How Close Are We To "Losing Our Democracy"?
Introducing the Election Theft Austin Powers Steamroller
There’s a lot of this type of stuff in progressive circles these days:
I’m of two minds here. On the one hand, I think the authoritarian leanings of the Republican Party — especially its Trumpist wing — are unmissable, and I worry that we might lose the ability to choose our leaders. On the other hand, we’re a long way from being Hungary, and I think that parts of the pants-wetting left are overlooking two developments that make a democratic backslide less likely. Only one thing is certain: I comprehensively suck. Is there any issue that I can’t bludgeon into a mushy grey heap with relentless “on the other hand”-ing? I feel like if I got swallowed by a whale, you might hear “but on the up side…” meekly emanating from the blowhole.
The goal of this post is to try to attach a probability to the likelihood of us “losing our democracy”. The number I churn out is, to put it kindly, flaming rhino shit. That’s inevitable, because I’m pulling the inputs out of my ass — if you feel that your ass contains better data, then by all means, extract and apply. Ultimately, the number is less important than the thought process that describes how election theft might happen and where the weak points in our system are.
Let me start with an important distinction: There’s a difference between tilting the rules of the game in your favor and ignoring the rules altogether. The first thing is bad, but is also somewhat common in democracies. The second thing has never really1 happened in the history of the United States and would be a catastrophe.
About the rules: They matter. When Ayatollah Khameini disqualifies every candidate from the Iranian presidential election except for Ebrahim Raisi, a jar of pickles, and Tulsi Gabbard, that’s not a real election. When Vladimir Putin manipulates the press so that the “news” is sycophants praising Putin’s leadership and highlights of Putin netting eight goals in a suspiciously uncompetitive hockey game, that’s not really democracy. In a democracy, the outcome has to actually be in doubt, otherwise it’s just people putting paper in boxes for no reason, like an elementary school valentine exchange.
Rules matter, but reasonable people can disagree on the finer points of what the rules should be. Some on the left can slip into thinking that amounts to: “Any rules other than what I support are fascism.” I try to remember that there’s a grey area between what I consider fair and what’s clearly unfair. So, I support same-day voter registration, but 30 states don’t have it, and I don’t think that makes them Communist China (except for Massachusetts, a bit). I oppose voter ID laws, but proposals to let people use basically any ID — not just a driver’s license — seem like a reasonable compromise. My principle here is that we should make voting easier, but I try to avoid seeing the issue as a simple binary in which four weeks of early voting represents perfect democracy but three weeks represents North Korean-style totalitarianism.
The first big development on the rules front that many progressives seem to have overlooked is that there’s a growing body of evidence suggesting that voter suppression tactics are marginally effective at best, and maybe not effective at all. Studies of voter ID laws used to find small effects: This study that looked at 2012 found that voter ID laws lowered turnout in two states by two percent, and this somewhat-disputed study found a similar-sized effect (but, strangely, the effect was smallest on Black voters, one of the obvious targets of these laws). Some analyses that claimed to find larger effects were later found to be flawed. When German Lopez reviewed the literature on voter ID laws in 2016, he found that the effect was small to non-existent. Voter turnout among all minority groups rose between 2016 and 2020, and also between the 2014 and 2018 midterms. Voter ID laws are still bad, they’re a “solution” in search of a problem, but at this point, they’re basically Luden’s Wild Cherry Cough Drops: If they’re doing anything at all, it ain’t much.
Meanwhile, the foundational assumption of Republican voter suppression tactics is crumbling. It’s long been thought that high turnout helps Democrats; here’s Trump reflecting that belief, and here’s the same thought coming from Bernie Sanders. But it’s starting to look like the conventional wisdom is wrong. Republicans outperformed fundamentals in a high-turnout election in 2020, and did very well in high-turnout elections in 2021. Voters over 30 who turned out in 2020 after skipping 2016 skewed towards Trump by a five point margin relative to their return-voting counterparts. This study — published in Foreign Affairs this month — says: “Put simply, there is no evidence that turnout is correlated with partisan vote choice.” There might not be any partisan advantage to be gained by making it easier to vote, which means that the only reason to do it is the dumbest reason of all: because it’s the right thing to do. Lame.
The second major rules-based development is that it suddenly looks like the post-2020 round of gerrymandering probably won’t help Republicans much, if at all. A recent analysis by Joel Wertheimer (written up by Eric Levitz here) found that the maps being drawn this year will probably cause the House to tilt less Republican than before, and might even slightly favor Democrats. Personally, I’m stunned by this; I’m shocked that the big, bad, Republican gerrymandering effort might be neutralized. It’s strangely anticlimactic; it feels like if Star Wars ended with Darth Vader looking at the demolished Death Star and saying: “Piece of shit didn’t work anyway.”
These developments make the “Democrats won’t be able to win power back if they lose” argument seem far-fetched. When people talk about how we might be on the cusp of perpetual Republican control, the theory is that Republicans will use the power they win in upcoming elections to make themselves virtually impossible to dislodge. I’m sure that many Republicans would like to do this; an ethic has formed in the Republican Party in which any tactic short of bashing your opponent on the head with a lead pipe is seen as impish hijinks. But the two most obvious tools they’d use to solidify their grip on power appear to be much less effective than assumed.
