Voters elected Joe Biden to serve as the nation’s next president, but President Donald Trump has continued to dispute election results, making unverified claims of ballot fraud.
What do political science experts in the Berkshires make of this?
Biden won a projected 290 electoral votes to Trump’s 232, with a Georgia recount pending, and received nearly 6 million more ballots than the incumbent. Trump has continued to claim, though, that the election was “stolen” from him.
Biden’s victory is “neither particularly small nor disputable,” said Alan Hirsch, who chairs the justice and law studies program at Williams College and wrote “A Short History of Presidential Election Crises (And How to Prevent the Next One).” Rather, Hirsch said, the present holdup is “a manufactured political crisis.”
“If there’s a crisis, it’s because the president is unwilling to acknowledge his defeat, and much of the Republican Party, for various reasons, has opted to play the role of enabler rather than to provide a reality check,” he said.
Trump’s refusal to concede breaks from a tradition of transferring power peacefully, scholars say, and threatens to undermine the federal government as it seeks to respond to the coronavirus pandemic. While the current dispute is unsubstantiated, they say, abolishing the Electoral College could prevent uncertain outcomes in future elections.
The transition process
Under the Presidential Transition Act of 1963, the head of the General Services Administration must “ascertain” the election winner to kick off the transition process. Once the GSA identifies a winner, the president-elect’s transition team gains access to federal agencies, offices, transition money and more.
GSA head Emily Murphy, a Trump appointee, has yet to act, and the GSA said last week that it was awaiting a “clear” winner.
Biden could sue the GSA, but it’s unclear how much his team could do to speed up the process.
“What usually happens is, it occurs almost immediately after the election,” said Paul Collins Jr., a professor of legal studies and political science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. “Other than exerting political pressure, there’s not really much the Biden administration can do, from what I understand.”
Particularly if the pandemic continues to worsen, as is expected, a lag in political leadership could hurt public health, said Mason Williams, an assistant professor of leadership studies and political science at Williams College. “A lack of cooperation between the outgoing and the incoming administrations,” he said, “could have life-or-death consequences.”
In the 1800 election, electors cast an equal number of votes for Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson and for his running mate, Aaron Burr. Incumbent President John Adams, a Federalist, finished third.
At that time, the president and vice president did not yet run on the same party ticket. Rather, each voter in the Electoral College voted twice for president, and the top vote-getter became president and the runner-up vice president.
While the tie could have been avoided if at least one elector chose Jefferson but not Burr, party members were concerned that if too many voters left out Burr, they would allow Adams to become vice president.
The choice went to the House of Representatives, where some Federalists contemplated electing Burr, who they thought to be less antagonistic to their philosophy than Jefferson. Eventually, enough Federalists abstained to give Jefferson the victory.
“The importance of the election is that power was peacefully transferred from the Federalist Party, led by Adams, to their opponents, the Republicans, led by Jefferson,” said Susan Dunn, the Massachusetts professor of humanities at Williams College and the author of “Jefferson’s Second Revolution: The Election Crisis of 1800 and the Triumph of Republicanism.” “This marks the recognition of the legitimacy of opposition and the legitimacy of dissent. This peaceful transfer of power to the opposition is the hallmark of a healthy democracy.”
The 1824 and 1876 races also went to the House.
In 1824, House Speaker Henry Clay — he finished third in the election, with 13 percent of the popular vote — backed John Quincy Adams over Andrew Jackson, who received more electoral and popular votes.
When Adams became president, he appointed Clay to be secretary of state, leading to allegations of a “corrupt bargain” between the two.
In 1876, when 185 electoral votes were needed to win, Democrat Samuel Tilden led Republican Rutherford B. Hayes 184-165 with 20 votes from four states still contested.
Lawmakers worked out a deal, now known as the Compromise of 1877, to give Hayes the remaining 20 votes, making him president.
In exchange, Republicans withdrew troops from the South, ending Reconstruction. Efforts to disenfranchise and discriminate against Black Southerners quickly ramped up in the aftermath.
The 2000 election between Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush came down to a close tally in Florida, leading to an attempted recount. The majority-conservative U.S. Supreme Court voted 5-4 in Bush v. Gore to halt the recount, clearing Bush’s path to office.
“When you’re thinking about Supreme Court decision-making, probably the overriding factor in how the justices make their decisions is their ideology,” Collins said.
Today, Collins doesn’t see any reason the Supreme Court would take a case, and if it did, he believes it “nearly impossible” that a decision could change the outcome.
“Generally speaking, courts don’t want to put themselves in the position to decide an election,” Collins said. “They don’t see it as their proper role to displace the will of the American people.”
Trump appointee Amy Coney Barrett has faced calls to recuse herself from an election case.
The 1800, 1824, 1876 and 2000 election crises, Hirsch said, “all stemmed, directly or indirectly, from the Electoral College.”
Relying on a popular vote instead, Hirsch said, would make future crises “far less likely.” Yet, if any occur, he has proposed to create an election review board of independents, Democrats and Republicans to resolve disputes rather than courts, due to partisanship concerns.
Skeptical of democracy, the nation’s founders established the Electoral College in part because they wanted to limit people’s power. Some scholars have argued that Southern states, where about one-third of people were enslaved and barred from voting, also feared that a popular vote would give the North near-certain electoral success.
Today, the system disadvantages voters in high-population states, Dunn said, giving more influence to a voter in Wyoming than one in California.
Yet, she says the Founders wanted laws to evolve with time. Jefferson wrote in 1824, for instance, that “we have not yet so far perfected our constitutions as to venture to make them unchangeable.”
“Our too-revered 18th-century Constitution,” Dunn said, “was never intended by the Founders to remain in its original form.”