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Transcript: Into a Pivotal Election in a Wild Year

The full episode transcript for Into a Pivotal Election in a Wild Year.


Into America

Into a Pivotal Election in a Wild Year

Trymaine Lee: Summer is over. Well, not technically. But we are past Labor Day. And believe it or not, there are just 55 days between now and Election Day, 55 days until a pivotal moment in a wild year. And already, this election is shaping up to be something else. The president, let me put a point on that. The president has been floating the idea of a rigged election.

Donald Trump: The only we're gonna lose this election is if the election is rigged. Remember that. It's the only way we're gonna lose this election. So we have to be very careful. The only way they're gonna win is that way, and we can't let that happen.

Lee: He's told Fox News he may not accept the results.

Trump: I have to see. Oh, I'm not gonna just say yes. I'm not gonna say no. And I didn't last time either.

Lee: And in North Carolina earlier this month, he suggested that the way to test election security is to vote twice, once by mail and again at the polls.

Trump: Let 'em send it in and let 'em go vote. And if their system's as good as they say it is, then obviously they won't be able to vote.

Lee: Voting twice, by the way, is a crime. And encouraging people to do it may be one as well. (MUSIC) I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. We're less than two months out from Election Day 2020. With the fear of coronavirus and a president who is sowing the seeds of distrust, we're in uncharted territory here.

What could Election Day and the days after look like? It's anybody's guess. But I wanted to talk with someone who might help us envision the scenarios. So I called up my colleague, Jonathan Allen, a senior political analyst for NBC News based in Washington. Jon, good morning, man. Thank you for joining us.

Jonathan Allen: Good morning. My pleasure to be here.

Lee: All right. So we are about 55 days until the election. And if you had to place your bet, do you think we'll survive? Like, will democracy, will America, will we survive the 2020 presidential election?

Allen: The vast majority of us wills survive the election. Will democracy survive? I think the concept will survive. Will the American democratic republic look like it did the day before? (LAUGH) That's a different question. I mean, I think the probability is that it will. But, you know, if you were trying to make some sort of percentage guess, the percentage of it not looking like it did the day before seems to be going up, and the percentage of it looking like it did the day before going down.

Lee: That's a little scary. I'm not sure if I like those odds. But, you know, and not to pile on the fear, but there are a lot of real fears and concerns here. You know, what's the nightmare scenario here?

Allen: I mean, the nightmare scenario is that we don't have anyone who is clearly elected president of the United States, that there is a fight over who has power, that there is violence surrounding that by either the government itself or by people who are angry about who is claiming power, you know, then suppressed by a government.

You know, obviously that could happen in, you know, sort of quick succession, or that could be something that could be drawn out over a long period of time. And talking about those kinds of scenarios, I'm not sure which is worse, whether it's worse to have that immediately or over a long period of time. But, you know, you can see certain situations with so much mail-in balloting that it could take weeks to work this out, a month to work this out in terms of just who won.

Lee: You know, I don't know. Even with that, I'm not sure, you know, if I can remember a time where people (I guess we could go back Bush v. Gore I guess) really felt like there's a strong possibility that this election could be kind of stolen. I mean, you have the issue with the mail-in and absentee voting. You have polling places being closed. You have all of the messaging from the White House coming down. Do we have a time in recent memory where it's like, okay, things were where we are now in terms of like the real actual concern?

Allen: Certainly not in modern times. But, you know, if you go back in history, there have been, you know, sort of much more tenuous elections. In 1876, the Hayes-Tilden election in particular comes to mind. You know, Hayes was the Republican from Ohio, and he lost the popular vote to Tilden by a lot but there were four states that were sort of outstanding and there was, you know, sort of a big mix-up over what to do about that.

Congress couldn't resolve it. It took until March through a commission to basically award the presidency to the northern Republicans, to Hayes. And in exchange for that, you essentially had the end of Reconstruction. The South didn't get exactly what it wanted, but basically the agreement was to start pulling the last Northern troops out of the South in exchange for the Northern Republicans getting the presidency.

Back then, the inauguration date was March 4th. The commission that decided that, which was members of Congress and Supreme Court members, wrapped up their work on March 2nd. The point is it dragged on for quite a long time. And, you know, 12 years after the Civil War, the country was still extraordinarily divided over that. It was still a tinderbox. And they managed to make it through that.

So there is precedent for elections hanging in the air and the tinderbox not going off. I do think that most Americans value what they have to some extent. Most of them look at it and say, "You know, the quality of living in this country is better than it is anywhere else.

"Even if I'm at the bottom end, even if things aren't working out for me, even if I'm angry that my politics aren't being served, or that my community is being harmed, or whatever it is, or that I didn't get the tax break I wanted or whatever," they realize that they live in the highest quality of living in the world and may be loathe to just throw that all away. You know, I typically don't take positions on things, but my hope is that we are able to make it through whatever our next presidential election is as a united country.