They could, however, possibly steal an election.
Ignoring the Rules
There’s a good visualization for the slow-moving catastrophe that’s rolling towards American democracy, and it’s this scene from Austin Powers:
We can see this coming from miles away. We have a candidate in Donald Trump who will definitely try to steal the election if he loses. We have a Republican Party that’s proved somewhat willing to indulge his election theft fantasies (70 percent of Republican voters think the election was stolen). And we have an effort to install theft-friendly stooges and hacks in key offices in key states. The only thing left to do is to assign probabilities to the steps along the way to try determine the size of the danger. So, here’s my attempt to do that, offered with the caveat that all of these numbers are guesses, none of this means anything, and frankly you’re wasting your time by reading this.
Question 1: Will Republicans nominate a candidate who will try to overturn the election if they lose?
Gee, who could I be talking about here? That’s right: I’m worried about South Dakota governor Kristi Noem. I fear a permanent Noemocracy; I think that once we go Noem, we can’t go home.
Obviously, this is about Trump. Trump will try to overturn the election if he loses; it’s as certain as Bjork’s next album being quirky and whimsical.
Some people think that Trump is a shoe-in to be nominated. I don’t; I think that a 75 year-old, twice-impeached, two-time loser of the popular vote who incited an attack on one of our country’s most sacred landmarks could be seen as a weak candidate. I also think that the “he’s a guaranteed one-termer because he can’t run again” argument could get some purchase. I’ll put the chance of him winning the nomination at 60 percent.
But I’m also not certain that he’s the only candidate who would try a steal. Republican primaries are Fellini-esque freak shows of the damaged and maleficent; you never know what kind of hell-spawned mutant that process might spit out. So, I’ll tack on another 10 percent chance that the GOP nominates someone else who will try to stage a coup.
Though, for brevity, I will hereafter refer to this hypothesized election-stealing candidate as “Donald Trump”.
My guess: 70 percent probability
Question 2: Will Trump lose the election by a small enough margin that a coup might work?
This is sad: The single biggest factor preventing a crisis in which a losing presidential candidate makes a credible attempt to steal an election is not “this is America and we don’t do that.” It’s “the numbers won’t add up.”
The single event in this model that would do the most to avert a constitution crisis is: Trump just wins the damn thing. That is the good news scenario! The simplest way to avert a crisis is to elect the guy who would cause the crisis, which is a bit like avoiding a mugging by throwing all your valuables into the sewer.
Since 2024 is eons away, I’m going to avoid pretending to know anything and assume the election to be 50/50. So, that’s a 50 percent chance that we avert a crisis via a Trump win. If Trump loses, I think the election has to be close for him to have a shot at overturning it. My logic here is that Republicans won’t support an obvious coup; they’ll only support a subtle coup, a gentlemen’s coup, if you will. Coups in other countries can be positively gauche, with the shooting and the placing of heads on spikes — have some decorum about it, old boy! I’ll phrase it this way: Trump’s claim to the presidency has to be at least semi-plausible to those who are either politically motivated or deeply stupid.
Simple logistics matter, too. Trump’s 2020 coup was unlikely to work because he needed 38 electoral votes, which required cooperation from several states, so any official who took the career-destroying step of overturning his state’s results would have done so in service of an effort that was going to fail anyway. It’s a simple collective action problem; the more actors you have, the harder something is to pull off.
So, to try to bring some order to this thought process, I’ll assume that Trump needs to be within “one Florida” (29 electoral votes) to have a shot at this. What are the odds of the outcome falling in that range? Well, 538’s 2020 election forecast had 14 out of 100 scenarios in which Trump got within 29 votes. But Biden was heavily favored, so a 50/50 election would have more of those scenarios. I feel like if I go any further down this road, I’ll be engaging in some Professor Frink-style pseudo-science, so I’m just going to put the probability of the outcome falling in the danger zone at 20 percent.
My guess: 20 percent probability (50 percent chance Trump wins, 30 percent chance he loses by too much to make a credible steal attempt)
Question 3: Will pro-Trump hacks at the state level throw out results?
There are a number of things that an unabashed hack with power could do, from failing to count the vote in some areas to certifying the vote in a way that would allow Congress to overturn it to sending an alternate slate of electors to Washington. Any of these things would sow chaos, most of them would be unpopular, and yet candidates are running for office right now promising to do exactly this type of stuff.
In Georgia, former Senator David Perdue is making Trump’s claims of voter fraud the centerpiece of his gubernatorial campaign. Brad Raffensperger — who refused to “find 11,780 votes” for Trump — is facing a primary challenge. In Wisconsin, conservative lawmakers are trying to abolish the bipartisan Elections Commission. The 2022 midterms will make a coup substantially more or less likely, and Trump knows this. And, for what it’s worth, the fact that Trump has educated himself on the finer points of state-level election certification is incredibly strong proof that he means business.
