When the polls closed on Nov. 5, 2019, the initial count showed the governor of Kentucky, Republican Matt Bevins, losing to his Democratic challenger, Andy Beshear. But rather than concede that he fell short in what should have been an easy reelection, Bevins claimed that “irregularities” had muddled the result — producing no evidence to support his accusations. At first, some Kentucky legislative leaders appeared to back him, and some pointed to the legislature’s power to resolve an election dispute and choose the governor regardless of the vote. But Bevins was not popular even within his own party, and eventually, he had to concede when the local GOP did not go along with him.
We could imagine a similar scenario this November: What would happen if President Trump had an early lead that evaporated as votes were counted, and then he refused to concede? The idea isn’t too far-fetched; Trump has raised it himself. Before the 2016 election, he wouldn’t agree to accept the results if he lost. After winning in the electoral college but losing the popular count by about 3 million votes, Trump claimed — with no evidence whatsoever — that at least 3 million fraudulent votes had been cast for his opponent, Hillary Clinton. He set up an “election integrity” commission headed by then-Kansas secretary of state Kris Kobach to try to prove that “voter fraud” is a major problem. But after the commission faced attacks from the left and the right for demanding state voter records with an apparent plan to use them to call for stricter registration rules, Trump disbanded it, with no work accomplished. In 2018, the president criticized elections in Florida and California, where late-counted votes shifted toward Democrats, suggesting without evidence that there was foul play.
It’s not just Trump who might not accept election results. Imagine that he wins in the electoral college, this time thanks to what Democrats believe is voter suppression in Florida. The Florida legislature and governor have already sought to stymie Amendment 4, a 2018 ballot initiative to restore voting rights to formerly incarcerated felons. When the state Supreme Court agreed that felons could not register to vote until paying all their outstanding fines, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) praised the ruling and called voting a “privilege,” rather than a right. Some Democrats have called the new rules a “poll tax,” and a Florida public TV station concluded that “the implications of the bill passed by a majority-Republican legislature preventing former felons from voting could work to ensure Trump wins the 2020 presidential election.” During Trump’s impeachment trial this past week, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said “we cannot be assured that the vote will be fairly won” in November because of the allegations that Trump was trying to “cheat” by pressuring Ukraine to announce an investigation into Joe Biden and his family.
External forces could cause an election meltdown, too. A recent NPR-News Hour-Marist poll found that “almost 4 in 10 Americans . . . believe it is likely another country will tamper with the votes cast in 2020 in order to change the result.” What if Russians hack into Detroit’s power grid and knock out electricity on Election Day, seriously depressing turnout — and Trump wins the electoral college because he carries Michigan? Most states do not have a Plan B to deal with a terrorist attack or natural disaster affecting part of a presidential election.