Lee: There are many layers of things that could be problematic here. And I think first is mail-in ballots and absentee ballots. Do we have a sense of how many people will be voting in these ways? Do we have any sense of how folks will actually cast their ballots?

Allen: There are a lot of different projections, Trymaine. I think we're in this period, you know, whether you're talking about elections, or you're talking about vaccines, or you're talking about really anything else in society right now where each individual is making a judgment about who is it that they trust.

They're like, "Do I trust that I've put in my mail-in ballot, it's actually gonna make it from the Postal Service to the election commission and then it's actually gonna be counted and it's gonna be counted the right way? Or do I go and, you know, risk my health and show up at a polling place? And am I taking a risk if I do that?" So there are gonna be 100-plus million individual decisions on whether or not to do that. And I think it's hard to predict how people are gonna react. You know, myself, my plan is to go actually vote in person.

Lee: You're risking it at all for democracy. (LAUGH)

Allen: Well, you know, the polling location's across the street.

Lee: Yeah, my wife says she's going in no matter what. And I'm like, "I don't know about that. I don't know." But you know what? On a very basic level, if you could break down: What is the actual difference between a mail-in ballot and an absentee ballot?

Allen: The distinction that some people make is that the absentee ballot is one that you have to request. A mail-in ballot is one where everybody is sent a ballot that they could then choose to send back as designated. But in terms of how the process works for receiving, and counting, and all that, it's the same thing.

Lee: And so the mechanism of delivery, the Post Office, there's been a lot of concern about whether A) they can actually handle the capacity. And then secondly the president and many Republicans have said, "You know what? The more people who are mailing in their ballots or absentee ballots, you know, it opens it up for fraud." What can you tell us about where things stand with the Post Office and if there are still legitimate concerns of, you know, fraud?

Allen: Capacity's not really a problem for the Post Office if you look at the amount of mail that they have been able to deliver over time. I mean, we are dealing with a moment in time where the Post Office has been a little slower, coronavirus and everything. But this shouldn't really slow anything down for the Post Office and certainly not in any significant fashion.

Lee: Unless you snatch mailboxes off the streets and you eliminate sorting machines.

Allen: Right. If the government intentionally tries to make it slower as a political weapon, then, yeah, of course then that could affect the outcome. As far as additional opportunities for fraud because there are more mail-in ballots, I mean, when you scale up, the opportunity for error grows. But there's very little evidence of voter fraud in the country. And particularly mail fraud is punishable under federal law by a lot of time in prison.

I mean, how many times have you read a story or listened to someone on the news and somebody got dinged by a prosecutor for, like, this, that, and mail fraud and it was the mail fraud that carried the 10- or 20-year sentence? You do not want to play around with that. And anybody who's a political operative understands that. There's no reason to think that it would be a problem.

Lee: After the break, Jon and I talk more about what to expect leading up to and after November 3rd. We'll be right back.

Lee: We're back with Jon Allen. So do we have a sense of when all those mail-in and absentee ballots would be counted? And do you think that, you know, we would know any of the results before Election Day?

Allen: Well, we won't know before Election Day. It'll take some time to count the mail-in ballots. I think there's some chance that we'll know on election night. I mean, we do get exit polling. We'll have some sense of the proportionality of mail-in versus people coming to the polls in various places.

There will be some extrapolation. Some races will be called on election night. If one of the two candidates for president is, you know, really sort of breaking ahead at the end, it's possible there would be a call. But it's also very possible that we won't know for a few days, a week.

The thing that sticks out in my mind is the California Democratic primary, which a lot of news services, including NBC News, didn't call for about a week after the primary even though Bernie Sanders had a pretty big lead. And that's because you had to wait and see where all these mail-in ballots had stacked up in terms of various candidates because you don't know who someone voted for until you actually open the ballot.

Lee: The president is saying, "Hey, vote twice," right? "Vote by mail. And then, you know, just go in."

Allen: You can't vote twice. I mean, it's against the law everywhere. It's against the principles. One man, one vote. You are diluting the votes of other people. I mean, that's another position I'm happy to take for all the listeners. Don't vote twice.

Lee: Say if someone goes in or they mail in their ballot and then they change their mind, change their heart, or they just want to make sure that their vote is counted and so they go into a polling place, is there any mechanism, you know, with poll workers to identify people who have already voted? How will those votes be counted? Like, what happens in that scenario? Because there's never a circumstance where that is allowed, right? So what happens?

