Contemplating a Stolen Presidency

As more and more news filters out about the various scare tactics, misinformation campaigns, and concerted, anti-Democrat disenfranchisement campaigns waged by McCain/Palin supporters, I find myself wondering what Barack Obama will do if he loses under dubious circumstances. This isn’t a matter of asking what might happen if nasty stuff goes down on Election Day; nasty stuff is already going down, and it generally points in the same direction. This goes beyond the usual batch of lies and propaganda smearing the opponent’s character. We’re talking about a combination of sneaky grassroots efforts and illegal policy calculated to rob those who might lean Democrat of their right to vote.

Much of this trickery occurs at the local level by anonymous activists, such as with this fraudulent flyer discussed by CNN. The flyer suggests that the Virginia legislature decided that Republicans and Republican-leaning independents vote on November 4th and Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents vote on a later date.

Some efforts to disenfranchise voters, on the other hand, have been more visible and organized, perpetrated by state and local officials overstepping their bounds. Several states have been screening voter registrations with a level of scrutiny and handful of methodologies that are illegal. The New York Times reports that “because Democrats have been more aggressive at registering new voters this year, according to state election officials, any heightened screening of new applications may affect their party’s supporters disproportionately.” It’s suspected that political party officials and election workers will likely attempt to turn people away at the polls who have a right to vote—something we can probably expect to see anyway, given some states’ histories of voter disenfranchisement among minority groups (notably, of course, Florida).

I could dig up a handful of additional examples along these lines, but I’ll leave it at that for now. This is just a preface to my real question—not “is this happening,” but, “what will we do if it affects the election?”

My first guess would be that Obama would, like Al Gore before him, decline to push the issue. He’s still quite young, and has a shot of getting elected as soon as four years from now, but may worry that it would mar him forever to be associated with miring the country in a dragged-out election dispute during an economic crisis and two failing wars. I wonder if those more informed than myself would tell me (right here, if you will) that I’m wrong, though. And regardless of what he would do, I wonder what he should do.

Let me be clear and frank: I don’t buy into the messianic overtones of so many Obama supporters. I don’t expect him and Biden to bring “fundamental change” to Washington; it will still be politics as usual, but at least it will be smart politics that makes the world hate us less and the economy hurt us less. The most dramatic “change” I think we can expect to see over the course of eight years of Obama presidency would be partial reparation of the damage that the Bush years have done to our country, potentially setting us back on track to Clinton-era levels of prosperity, and I think Obama is a much better candidate to do that than McCain. (And if you’re not interested in the New Yorker‘s insightful yet admittedly high-falutin’ endorsement, one of the most readable explanations for why Obama is the man for the job comes from the Anchorage Daily News.)

Still … as long as I’m being frank here, I might as well also admit that the prospect of a McCain/Palin victory through political trickery strikes me as both infuriating and terrifying. I think the stakes are visibly higher than they appeared when Gore conceded in 2000. At that time, Bush and Gore seemed pretty similar, politically speaking (hah, remember that?), we had an economic surplus coming out of the Clinton (and Gore, I suppose) administration, and terrorism didn’t sound quite as terrifying just yet. Perhaps the election was “stolen” from Gore, as some still allege, but at the time, avoiding the massive political upheaval of fundamentally challenging the electoral process seemed the most responsible route. Now, I wonder if allowing another stolen presidency to progress (if such actions do appear to have visibly tipped the scales) would be even more irresponsible.

For one thing, not challenging such a vote shows that Bush’s tactics have already set a precedent that will work again in the future. The problem would get worse before it gets better once those behind it realize that their efforts do pretty effectively game the system without any backlash. As for the prospect of a McCain presidency itself, while I don’t buy that Obama will save the world, I do think that a McCain White House would hurt an already limping country pretty badly if we get “candidate John McCain” making policy instead of “maverick John McCain” (who is remembered fondly among independents and even many Democrats, but appears lost to us now). And, while I think that seniority, in itself, should be no barrier to the presidency, it would be reckless to ignore that a 72-year-old cancer survivor (expecting to be pushing 80 by the end of a two-term presidency) would be replaced by a dangerously inexperienced VP.

I’m not here to change your vote, though. (And while I’m not inclined to block comments, I’m also not interested in the comments on this post turning into a fruitless debate about who’s more qualified for president.) I only bring up the issue of qualifications to help us contemplate the worst-case scenario of a presidency that might be earned partially through subterfuge. Publicly, of course, the question of who would be a more effective president ought to be left alone; any challenge to damaged results would have to be based entirely on righting a great wrong in our political process. I wonder, though, what kinds of factors would be tossed around Obama/Biden HQ in such an eventuality.

I realize that this post speculates as to what Obama would do and muses on what he should do, but fails to address what he—and we, as Americans—could do. That is because I’m largely ignorant on this point. I’d be interested to hear from you about what actions would be possible. Clearly, I hope that we don’t have to address this issue during this election. I do think someone will have to address it during my lifetime, though, and I can imagine that a fishy Obama loss might draw sufficient public outcry for something to actually come of it this time around.

At a state level, if the citizens of a state feel like there is something fishy about how their election was handled, they have the ability to lobby the elector (who is actually the guy who is casting the vote in the electoral college). The problem is that the elector’s tend to be very into their party and most of them aren’t cool with the idea of going against the grain of the who the public voted for (ie, although I believe Kerry lost one electoral vote last year due to an elector highjacking the vote). I’m afraid that, generally, we’ve got a system that has to handle these problems locally. I’d also say that both campaigns/parties have people on the ground to prevent challenges (I knew a lawyer who went up to be a democratic observer in 2004 in PA). And the solution to stuff like the flyer is to get out the word that everyone votes the same day. That the police are NOT going to be hanging around polling places looking to serve warrants (which is another tactic that I’ve heard of). All of this, of course, doesn’t even begin to address other concerns, like the security of electronic voting machines, etc. SIGH.

We should have international observers monitoring our election (you know, the same way we monitor everyone else’s).

Check out this Salon article for an interesting and informative follow-up (or bit of background info). Long story short: Republicans have been harping on the non-existent problem of voter fraud in order to suppress hundreds of thousands of votes.

Also: It’s election day! Slate has more on grassroots and legal trickery. Some examples:

Misinformation roundup: In Indiana, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, robo-calls and fliers are instructing people to vote on Wednesday (via ourvote.live.org). Likewise, in North Carolina, fliers left on cars at a shopping mall instruct Democrats to vote on Wednesday and Republicans to vote on Tuesday (via the Brennan Center for Justice). Also, a reader reports that someone hacked into the provost of George Mason University’s e-mail account and sent this message to the whole student body: “To the Mason Community: Please note that election day has been moved to November 5th. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause you.” … 9:19 a.m.

Classy.

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