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What You Need to Know in Case of a Contested Election

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Nicole McMath wears a shirt that she made which says ‘Count Every Vote’ at a rally in Oakland on Nov. 4, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

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If you’ve got election anxiety, there’s probably a simple explanation: the sheer volume of distrust and disinformation floating around the entire democratic process. The current president has refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power, lambasted the Supreme Court for allowing ballots to be counted past Election Day, and, as promised, sent lawyers to undecided states on election night, claiming that he had won the election and that the process is tainted with “illegal votes” and “fraud.” It’s destabilizing, doomscrolling fuel that’s probably made you feel helpless.

The reality is that there are things you can do. Challenges to U.S. democracy on this grand a scale are rare, but they are not new. And numerous resources and guides to defending democracy have already been published to inform citizens of legal, common-sense options in the case of a disputed election or an organized effort to stop the counting of ballots.

Practice Patience and Calm

In the New York Times, Laura Rosenberger explains that counting all of the ballots in certain states could take days, if not weeks. And yet despite the rising panic you may feel, 2020 “could be the most secure election the United States has ever known” due to the strong paper trail of mail-in ballots. Fraud in those mail-in ballots is virtually nonexistent, argues Rosenberger. The director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy, Rosenberger also points to a project by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency to debunk rumors and hearsay about the election. Read it here.

Don’t Spread Misinformation

These helpful tips published by the Election Coverage and Democracy Network are meant for journalists, but they apply to anyone with a social media account. Misinformation only spreads if it is amplified, and the guide urges ignoring unfounded claims and unproven allegations. Know that the outcome of the election may be unclear for a while, remember that social media always gives a megaphone to the most extreme voices, and “always bear in mind that repeating a false claim, even if to fact-check it, risks increasing the likelihood that your audiences will think it is true.” Read it here.

Be Prepared for the Worst, Just in Case

In Politico, Garrett M. Graff talks with election experts about various post-election scenarios, ranging from moderate confusion to utter chaos. Possibilities such as intimidation by armed militias, Justice Department intervention, Supreme Court challenges and vote suppression are explored, all with an eye to awareness and preparation. Not to induce hysteria, the election experts also predict that come Jan. 20, 2021, the country will swear in its rightfully elected president. Read it here.

Get in the Streets if Necessary

If it becomes apparent that some states have prematurely stopped counting votes or declares an illegitimate winner, Daniel Hunter argues, citizens should call it a coup, and then march in the streets. Hunter offers a practical, non-panic-inducing guide to marching legally in the streets, complete with examples throughout history of coup attempts thwarted by swift, nonviolent response. “Historically, whichever side resorts to violence the most tends to lose,” he writes. Read it here.

Don’t Go It Alone

In any period of unrest, it’s best to know who your network is. The group Protect the Vote is planning actions around the country to help ensure a full, accurate ballot count. You can find your local actions on their map, as well as guidance for managing your safety, first-amendment rights and de-escalation in their online toolkit. Read it here.

And Finally: Stay the Course

Most scenario planning for a contested election extends a week or two past Election Day. In their guide to defending democracy, the group Hold the Line looks ahead all the way to Inauguration Day, and the possibilities that could play out over the next two and a half months while both state and federal authorities certify the results. The steps offered for forming local coalitions and enacting nonviolent civil resistance are incredibly detailed, and easy to absorb for the first-time activist. It may be the most comprehensive guide of its kind to date. Read it here.



This story has been updated.

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