A Citizen’s Guide to Defending the Election

A citizen’s guide to defending democracy

In normal times, Americans don’t think much about democracy. Our Constitution, with its guarantees of free press, speech, and assembly, was written more than two centuries ago. Our electoral system has never failed, not during two world wars, not even during the Civil War. Citizenship requires very little of us, only that we show up to vote occasionally. Many of us are so complacent that we don’t bother. Nearly 40 percent of eligible voters failed to participate in the 2016 presidential election; nearly half stayed home for the midterm election two years later. We treat democracy like clean water, something that just comes out of the tap, something we exert no effort to procure.

But these are not normal times. The warning signs are multiplying: If President Donald Trump gets his way, the presidential election on November 3 will not be free and fair. My Atlantic colleague Barton Gellman has laid out an entirely plausible scenario, one in which Trump challenges the validity of mail-in ballots and persuades state legislatures to overrule them, imposing an undemocratic result. He reports that Republican Party officials are preparing for this outcome.

Trump himself is preparing for this outcome. “We’re going to have to see what happens,” he replied when asked whether he would accept the result if he loses. Unembarrassed, he has told us what he intends to do: “Get rid of the ballots,” he said—the mail-in ballots, that is—and there “won’t be a transfer [of power], frankly. There will be a continuation.” During his first debate with Joe Biden last week he did it again: “This is going to be a fraud like you’ve never seen,” he said, casting doubt on the whole process. We know why he is so motivated to remain in office: If Trump loses the election, he will spend the rest of his life fighting off investigations, lawsuits, creditors, and tax audits that a sitting president can put off or dismiss altogether.

[David Litt: The U.S. is facing the possibility of a truly illegitimate election]

He will not be stopped by norms. He has made that clear. He may not necessarily be stopped by the Electoral College. But that doesn’t mean citizens have no leverage. I’ve spent a lot of my life writing about civil society, democracy, and autocracy, and across time zones, over decades, only one lesson is consistent: Civic engagement matters. To put it differently: Instead of treating democracy like tap water, Americans must start fetching it from the well, carrying it home, and boiling it before drinking. If you care about the result, you might have to do more than vote—and you have to do it now. The more you can do before November 3, the smaller the chance of chaos afterwards.

But do what, exactly? I asked some experts for suggestions, and collected the most nonpartisan responses I could find. Pessimism is irresponsible. Nihilism is immoral. Here’s what you can do to protect our democracy from now until November 3 and beyond.

Help Out on Voting Day—In Person

First and foremost: Register to vote, and make sure everyone you know has done so too, especially students who have recently changed residence. The website howto.vote has a list of the rules in all 50 states, in English and Spanish, if you have any doubts.

After that, vote. Vote in person if you can. Wear a mask, stay six feet away from everyone else, and wash your hands when you get home. But because the specific threat is to mail-in and absentee ballots, go to a polling station if at all possible. Vote early if you can too: Here is a list of early-voting rules for each state. If you experience any intimidation, here is a fact sheet with instructions on who to call and what to do.

Consider working at a polling station. Many localities anticipate a record shortage of poll workers this year because of the coronavirus. Why not sign up to be one? Some jurisdictions will pay you for your time. All of them will—or should—provide personal protective equipment. To find out how to help, you can call your local board of elections. Or you can get the information from PowerThePolls.org, a website that will send you to the right place, wherever you live. The site also provides information on what it takes to do the job and why it matters.

[Nathaniel Persily and Charles Stewart III: The looming threat to voting in person]

If you don’t want to be a poll worker, or can’t be a poll worker, but do have a car, then consider driving people to the voting booth so that they can vote in person too. Some local political parties are organizing this kind of outreach. Find your local group by calling the offices of local politicians, members of Congress, state legislators, and city councillors. Ask them which groups they recommend. The organizers of these efforts are well aware of the pandemic. “Sit only in the backseat passenger side for maximum distance,” a Texas-based ride-share website urges Democratic voters hitching a ride to the polls. “Expect windows to be left down for maximum airflow.”

Nonpartisan groups drive people to polling stations too. To offer heavily discounted rides to the polls, the ride-hailing company Lyft is working with a number of organizations, including the League of Women Voters, National Federation of the Blind, Student Veterans of America, National Urban League, and the Voto Latino Foundation. Contact any of them for advice about your location. Also try local religious congregations. Many of them organize rides to the polls.

Smaller gestures are needed too. Think about bringing bottled water and snacks for people who are standing in line to vote, especially in neighborhoods known to have a shortage of polling booths. If you see a long line, or if you find yourself standing in one, report it to Polls.pizza and they’ll send over some free pizza to cheer everyone up.

Help Out From Home on Election Day

If you don’t want to leave home—maybe you are in a group at high risk for the coronavirus, maybe you have small children—then by all means, vote from home. Do it as early as possible: I live abroad, and I’ve already done it. The ACLU has compiled state-specific instructions for how to vote by mail. Remind your friends and relatives to vote too, perhaps using the VoteWithMe app, if you want to automate the process and don’t mind sharing your contacts.

If you have the time to do more, consider manning a phone bank or helping staff voter-assistance hotlines, before, during, or after Election Day, especially if you live in a battleground state: You can help voters solve problems, help answer questions, make people understand all the forms needed to file an absentee ballot. If you want to campaign for a particular party or candidate, locally or nationally, the political parties can also use volunteers: They will be calling and speaking with voters constantly between now and November 3. If you don’t want to be part of a partisan campaign, some nonpartisan groups run voter-assistance lines too.

