Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University, and the author, most recently, of
The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, (OUP) and
Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents: George Washington to Barack Obama . His other books include: Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady and Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s. He is a member of the advisory board of HNN. His website is giltroy.com. His next book “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism” will be published this fall by Oxford University Press.
Let's Make Sure this Natural Disaster Doesn't Become a Political Disaster
Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
As Hurricane Sandy pounds the East Coast, endangering as many as 60 million Americans, just days before Election Day, it is reasonable to worry about possible disruptions next Tuesday. States have a responsibility to protect their citizens, while democracies have a responsibility to hold fair elections. And especially after such a high stakes campaign, every voter who wishes to vote should be able to cast a ballot safely and comfortably. L.V. Anderson on Slate offers a thoughtful overview of the legal issues involved if areas are out of power, roads are blocked or polling stations are inaccessible. I hope, however, that Election Day goes off smoothly, with no postponements, no disruptions -- as it did in 1864 during the Civil War, as it did in 1944, during World War II.
The thicket of state and country regulations -- and the relative irrelevance of the federal government here -- reminds us that these are 50 state-by-state elections, thanks to the Electoral College. True, presidents have wide emergency powers, and Congress could enact an emergency law, but any decision about extending polling hours, postponing Election Day, or other improvisations will most probably be made by governors, state judges, secretaries of state, or even county election officials.
I wish I could say that I and my fellow Americans have total faith in the probity and professionalism of these civic leaders, and that I and my fellow Americans would trust that only health and safety issues will be at play. However, especially since the 2000 electoral deadlock, we have an epidemic of mistrust in America -- and, I regret to say, many political and judicial leaders who have earned that mistrust fair and square.
Legitimacy is one of the most precious assets a democracy can enjoy. I have long marveled at the speed with which Americans have gone and still go from fighting vigorously during an election, and then accepting the people’s verdict. In the nineteenth century there were actual reconciliation rituals, parades, special election cakes, to mark the shift from fighting for power to legitimizing the new powers. To me, the most powerful recent legitimizing tableau we witnessed was the scene of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Bill Clinton and Al Gore, all playing their parts magnificently in the 2000 inauguration, just weeks after the sloppy Supreme Court ending to the 2000 campaign.
I fear that this natural disaster could easily turn into a political disaster. I fear a wave of Election Day improvisations and accommodations will lead to a tsunami of recriminations and lawsuits. So my plea to state and country officials is: when in doubt, tough it out -- let Election Day proceed as normally as possible. Just as our juries are only supposed to convict when the evidence is overwhelming, electoral officials should only make changes when the need to is compelling. And just as I hope that partisans on the day after Election Day accept the overall decision without crying foul, I hope that partisans on the day after Election Day will not feel compelled to doubt any changes made due to the chaos wreaked by Sandy.