by Michael McFaul
The presidential election on Nov. 3 will be one the most consequential votes in the history of American democracy. Make no mistake: this is not just an election about differing policies. Nor is it only about Donald Trump vs. Joe Biden. The very legitimacy of our system is at stake — with profound consequences for the future of global democracy and the United States’ place in the world.
To meet the most minimal definition of democracy, a country must conduct elections that meet several fundamental conditions. The elections must be competitive, free and fair. Everyone must accept the rules of the election beforehand, including the timing of the vote. And losers must accept the results.
Though American democracy has fallen short of the higher standards of liberal democracy in the past and today — especially regarding disenfranchisement — the U.S. system has met this minimalist definition of democracy for a long time. The exceptional conditions of the current moment, though, mean that we are at risk of failing to meet this minimal threshold of a democratic system of government.
Most disturbingly, it is not clear that all Americans who want to vote and who are qualified to do so will be able to take part under a set of general rules agreed upon before Election Day. Massive disenfranchisement — because of closed polling stations, improper ballot counting or the health risks taken by standing in lines — seems very possible in November. Just look at what happened during the Wisconsin primary last week and imagine the same, many times over, around the nation.
If millions of people don’t vote because of health concerns, or if millions of votes remain uncounted as a result of poor preparation, many Americans will perceive the presidential election in November as illegitimate. When losers of elections do not accept the legitimacy of the outcome, democracy breaks down.
And if American democracy falters, so too will American legitimacy in the world. Our ability to compete with China will be vastly diminished. Our capacity to rally other democracies to pursue shared vital national interests will be weakened. And we will forfeit our role as an inspirational model of government, especially among those democratic forces working inside oppressive societies. In short, if American democracy fails in November, then our national security will be weakened, as well.
So all Americans must come together to guarantee the integrity of our election on Nov. 3.
Most urgent, governors and state legislators must pass new laws to allow every eligible American voter to register online without deadlines, to extend early voting, and to allow vote by mail or absentee voting without restrictions. Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden (Ore.) and Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) recently introduced the Natural Disaster and Emergency Ballot Act of 2020, which proposes a series of measures designed to ensure full participation even under the current adverse conditions (including making absentee ballots downloadable for everyone). Colorado, Oregon, Washington offer examples of successful vote-by-mail procedures. The idea that voting by mail produces fraud is a myth. There is no evidence that any demographic group is privileged or punished by voting by mail. Neither major political party gains an advantage.
Second, the U.S. Congress must pass, and President Trump must sign, new legislation that will provide federal funding to states to underwrite the costs of mail-in and absentee voting. The new infrastructure needed for such procedures is enormous, and could require $2 billion to $3 billion in additional cash. These funds must be appropriated now; the election is only months away.
Third, those states that fail to institute mail-in voting must prepare now for safe ways of voting in person in November. Such measures could include drive-through voting, mobile ballot boxes that can travel to the elderly and sick, and massive new numbers of volunteers to help with masks, gloves and the safe handling of ballots. (South Korea offers an excellent example of how to handle that latter challenge with its preparations for parliamentary elections this week.)
Fourth, Trump and Biden must pledge publicly and unequivocally that they will accept the results of an election, broadly judged to have been free and fair. In 2016, Trump’s claims about voter fraud threatened to undermine the legitimacy of the election. Had he not won, it’s not clear what he would have told his supporters to do. In the covid-19 era, such irresponsible rhetoric could trigger unintended outcomes — including violence.
Fifth, the United States must join most other democracies in the world in making Election Day a national holiday. In addition to the other benefits of a day off for democracy, voters should not be coming to schools or other facilities with vulnerable populations to vote and possibly infect those who study or work at polling stations.
All Americans must recommit to the sanctity of free and fair elections. Democracies do not just appear or exist; they must be fought for and preserved by committed small-d democrats. Never in our lifetimes has U.S democracy been so imperiled. It’s time for all Americans to join this fight for democracy. Our liberty and security, as well as the liberty and security of hundreds of millions around the world, depend on it.
Michael McFaul is director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and a Hoover fellow at Stanford University. He is the author of “From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia.” Follow Michael