With Democrats accounting for a much larger share of mail-in ballots than Republicans, Mr. Trump has repeatedly challenged the legitimacy of these votes. If he is leading even narrowly on Tuesday night, he could claim victory based only on the votes so far counted — even though Joe Biden might well be on course to win when all valid votes are counted. Worse, he might pressure the Republican legislatures in battleground states, like Pennsylvania and Florida, to award him their state’s electors, even if the formal vote-counting machinery ultimately declares a Biden victory in the state. Then it would fall to the courts and Congress (under the terms of the inscrutable, badly written Electoral Count Act of 1887) to determine who had won in the disputed states.
Such a scenario would be far more dire and polarizing than even the Bush v. Gore nightmare of 2000, with an incumbent president threatening fire and brimstone if the election were not handed to him, while signaling violent right-wing extremists to “stand by” but perhaps no longer “stand down.” Many on the left would no longer be willing to let the presidency (in their eyes) be stolen from them again, and far-left groups might revel in the chance to worsen the crisis. The potential for violence would be alarming.
The integrity of the election is further challenged by the rising pace of voter suppression. In 2013, the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, throwing out the formula requiring nine states (and other localities) with a history of racist voter suppression to obtain federal permission before changing their voting requirements. Since then, these and other Republican-controlled states have imposed legal and administrative changes that have made voting more difficult for Black Americans, Hispanics, young people and city dwellers — all heavily Democratic constituencies.
It would be undemocratic enough for the loser of the national popular vote to again be elected (for the third time in the past seven presidential elections) by winning the Electoral College. But if Mr. Trump were to win re-election by narrowly prevailing in two or three states through extensive disqualification of mail-in ballots or through voter suppression, the legitimacy of the 2020 election could be questioned far more intensely than those of 2000 or 2016. And if Mr. Trump failed to win the Electoral College but was nonetheless declared president thanks to partisan electors, it would signify a grave breakdown of American democracy — even if people remained free to speak, write and publish as they pleased.
The very age of American democracy is part of the problem. The United States was the first country to become a democracy, emerging over a vast, dispersed and diverse set of colonies that feared the prospect of the “tyranny of the majority.” Hence, our constitutional system lacks some immunities against an electoral debacle that are common in newer democracies.
For example, even though Mexico is a federal system like the United States, it has a strong, politically independent National Electoral Institute that administers its federal elections. The Election Commission of India has even more far-reaching and constitutionally protected authority to administer elections across that enormous country. Elections thus remain a crucial pillar of Indian democracy, even as the country’s populist prime minister, Narendra Modi, assaults press freedom, civil society and the rule of law. Other newer democracies, from South Africa to Taiwan, have strong national systems of election administration staffed and led by nonpartisan professionals.
The American system is a mishmash of state and local authorities. Most are staffed by dedicated professionals, but state legislatures and elected secretaries of state can introduce partisanship, casting doubt on its impartiality. No other advanced democracy falls so short of contemporary democratic standards of fairness, neutrality and rationality in its system of administering national elections.