But, prior to 2022, it’s hard to know what the hack quotient will be in crucial states. It’s also impossible to know what sort of environment those hacks will be operating in — will Trump need 1,000 votes in one state, or 50,000 votes in three states? A larger task requires a more devoted hack. I’m going to call this one 50/50 until we have more information.
My guess: 50 percent probability
Question 4: Will the courts uphold state-level shenanigans?
Any de-certification bullshit that happens at the state level is all but certain to end up in the Supreme Court. It should be noted that, if we get to this point, we’d be deep into a constitutional crisis. We really shouldn’t be testing our institutions like this; if I think my car has impressive safety features, it doesn’t follow that I should drive drunk and assume that the air bags will do their job.
Trump’s 2020 court challenges had a failure rate that would embarrass Wile E. Coyote. Though, again, I think that was influenced by the ridiculousness of his claims and the near-certainty of their failure. It was a nation-wide exercise in humoring a delusional old man, and things might play out very differently if the old man makes a less-bonkers argument.
John Roberts seems a bit uncomfortable with the Court being seen as a cabal of partisan hacks. Other justices are basically cool with it. The specifics matter a ton here, but if the election is close, and states are overturning results, I think it’s likely that a 6-3 conservative court will return some sort of “we must defer to the states” decision.
My guess: 70 percent probability
Question 5: Will the House pull some bullshit about some states’ electoral votes not being “regularly given” and hand the election to Trump?
In 2020, Trump tried to get Mike Pence to hand him the election, but Pence wouldn’t do it. I find Pence about as appealing as a urinal cake sandwich, but I have to hand it to him: He did the right thing and should be commended. And, apparently, Dan Quayle helped him stand firm. The National Mall might need a Monument To Forgettable One Term Republican Vice Presidents.
In 2024, Republicans will almost certainly hold the House. The Electoral College — the duckbill platypus of election systems — contains a procedural point at which the House could theoretically steal an election by claiming that a vote was not “regularly given”. The Electoral Count Act of 1887 sought to clarify the process but mostly failed, which represents a major failure on the part of — and this is a real person’s name — Senator George Frisbie Hoar.
The murky rules surrounding the vote counting process provide opportunities for mischief, which is why liberals, conservatives, and libertarians are calling for reform of the Electoral Count Act. My gut instinct is that House Republicans probably wouldn’t try to use the count to stage a coup — I mean, there are balls, and then there are Jupiter-sized balls, and the latter would be needed for this gambit. Certifying fake electors would be a Rubicon-crossing move without historical precedent, and it’s hard for me to picture it. But we should reform the Electoral Count Act just to be safe.
My guess: 10 percent probability
So, when you put all this together, you get this:
That’s my math: I see a 6.3 percent chance of a stolen election. If your reaction is “hey, that’s not bad!”, then you and I have very different expectations for this country.
It occurs to me that what I’ve built here is similar to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ “Doomsday Clock”. The Doomsday Clock debuted in 1947 as a symbol representing the risk of nuclear war — here’s the clock’s first incarnation:
It became custom to move the clock closer to or further away from midnight in response to events. So, when the Soviets tested their first bomb in 1949, the clock moved four minutes closer to midnight. When the Cold War ended, the minute hand lost four minutes. This became a way to visually represent the nuclear threat, and also to sell copies of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which before the advent of the clock was mostly known for pornographic cartoons.2
I’d like to pay homage to the clock, which is a nice way of saying that I’m going to rip it off. I’m proud to introduce the Election Theft Austin Powers Steamroller:
As you can see, the distance between the steamroller and the man is the inverse probability of a stolen election, as expressed in feet (100 - 6.3 = 93.7). I can move the steamroller closer or farther away as events progress. So, for example, Trump winning the primary would move the steamroller closer to the man; Brad Raffensperger surviving his primary challenge would move it farther away. I plan to check in with the steamroller from time to time. Ultimately, I think that changes in the steamroller’s status will prove more illuminating than my sphincter-harvested numbers.
I don’t think we’re close to permanently losing our democracy, because I think that Republicans’ near-term ability to rig the rules of the game in their favor is limited. But we could have a stolen election. Would a stolen election mean that we’re no longer a democracy? I don’t know — baking one cake doesn’t make you a baker. But I’m also reminded of the Norm Macdonald’s classic bit on this topic.
In a perfect world, election integrity would be guaranteed by a shared commitment to democratic norms. Which, at this point in time, sounds ridiculous; I feel like I’m describing some fantasy land where it rains gumdrops and trees are made of chocolate. But this was actually quite normal not that long ago. I hope we can survive Trump and somehow, some way, get back to normalcy. But in the meantime, I’ll be keeping a close eye on developments and adjusting the steamroller’s position as necessary.
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The “really” is carrying a bit of weight here; the elections of 1876 and 2000 exist in a murky grey area. We could spend all day debating the way in which those elections were decided — and I’m fully confident that I have many readers who are well-versed in the particulars of 1876 — but let’s not do that. It remains true that an American presidential election that produced a clear winner has never been stolen by the loser.