In Depth

US election 2020: Washington insiders preparing for ‘counting chaos’ and ‘states seceding’

Experts conduct ‘war gaming’ exercises amid fears of major political upheaval following November vote

The upcoming US election may plunge the nation into a crisis in which military force is needed to help break a stalemate and states threaten to secede from the union, experts have predicted.

A series of “war gaming” exercises have been conducted in Washington to prepare for potential scenarios that could result from “counting chaos” in the wake of the vote, The Times reports. 

“Millions of Americans are expected to vote by post for the first time in November due to concerns over coronavirus,” says the newspaper.  But Donald Trump has repeatedly claimed that postal votes will lead to voter fraud - fuelling fears that the result may be contested.

What did the war games involve?

In “what became a disturbing exercise in the fragility of American democracy”, a group of political operatives, former government and military officials and academics dubbed the Transition Integrity Project “quietly convened online” in June to “game out possible results of the November election”, The Boston Globe reports.

The experts set about “grappling with questions that seem less far-fetched by the day”, the newspaper continues, including “what if President Trump refuses to concede a loss... How far could he go to preserve his power? And what if Democrats refuse to give in?”

“All of our scenarios ended in both street-level violence and political impasse,” said Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown law professor and former Defense Department official who co-organised the group.

Disunited states

According to the Financial Times (FT), two of the scenarios began with a “narrow” victory by presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden “and an inconclusive electoral college result”.

“In both cases, Mr Trump threatened to federalise the national guard to skew or shut down ballot recounts in contested states,” the newspaper reports. “Bill Barr, the US attorney-general, helped Republican legislatures certify results that contradicted their Democratic governors.”

In a seperate scenario in which Biden won the popular vote and the electoral college, the group hypothesised that Trump would only agree to leave office after being promised a blanket pardon by the incoming administration.

The experts also considered was what would happen if Biden lost the election despite winning the popular vote, as happened to Hillary Clinton in 2016. 

They concluded that Biden’s party might “not allow him to admit defeat in such circumstances”, with the Democratic candidate instead claiming that “voter suppression had swung the result”, reports The Times.

In an exercise playing out this scenario, the Democrats ended up persuading the Democratic governors of Michigan and Wisconsin, two states which supported Trump in 2016, to send Biden supporters to the electoral college.

“In the ensuing chaos, California, Oregon and Washington state said they would secede from the US if Mr Trump was sworn in,” The Times reports. “The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives asserted that Mr Biden was the true president; the Republican-controlled Senate said it was Mr Trump.”

Are such role-playing exercises really necessary?

The FT says that the Pentagon and White House has long found war games “indispensable”, while the Boston Globe reports that such role-playing exercises are a “fixture of military and national security planning”.

But experts believe pre-election preparations may prove especially helpful this year, as Trump continues to claim, without evidence, that the vote may be “rigged” in favour of Biden, The New York Times reports. 

“I think mail-in voting is going to rig the election, I really do,” the incumbent told Fox News last month. When asked if he would accept the election results, Trump replied: “I’ll have to see.”

As political tensions continue to rise, the latest “scenario exercises did not end in good places”, says war games project founder Brooks.

But she added that it is “important to note that this does not mean that there is something inevitable about chaos and constitutional crisis in the coming months - just that these particular exercises suggest that these are real possibilities”.

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