It wasn't a disaster, but this election shows the fragility of American democracy

It wasn't a disaster, but this election shows the fragility of American democracy
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks on election night in the East Room of the White House in the early morning hours of November 04, 2020 in Washington, DC.Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
  • Armed militias didn't intimidate voters, the postal service didn't collapse under the weight of millions of absentee ballots, and despite long lines people were able to vote.
  • Given the circumstances — a once-in-a-century pandemic, a bitterly-divided electorate, and months of social unrest — it's tempting to call this "success."
  • But the failure to get a timely and accurate vote count gives Trump the space to "flood the zone with s---."
  • As he has indicated he would do for months, Trump is doing everything he can to delegitimize the democratic process, even when all signs point to a "normal" and legal process unfolding as intended.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.

Americans are lucky, because they get to elect someone to the most powerful office in the world.

But Americans are also particularly unlucky to live in a country where getting an accurate and complete vote count for the most powerful office in the world can't be accomplished in a manner that isn't so easily exploited by a serially dishonest demagogue.

Our system of 51 individually-weighted presidential elections, each with their own arcane rules, allows for such ridiculous situations like still-undeclared Nevada stopping its vote count for a full-day.
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COVID exposed our failed healthcare system and the precarious economy upon which it sits. Similarly, our un-uniform vote-counting system creates enough fog around the results that someone like Trump can make great strides at delegitimizing the democratic process, even when all signs point to a "normal" and legal process unfolding as intended.

We've seen this movie before, but it keeps getting scarier

It's important to clearly state, with appreciation, that the parade of horribles feared by many preceding this election did not come to pass.

Armed militias didn't intimidate voters. The postal service didn't collapse under the weight of millions of absentee ballots. And despite long lines that were often the result of social distancing guidelines, there have been few complaints that people weren't able to eventually cast their ballots.
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Given the circumstances — a once-in-a-century pandemic, a bitterly-divided electorate, and months of social unrest — it's tempting to call this "success." It surely could have been far, far worse.

But "the election" isn't over. The President of the United States, as he has been for months, is doing everything he can to convince his supporters that "they" — a mysterious cabal of anti-Trump electoral operatives that do not exist in reality — are trying to make Trump votes disappear.
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Also as expected, Trump's MAGA meathead pundits are following his cue and spreading insidious innuendo about post-deadline voting, a media conspiracy to manufacture projected vote totals overnight, and insisting (as he did), that he's the clear victor.

The president polished off his tin-pot dictator act in the middle of the night when he falsely said: "Frankly, we did win this election."

It was a statement so despicable, so obviously destructive to the legitimacy of the eventual result, that even some Trump-voting partisan conservatives such as Ben Shapiro were willing to offer tepid criticisms like, "deeply irresponsible."
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But for the most part, the Trumpist commentariat and Republican lawmakers are in lockstep with the president. And that's just nuts.

The Trump campaign and Republicans in several states have done everything possible to prevent early-vote counting. And the right has been gamely blowing smokescreens of disinformation in the closing days of the election.

We've known for weeks that certain critical states, like Pennsylvania, would not have projectable vote totals on election night, or even possibly for several days thereafter. A nail-biter of an electoral college tally was always in the cards, as was Trump prematurely declaring victory well before votes were tallied.
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We've known for months that the pandemic was going to cause a surge in early voting and mail-in voting, just as we've known that a number of states were incapable of having complete primary vote totals for months.

And we've also known since 2000, 2004, and 2016 that our presidential elections can be decided by razor-thin margins in just a few states (or sometimes less), and that the veracity of those results will be disputed by whomever loses.

And we've known that the GOP regularly enables voter suppression by adding endless amounts of red tape and other obstacles to voting. Apathy isn't the only reason why — despite record turnout this year — Americans still vote in far lower numbers compared to other developed countries. It's because we make it so hard to vote.
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Just as COVID showed us how perilously society sits on the edge of total chaos, this election proves democracy is in just as precarious a state.

Our entire voting system is built on thin reeds, and is currently led by a person whose own supporters know is an incompetent, principle-devoid fabulist. But Trump has even convinced some of his rightfully embarrassed voters that system is hopelessly corrupt, biased solely against them, and needs to be burnt to the ground. Trump shouldn't be able to try to steal the election before our very eyes by — in Steve Bannon's lexicon — "flooding the zone with shit." But even if he loses, his savage undermining of democracy leaves a mark.
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And if the US had even the electoral competency of Brazil, a much poorer country with a large population and a far shorter history of liberal democracy, Trump would have a harder time trying to thug his way to victory.

For all of Florida's well-earned reputation as a vote-counting basket case, it managed to get a quick and accurate count despite all the challenges of being a large, geographically diverse state with a huge number of mail-in votes. If Florida can improve, there's no reason the whole system can't as well.

Could the federal government provide the infrastructure and some kind of uniform guidance to streamline the process of vote-counting for the only nationally-elected office, while still maintaining federalism and the Electoral College? For a country with no shortage of unnecessary and unkillable federal bureaucracies, an entity that's solely responsible for helping states ensure presidential elections don't go off the rails feels like a worthy investment.
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Trump's flailing, asinine response to COVID made us an international laughing stock. But our inability to create a vote-counting system with enough national uniformity to inspire confidence in the system is a national shame that predates Trump, and will almost certainly outlive him.

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