We conducted four exercises, on June 12, 19, 22 and 26, 2020. We started with the following base scenarios in terms of the project electoral results on November 3, 2020:
Scenario A: Democratic party candidate Joe Biden wins both the popular vote and the Electoral College by a healthy margin;
Scenario B: Biden wins both the popular vote and the Electoral College by a narrow margin;
Scenario C: President Trump wins the Electoral College vote by a narrow margin, but loses the popular vote by a healthy margin;
Scenario D: The winner of the election was not known as of the morning after the election and the outcome of the race was too close to predict with certainty.
For a detailed explanation of how each exercise was conducted, see Appendix B of the Report.
To ensure candid contributions, the Transition Integrity Project’s exercises were conducted under Chatham House Rules, under which participants were free to talk about their own role in the exercises and their general observations, but were asked to respect the confidentiality of other participants. Some of our participants have chosen to write or give interviews about their experiences during the exercise, however. You can see some examples below:
Ed Luce, “How America could fail its democracy test” Financial Times
Max Boot, “What is Trump loses but insists he won?” Washington Post
Jennifer Granholm talks to CNN
David Frum, “Where the System May Break,” The Atlantic
Rosa Brooks, “Trump Could Refuse to Concede,” The Washington Post
Nils Gilman, “Getting from November to January,” The American Interest
The report contains the full summary of the risks identified during the Transition Integrity Project scenario planning exercises. But the most important findings were:
First, the concept of “election night,” is no longer accurate and indeed is dangerous. We face a period of contestation stretching from the first day a ballot is cast in mid-September until January 20. The winner may not, and likely will not, be known on “election night” as officials count mail-in ballots. This period of uncertainty provides opportunities for an unscrupulous candidate to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the process and to set up an unprecedented assault on the outcome.
Second, a determined campaign has opportunity to contest the election into January 2021. We anticipate lawsuits, divergent media narratives, attempts to stop the counting of ballots, and protests drawing people from both sides. President Trump, the incumbent, may use the executive branch to aid his campaign strategy, including through the Department of Justice. We assess that there is a chance the president will attempt to convince legislatures and/or governors to take actions – including illegal actions – to defy the popular vote. Federal laws provide little guidance for how Congress should resolve irregularities when they convene in a Joint Session on January 6, 2021.
And third, the administrative transition process itself may be highly disrupted. Participants in our exercises of all backgrounds and ideologies suggested that the President may prioritize personal gain and self-protection over ensuring an orderly administrative handoff to his successor.
Plan for a contested election. If there is a crisis, events will unfold quickly, and sleep-deprived leaders will be asked to make consequential decisions quickly. Thinking through options now will help to ensure better decisions. Approach this as a political battle, not just a legal battle. In the event of electoral contestation, sustained political mobilization will likely be crucial for ensuring transition integrity. Dedicated staff and resources need to be in place at least through the end of January.
Focus on readiness in the states, providing political support for a complete and accurate count. Governors, Secretaries of State, Attorneys General and Legislatures can communicate and rein- force laws and norms and be ready to confront irregularities. Election officials will need political and public support to see the process through to completion.
Address the two biggest threats head on: lies about “voter fraud” and escalating violence. Voting fraud is virtually non-existent, but the President and his media supporters lie about it to create a narrative designed to politically mobilize his base and to create the basis for contesting the results should he lose. The potential for political violence is perilously high, particularly since the far right is encouraging Trump supporters to take up arms, based on false claims about planned left wing violence. Americans should call on political leaders from both parties to condemn violence and urge their supporters to commit to using only peaceful means to express their views, and legitimate media outlets should debunk disinformation and false claims.
Anticipate a rocky administrative transition if Trump is defeated. In the event of a party transition, transition teams will likely need to do two things simultaneously: defend against potential reckless actions on the way out of office; and find creative solutions to ensure landing teams are able to access the information and resources they need to begin to prepare for governing.
Volunteer as a poll worker
Anticipate that the vote count may take several days or weeks after Election Day to be completed
Call your state and national leaders demanding commitment to non-violence and rule of law.
You can see some of the news coverage of the Transition Integrity Project’s exercises here:
The Election That Could Break America The Atlantic, Sept 23, 2020
The Legal Fight Awaiting Us After the Election The New Yorker, Sept 21, 2020
Whose America Is It? The New York Times, Sept. 16, 2020
What if Trump Loses and Won’t Leave? FiveThirtyEight.com, September 14, 2020
Election Day Could Become Election Month, Los Angeles Times, September 9, 2020
Our Long, Forgotten History of Election-Related Violence, The New Yorker, Sept. 6, 2020
The Warning Signs of a Combustible Presidential Transition, The Atlantic, September 4, 2020
What’s the Worst That Could Happen? The Washington Post, September 3, 2020
Trump's Campaign of Chaos, The New York Times, August 23, 2020
What Happens if Donald Trump Fights the Election Results?, The New Yorker, August 21, 2020
How to avert a post-election nightmare, Vox, August 18, 2020
Trump Might Cheat. Activists Are Getting Ready, The New York Times, August 17, 2020
Will Pence choose partisanship over statesmanship in counting ballots?, The Hill, August 11, 2020
A Bipartisan Group Gamed Out a Contested Trump-Biden election. Now They’re Offering Recommendations, The Boston Globe, August 3, 2020
How the Media Could Get the Election Story Wrong, The New York Times, August 2, 2020
Experts Game Out What Might Happen if the Election Goes Off the Rails, NPR: All Things Considered, July 30, 2020
This ‘War Game’ Maps Out What Happens if the President Contests the Election, WBUR, July 28, 2020
Group is Quietly Planning for What Happens if Trump-Biden Election is Contested (Fox News), Fox News, July 27, 2020
Trump Could Still Break Democracy’s Biggest Norm, The Atlantic, June 16, 2020