(The following contains spoilers for the show House of Cards.)
I am a huge fan of Netflix’s House of Cards (minus that last season – we don’t talk about that here). For anyone who watched the show, one of the arcs that must stand out the most is the hotly contested-election between the incumbent South Carolina Democrat, President Underwood, and the Republican challenger from New York, Governor Conway. This election was set in the year 2016 and took place in Season 5 of the show.
To put it simply, the House of Cards 2016 election made our real 2016 election look like an incredibly boring, run-of-the-mill exercise in well-oiled democracy.
Underwood fostered fears of terrorist attacks and bio-weapons to centralize, disrupt, and discourage voting. He strained the electoral systems of many states to their breaking points so that several governors and state election boards were unable to certify the results, leading to a months-long constitutional crisis, from which he ultimately rose as the victor.
Now, I do not think that President Trump has nearly enough political acumen to pull something so Machiavellian off (though some of his surrogates might). But I still think there is a lesson to be learned from the fictional House of Cards election. There are warnings to heed.
Consider today’s scheduled Democratic Primary election in Ohio. It was cancelled by the governor, then un-cancelled by a judge, and then re-cancelled again (more forcefully) by the governor. For the poll workers, election officials, and voters it was chaos.
(I wrote yesterday about this conflict between public safety and reliable elections.)
But let’s say that there wasn’t this confusion and Ohio elections weren’t cancelled: the COVID-19 pandemic alone causes enough strain on the integrity of today’s elections. Keep in mind that the overwhelming majority of volunteer poll-workers are elderly retirees – surly it’s not in their health’s interest to help at the polls today? Think about the many thousands, tens of thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands of voters who would be discouraged from turning out today to vote. Think about how the closure of polling places in many locations (due to their proximity to particularly vulnerable people) causes an inadvertent centralization of voting locations and voter suppression?
Let’s say that – as many experts have warned – the COVID-19 pandemic fades in the Summer but resurges worse than it is now in late Fall and Winter (right around the November election).
Apply all the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic that I laid out in the previous paragraphs (and the many I certainly didn’t mention) and apply to them the hotly contested November general election between Biden and Trump.
Is it not plausible to think that – given all these COVID-19 considerations – chaos could overwhelm and break America’s already untrusted and fragile electoral process? Is it absurd to think that some states might not certify results? Is it ridiculous to imagine Democratic swing-state governors and secretary of states refusing to certify results to deny Trump a clear victory?
Is it absurd to think that a President who fancies himself a king might even postpone the election if it was looking like his defeat was likely?
And then postpone it again?
And maybe even again?
An obvious solution to this problem would be online and mail-in voting. But the reality is that America does not have that sort of electoral infrastructure, either at the state or Federal level. And the amount of legislation that would go into making that take effect – again, both at the state and Federal level – would need to be passed soon in order to change that. Aside from those concerns, both of those alternatives provide nefarious actors even more opportunities to sew hijinks in the process and leave more opportunities for incompetence to disrupt results (see the 2020 Iowa Caucuses).
No, the unfortunate truth is that America’s 2020 election could easily turn into a completely illegitimate, easily-hijacked, easily-manipulated sham of a procedure. Is it a certainty? Of course not. Is it a plausibility that should not be dismissed? I think so.