Allen: Generally speaking, what happens is that the local officials are able to check against a roster of, like, who has mailed in ballots if those ballots have been received already by Election Day. But if they haven't been received already, they won't know. And so it is set up for, you know, the potential for, you know, mistakes, for people who forgot that they mailed it in, or just wanted to make sure, or by golly listened to the advice of the president of the United States.

Lee: I wouldn't want to put you in a position to have to get into the president's head, right? I don't want to do that. But I want you to walk down this road with me for a second. Is there a possibility that the president is urging folks to vote twice knowing that it might muck up the system, right?

Knowing that it would just throw enough chaos, enough wrenches into all the different cogs of the machines of democracy that it would just throw it in question? Because now you have all of these jurisdictions trying to figure out, like, who voted when, they voted twice. "We didn't get the absentee ballot by the time they voted again." Is there a chance that this is just an effort to again throw discord into the system and muck it up as much as possible?

Allen: Well, in general, the president courts chaos. And so, you know, I mean, I certainly wouldn't put that out of the realm of possibility. He has said, as you pointed out before, that either he wins or the system was rigged. I suspect that he would put some sort of chaotic voting into the "rigged" bucket.

I mean, it resonates well with his base because there is a degree to which Trump winning is the only acceptable outcome. And there doesn't appear to be like a whole lot of concern about how that happens. And that construct really, you know, it's kind of an amazing one to say out there publicly, "If I didn't win, the election was rigged. There's only two possibilities. There's no fair way that I could lose an election."

Lee: How do you go about challenging the results? Say if Donald Trump loses or he wins, how does Joe Biden or Donald Trump challenge the process? And then if we don't know and we're getting closer to the inauguration day, is Nancy Pelosi now the leader of the free world? Like, how does this work?

Allen: The Constitution basically says that there has to be a new president on January 20th. So you have to figure it out before then. There can be legal challenges. We saw that in 2000. This is a state-by-state process. So what were the results in a particular state? And the legal challenges would depend on what outcomes occurred or didn't occur, what votes were counted or didn't count.

I think we saw a lot of prelude to some of these fights actually in the 2018 midterms. There were a lotta lawsuits filed in Florida around the governor's and Senate races. So you've got the legal element to it there. If you were to have nobody with a majority of electoral votes, so if for some reason a state got thrown out, or two states got thrown out, or there was a 269-269 tie, the election's thrown to the House of Representatives.

Each state then gets one vote. And so they go through that process. And so the delegation has to, like, try to decide on who they vote for. It's relatively close. And that could be decided by what happens in the House Races this year. But the president could be decided by that. I mean, Trymaine, it could get ugly.

Lee: In a contested election, you know, what are the stakes for America, you know, and for democracy itself?

Allen: You know, it's interesting. What we saw in 2000 was a contested election where you saw Al Gore, who ended up losing that election, basically say, "The country's more important than the fight here." And I think Democrats were angry at him about that. And the consequences of that were big, right? I don't think anybody thinks Al Gore would have gone into Iraq. Al Gore probably wouldn't have done the George W. Bush tax cut.

And yet, you know, that sort of attitude I think for a long time prevailed. "The country is more important than the partisanship." I don't know that we're there right now. I suspect that we're a lot further from that point than we were in 2000, that if there is a contested presidential election, that, again, the odds of chaos have gone up and the odds of calm have gone down.

Lee: You know, you said it in the very beginning, that what happens after Election Day we might look drastically different. How serious is that? I mean, will the America that many people hold dear be drastically different from that chaos that the president is also fomenting?

Allen: So we already are in a place where our government looks much different than it ever did before and our democracy looks much different than it ever did before. You have to look at what the president has done to see potential differences. He uses executive power in ways that other presidents have only imagined in modern times.

I shouldn't say, you know, in the history of the country because there have been presidents that have done, you know, really exaggerated things with executive power in times of crisis. The president does those things in normal times, before COVID. And he does them all at once. And so you've seen this power of the executive really grow under him.

And in part, it's the actions. In part, it's taking money Congress has appropriated and rerouting it, you know, for whatever he wants. In part, it's, you know, the deployment of federal forces to break up peaceful protests in Washington, D.C. as he's talking about the value of peaceful protests in the Rose Garden and, you know, they're shooting flash bangs and rubber bullets and tear gas at people. In part, it's holding up congressional funds so he can try to get Ukraine to investigate his political opponent. And if President Trump is reelected by a small margin, I think the tension over that's gonna be huge.

Lee: Jon Allen, let's hope our better democratic angels emerge and the republic is saved and stable. We really do appreciate it. Thank you very much.

Allen: Thanks, Trymaine.

Lee: That was Jon Allen, a senior political analyst for NBC News. He's based in Washington, D.C. Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Special help this week from Bryson Barnes. Original music is by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio. And I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back tomorrow.