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Four out of Five Electoral Experts are Concerned about a Peaceful Transfer of Power

By Romelia M. Solano, Paul Friesen, Ilana Rothkopf, Luis Schenoni, and Maggie Shum

During the Vice Presidential Debate on October 7, when Pence was asked what his role would be if Biden won the election and Trump refused a peaceful transfer of power, many of us held our breaths. In the end, Pence evaded the question, leading multiple media outlets to raise concerns about the President’s acceptance of the rules of the game and rejection of political violence. The following week on October 13, Supreme Court nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett similarly evaded the question during confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The findings of our Comparative Assessment of Electoral Risks (CAER) project suggest that we cannot afford to overlook these political moments. On the contrary, our survey of electoral experts indicates that a scenario where Trump rejects the results is more likely than not, leading to high levels of unrest and a possible institutional crisis.

How Experts Assessed U.S. Electoral Risks

In September we asked 150 members of the American Political Science Association specializing in elections about 22 possible scenarios highlighted by the press, in the weeks leading up to and following November 3rd. About 44 percent of our respondents study U.S. elections, 24 percent study elections in other countries, and 28 percent study elections in both the U.S. and other contexts.

Our larger questionnaire addressed pre-electoral, electoral, and post-electoral challenges. It asked respondents to rank electoral risks according to their likelihood of occurring and their impact on the legitimacy of the election on a scale from 0 to 10. These ratings were combined to create a general assessment of concern. To assess likely outcomes in the post-election period, we constructed a “path selection game,” as we explain below.

Overall, our results point to a climate of increasing tension surrounding the election. Interestingly, a number of scenarios previously viewed as alarmist in the U.S. context, such as the near death of a candidate and an onslaught of voter suppression tactics, have occurred in the weeks since the survey closed. But most important for this discussion, a preponderance of respondents were highly concerned about a peaceful transfer of power. Experts ranked the Trump administration as highly likely to reject the results of the election in the event of a Biden win. In fully 80 percent of scenarios, experts predicted Trump would reject the results, regardless of whether Biden’s victory margin was wide or narrow!

Before Vote Counts Are Announced: Top 10 Concerning Scenarios

Throughout voting and the vote tabulation period, respondents ranked the ten “most concerning” scenarios (which we calculated as likelihood*impact), as we show in the table below. Of these concerns, reductions in polling stations and drop-off sites were seen as both likely to occur and highly damaging to democracy. And though respondents ranked the seizure of mail in ballots by the DOJ as slightly less likely to occur than other top concerns, such action was seen as one of the most damaging scenarios that could unfold.



Accordingly, experts urged forbearance among the parties and responsible reporting among the press to deescalate partisan conflict. Further, experts recommended proactive planning by local and state public officials and law enforcement to protect the safety of all involved. They deemed this particularly important in light of growing distrust and demonstrations condemning police killings of Black individuals.

The Post-Electoral Phase: When Things Get Ugly

To study the post-election period we developed a path selection tool that prompts respondents with a possible event and then asks them to rank the likelihood of the event occuring, which is then applied to a virtual dice roll. This process was repeated until they reached the path’s end, where respondents were asked on a scale of 0 to 10 “to what degree would the US electoral and democracy systems be fundamentally damaged?” Thus, we were able to gather a sense of the likelihood of different paths and compare how damaging various paths were to American democracy.

Our findings depict a grim vision of the post-election period. Notably, in the event of a Biden win, our respondents viewed President Trump as likely to formally reject the electoral outcome about 80 percent of the time. Stunningly, in over 50 percent of all Trump loss scenarios, the President refused to concede whether or not a legal challenge occurs, resulting in the prospect of unprecedented extra-institutional actions being required to resolve the crisis.

A Trump victory does not offer reprieve. Mass protests were viewed as twice as likely, and subsequent violence as three times as likely in the event of a Biden loss as compared to a Biden win. Our analysis of expert opinion coupled with Trump’s track record of employing state violence and emboldening violent non-state actors, elevates the risk of state repression in the post-electoral phase.

However, not all news was bad. While experts were concerned about a peaceful transition, they also identified several factors in favor of U.S. democracy, among them the general independence and professionalization of the military and court system relative to other backsliding regimes. Our experts identify elites in the incumbent’s party as best positioned to constrain the president. This is consistent with the argument that democratic backsliding is driven by the erosion of democratic norms from within the parties (Levitsky and Ziblatt 2018). In sum, CAER’s findings suggest that social upheaval and violence are not inevitable, they can be reduced if we hold leaders accountable for respecting democratic norms.

Romelia M. Solano

Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Political Science, University of Notre Dame

Paul Friesen

Ph.D Candidate, Department of Political Science, University of Notre Dame

Ilana Rothkopf

Ph.D Candidate, Department of Political Science, University of Notre Dame

Luis Schenoni

Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Universität Konstanz

Maggie Shum

Postdoctoral Research Associate, Keough School

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