The Kentucky primary election is still too close to call. A landslide of mail-in ballots are going to need to be counted, and that’s going to take time. Understandably, many voters were reluctant to head to the voting booths in the middle of a pandemic. But many weren’t, and the lines outside polling places became a story, as they did in Georgia, and as they did in Wisconsin, and as they also did right here in New York City. Whether the White House succeeds in torpedoing the postal service or not, universal mail-in balloting isn’t going to be implemented before the general election in November. By then, a second wave of coronavirus may well be cresting, right in time to coincide with flu season. Expect fear, waits, confusion; expect a long count and, maybe, an indeterminate outcome.
We might also anticipate a legitimacy crisis. Decisions such as Bush vs. Gore have placed an asterisk next to the results of certain general elections. But I don’t think I have ever seen the country as unready to accept an electoral result as we are right now. No matter who wins, it’s a lock that millions of people will refuse to believe that the result was reached fairly. The President is already telling his followers that mail-in voting is some sort of conspiracy against him. Meanwhile, a not-insubstantial percentage of Democrats are already convinced that Trump is a Russian plant, and that his foreign creditors will intervene and throw the election his way. If Trump ekes out a narrow victory, those long lines at the polling places will be viewed as indicative of Republican electoral shenanigans, just as Biden’s wins in the primaries were often attributed to voter suppression. Should Biden prevail, you can expect to hear from the White House about busloads of immigrants, and the crooked media, and deep fakes, and general fraud, and an entire litany of finger-pointing excuses meant to undermine public faith in the system. If the final count is in question, as it may well be, we’re likely to be rudderless for awhile. Nobody is going to know for sure who’ll form the next government, so promises and suggestions made by politicians will be effectively meaningless.
It’s tempting to think that there’d be something salutary about this result. Our politicians haven’t been serving us too well, so there’s no harm in seeing them all discredited, right? History tells us otherwise. Legitimacy crises tend to consolidate the power of entrenched authorities, who are able to step into the vacuum created in the absence of the public’s imprimatur. Should we convince ourselves that elections are meaningless, and it’s all rigged anyway — and buddy, we’re almost there — we surrender one of the few tools we have. This is why certain unscrupulous politicians won’t take obvious measures to make voting easier, even in the midst of a health emergency that threatens to make it more difficult. They don’t fear a legitimacy crisis, because they believe they can exploit one to their advantage. They’re probably right.
Consider the consequences of the centennial election of 1876. Samuel Tilden, the governor of New York, reasonably believed he’d become the first Democrat to be elected President in two decades. He’d won more than fifty per cent of the popular vote, and, with three states to count, he was within one electoral vote of clinching the victory. All he had to do was win one of three states in the Deep South — states bordered by other states that he’d already won. To put it another way, Rutherford B. Hayes, his opponent, needed every electoral vote in every ambiguous state in order to usher in a Republican successor to the second Grant Administration. The Republicans cried voter suppression, and accused the Redshirts and the Klan of intimidating freedmen voters, which was surely accurate, but not something the Democrats were going to accept. The electoral commission established to examine the votes in disputed areas consisted of eight Republicans and seven Democrats, and in a foreshadowing of the party line machinations of Bush vs. Gore, they voted 8-7, over and over, in favor of Hayes. By a single electoral vote, they named him the nineteenth President of the United States.
This kicked off one of the nastiest legitimacy crises in American history. Democrats felt swindled out of the Presidency and refused to accept Hayes as the winner; they called him “Rutherfraud”, demonstrating that coinage of mean nicknames for politicians is not a 21st Century phenomenon alone. The blood had barely dried on the Civil War battlefields. Republicans had no taste for a renewed insurrection. So the representatives of the kind of interests that always seem to take the lead during a legitimacy crisis worked out a compromise. Hayes and the Republicans would get the White House. In exchange, Reconstruction would end. The remaining Yankee troops would pull out of Dixie and segregationist state governments would be allowed to treat freedmen however they saw fit to treat them: horribly, usually. Many of the discriminatory measures enabled by the Compromise of 1877 would remain in place until the 1960s.
A terrible irony of this: Rutherford B. Hayes was a decent person. He made his name in Cincinnati as an abolitionist lawyer who defended runaway slaves in court. During the Civil War, he served as a field officer, and he took a Confederate bullet at South Mountain during the invasion of Maryland that culminated in the Battle of Antietam. Grant commended him for his gallantry and bravery, and he was brevetted to the rank of major general. He campaigned for equal rights at a time when it wasn’t always easy to do so, and in a place (Southern Ohio) where the Copperhead movement was strong. It’s a shame that he’s associated with the rollback of Reconstruction measures meant to integrate America, but then Hayes wasn’t driving the train. He came to office at a moment when trust in government was in the gutter, and that severely compromised his latitude for action. He wasn’t an expression of public will, or the people’s voice, because he couldn’t be. He lacked the democratic authority that comes from the result of a true plebiscite. All he could do was stand by while powerful people — institutional party leaders, industrialists, white supremacists, etcetera — struck a noxious private deal on behalf of their own interests. That deal was ostensibly made on his behalf, but really, it cut him out. That’s what happens during a legitimacy crisis, and it’s what I expect will happen in November unless we can recover some of our faith in the systems we’ve designed to divine popular sentiment. The lesson is the same as it was in 1876: when we don’t believe our elections are on the level, that benefits those who’d prefer that we didn’t have elections at all.