Trump’s Desperate Assault on American Democracy

President Donald Trump’s refusal to concede defeat and allow an orderly transition doesn’t violate our Constitution, as his Republican allies have pointed out. But it does violate unwritten norms that have attained a quasi-constitutional status in American elections. His defiance is dangerous. Even without violating the letter of the law, Trump’s resistance has the capacity to undercut the democratic legitimacy of this election, and the election process as a whole.

From the standpoint of the Constitution (the 12th Amendment, if you’re following along at home), the transition to a new president doesn’t officially begin until the states send their slates of electors to be opened in the presence of the vice president and both houses of Congress. Once those electoral college votes are counted, the candidate who gets a majority “shall be the president.” This election cycle, the electors are supposed to vote in their states on December 14, 2020. Congress is supposed to meet in joint session to count the votes on January 6, 2021.

In fact, the modern practice of peacefully transferring power operates quite differently. Concession is usually triggered by a custom that appears nowhere in the Constitution, namely the decision desks of the TV networks and newspapers calling the election for the candidate who amasses an unbeatable lead. That custom has developed into a quasi-constitutional norm, one that has been repeatedly followed for many election cycles.

There is even a federal statute that arguably relies upon this norm without expressly mentioning it. The law that governs transitions says that the transition begins when the director of the General Services Administration “ascertains” the “apparent” winner of the election and issues a letter saying so, triggering the statute’s transition provisions. The statute doesn’t give the director of the GSA any guidance on how to ascertain the apparent winner, perhaps because the drafters of the statute — and those who have applied it — think it’s obvious: The winner is apparent by the consensus of the networks and newspapers, and the subsequent concession of the loser.