growing chorus of analysts, historians and political elections officials are warning that the country is headed for a confused, prolonged, and potentially dangerous election and aftermath.

    The cover of "The Atlantic" magazine, with nothing but a red warning light, says it's — quote — "The Election That Could Break America."

    That cover story was written by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Barton Gellman. And he joins me now.

    Bart Gellman, very good to have you on the "NewsHour."

    You write that worst-case scenario is that President Trump, on election night, just rejects the outcome of the election. He's already repeatedly said that anything other than his victory on election night is evidence that the Democrats are trying to steal the election.

    Let's say he does say that. How does that play out?

  • Barton Gellman:

    Election night is a little early for the scene to play out.

    I think it's much more likely that he will declare victory on election night, especially if he is ahead in the early vote, because it's expected right now, based on the best modeling we have got, which is imperfect. It's expected that he will be ahead when only the in-person votes are calculated, are tabulated, because he has persuaded a lot of Republicans that mail-in votes are unsafe, and that many more Democrats are voting by mail, and that, as the days go by, after the election and the count completes, then Joe Biden will pull ahead.

    That's the forecast as we have it now. No one knows that for sure. But, if that's the case, he's going to try to stop the count on election night. He's going to say that the mail votes, as he's already said many times, are fraudulent, are part of an effort to steal or rig the election, and that the count must be halted.

    He's also going to be in court in multiple states around the country saying the same thing for various things, depending on state law and federal law in the jurisdiction.

    If an ordinary candidate would at some point say, all right, well, the vote went against me, I concede defeat, that is something that Donald Trump is not going to do.

    It's the premise of my article in "The Atlantic" that there is no circumstance under which he will make that concession. And that's a problem for our system, because concession is the way we end elections. We end elections by having the loser concede and confer implicitly the authority of that concession on the winner.

  • William Brangham:

    You write in your piece that Republican election officials have already been doing dry runs about getting into the election count process and trying to intervene in that.

    And we do know, as been reported by NPR and others, that vote-by-mail ballots have been getting rejected at considerable number, usually because of voter error. But you sort of put out that this becomes a ripe target for interrupting that election ballot count.

  • Barton Gellman:

    In the general election in November, the Trump campaign intends to have ballot watchers at every — at every county commission, at every polling — every election tabulation center, and examining every mail-in ballot and saying, we object to this one, the postmark is unclear, we object to this one, the signature doesn't match, and so on.

    The more they can delete mail-in ballots, the fewer Democratic votes.

  • William Brangham:

    We have also seen two recent cases where local Department of Justice officials have stepped forward and announced or revealed information about fairly early or, some would argue, relatively minor cases of ballot fraud.

    Do you worry that the DOJ is — seems to be, as some critics have pointed out, turned into a political operation for the president leading up to this election?

  • Barton Gellman:

    It is highly unusual for DOJ to do what it did in this case.

    It is highly unusual to announce an ongoing investigation when it's — when it's just begun. It's unusual to imply with sort of rhetorical flourishes that something very dangerous is going on here, when we don't know yet whether it was simply an error.

    It's extremely unusual that they announced that the votes they found that had been mislaid were votes for Trump. They are feeding conspiracy theories about a Democratic effort to steal the election, when they don't have anything like evidence for that. And it's just not the way a normal prosecutor would behave, under — even under Justice Department guidelines.

  • William Brangham:

    In your piece, you also spend a good deal of time describing what happens at the next deadline in this process, which is December 8, when the states start to assemble their electors.

    And you argue and talk to many people who believe that this could be another moment in which the process goes awry. Can you simply explain what might happen there?

  • Barton Gellman:

    So, viewers would be forgiven for not knowing that there's any important deadline in December or January, because, in most presidential elections, they're purely formalities. They're milestones.

    They're the actual mechanisms by which we choose a president, according to the Constitution. But they're pro forma, because, by then, the vote count has been settled, and we know who the country voted for.

    But December 8 is the date by which states have to choose the electors, the people who are going to cast their state's electoral ballots. And if they don't choose by December 8, then Congress will have to resolve who, if anyone, gets to cast the ballots from that state.

    And there are people in the Trump campaign and people among his allies in state governments who are talking about the possibility that the state legislature could appoint electors who are going to vote for Trump, whether or not the popular vote in that state is for Trump.

  • William Brangham:

    For people who might read something like this and hear what you're saying and be genuinely worried about what happens in our democratic process, are there things people can do? Is there any way people can try to address this ahead of time?

  • Barton Gellman:

    There is. And smarter people than me will think of more.

    I think it's important to be forewarned. I think there is something to worry about. There's more than one thing to worry about. I think that the first thing to do is to change your mind-set. We should not expect this to be a normal election. We should not expect it to proceed as elections usually proceed.

    We should expect highly unusual and potentially extraconstitutional events and be ready to react, because, if we're — if we are not thinking about it in advance, then our reflexes will be dulled.

    But things as simple as, if you're a voter, think about voting in-person on Election Day if you can manage the risk to your health and if you can wear PPE and keep your social distance, because the worst case for chaos is if Trump gets all his votes from the in-person votes, and Biden votes don't come in until much later.

    That is a recipe for enhanced conflict. Everyone has to think about, what role do I play in this coming election, and how can I plan ahead for unusual events?

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Barton Gellman.

    The piece in "The Atlantic" magazine is called "The Election That Could Break America."

    Thank you very much.

  • Barton Gellman:

    Thank you for having me.

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