The most crucial states are Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, both battleground states that will not allow any early ballots to be counted before Election Day—meaning that full results in those two states are likely to be late, and are likely to be challenged. People need to be absolutely sure that they are voting correctly if they want to be counted. The state of Pennsylvania has set up an Election Day hotline for voters to inquire about their registration status, report complaints, and find polling places. The ACLU has a list of voter hotlines and volunteer opportunities in Pennsylvania. The list for Wisconsin is here.

[Read: Wisconsin’s warning for the November election]

And if you don’t live in a battleground state, you can adopt one. In a year when everything is virtual anyway, you can volunteer virtually in Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, or Wisconsin by registering on VoteSaveAmerica.com. Similarly,  Stand Up Republic is recruiting volunteers who can contact voters in swing states by text, phone, or even ordinary mail, remind them to vote, and answer any questions about the voting process. The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law is also running hotlines and seeking volunteers to help people who are having trouble voting or fear that their rights have been violated.

Join Something Now

The good news is that a lot of people have been thinking through the scenarios for Election Day and are preparing the ground for a legal battle. Some of them, of course, are political parties—and being part of one never hurts if you want to vote in primaries or have some say in local politics. But there are also multiple nonpartisan groups to join and to support. Many of them will be organizing online and offline events on and around November 3. If you join their email and newsletter lists or follow them on social media, you can find out what they are doing. They can also sort through the media cacophony and help you think about what you can do in your community. Better to do this now, rather than wait until the moment when the election is disputed: If no winner is evident by November 4, you don’t want to be clicking around to figure out which groups to join or which websites have the best information.

Definitely have a close look at Protect Democracy, a nonpartisan organization that has already launched successful lawsuits to secure voting rights in several states. (I am an adviser to this group.) It sponsors a huge range of initiatives to make sure that the post office is functioning, that polls are open, and that voters can vote. Its lawyers are already planning for postelection scenarios. The Campaign Legal Center is doing similar work, and also offers training videos for people who want to become more engaged in voting-rights advocacy in their communities. The Brennan Center for Justice, based at New York University, researches and promotes concrete policy proposals to improve democracy, and puts on public events to discuss them. Its lawyers and experts will definitely be prepared for any attempts to steal the election. The nonpartisan Renew Democracy Initiative (I am on its board) is also producing videos and other material designed to help all of us make sense of current events.

For those who lean Democratic, Democracy Docket also offers a wealth of advice, suggestions, and information. For those who lean Republican, Republicans for the Rule of Law will keep you informed in the event of an attempt to steal the election. The conservative Lincoln Project, aside from producing its now-infamous campaign videos, also publishes podcasts, sponsors conversations, and hosts online events.  

Talk With People

If a major democratic breakdown occurs after November 3, and if that breakdown is accompanied by either right- or left-wing protesters and political violence, then you will need a way to speak with friends and neighbors about it. More in Common, a research group that specializes in the analysis of political polarization, has just published some suggestions, based on empirical research, about how to talk with people who disagree with you about politics, as well as those who are cynical and apathetic. Here are three dos and three don’ts:

  • Do talk about local issues: Americans are bitterly polarized over national issues, but have much higher levels of trust in their state and local officials.
  • Do talk about what your state and local leaders are doing to ensure a safe election.
  • Do emphasize our shared values—the large majority of Americans still feel that democracy is preferable to all other forms of government—and our historical ability to deliver safe and fair elections, even in times of warfare and social strife.
  • Don’t, by contrast, dismiss people’s concerns about election irregularities out of hand. Trump and his allies have repeatedly raised the specter of widespread voter fraud in favor of Democrats. Despite a lack of evidence for this notion, many people may sincerely believe that this kind of electoral cheating is real.
  • Don’t rely on statistics to make your case, because people aren’t convinced by them; talk, instead, about what actions are being taken to protect the integrity of the vote.
  • Finally, don’t inadvertently undermine democracy further: Emphasize the strength of the American people, our ability to stand up to those who assault democracy. Offer people a course of action, not despair.

[Read: The art of navigating a family political discussion, peacefully]

And if you want more engagement with people whose views differ from yours, join Braver Angels, which seeks to end polarization by organizing meetings between “red” and “blue” Americans all over the country. On the group’s website, you can take a pledge to “understand the concerns and aspirations of those who voted differently” and “look for opportunities to work with people with whom I disagree.”

As a Last Resort, Protest

I am writing “as a last resort” because protest is what you do when everything else has  failed, and a lot of institutions will have to fail before filling the streets becomes the only option. America is not, after all, Belarus. We have courts, political representatives, free media, hundreds of organizations like the ones listed above. But just in case things go wrong: It’s better to protest in a coordinated, nonviolent manner. It’s better to protest in groups. Follow the communications of just about any of the organizations listed above to find out what they are doing. Talk with friends and neighbors. A large and growing bipartisan coalition called Protect the Results is also planning to organize nationwide events, if necessary: You can sign up now to be on the mailing list. Remember that the point of a protest is to gain supporters—to win others over to your cause. Large, peaceful gatherings are far more moving and convincing than small, disruptive ones. Violence wins you enemies, not friends.

You can always do something. The U.S. is full of people who are hard at work protecting all of our rights. This is the time to find them, support them, and be one of them.

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