We’re now less than one year away from voting for the next President. If that doesn’t send a shudder down your spine, you are more resolute than I.
The odds of an undisputed election seem fairly low. If you think what happened three years ago is the worst that can happen, then I’m afraid you’re not imaginative enough.
2020 was at most a two standard deviation event. In other words, it should happen about once every 20 elections. If you look over history, we’ve had three disputed elections (1824, 1876, 2000). That’s one in twenty (2024 will be the 60th US election).
In addition to these three, you have had two other elections where the loser believed they were cheated (1960, 2020). If you include these as unclear outcomes, we’re well within two standard deviations.
The good thing about the American version of democracy is it is more than strong enough to handle two standard deviation events. The Republic was never in peril due to any of these past elections.
The fears of some that Trump would be the end of democracy were firmly rebuffed. Our culture and legal system are strong enough to prevent a potential strongman from taking over.
However, while our Constitution is well prepared for two standard deviation events, it is not impervious. Next year’s election could well be a true test of a tail like event.
The 1 in 250 Election
So what would a true 1 in 100 or 1 in 250 event look like? And would we still have a democracy at the end of it?
Here are some thoughts on potential dire outcomes of the 2024 election. I’ll let the reader judge how likely an outcome they are, but they are clearly not priced into markets.
Worse, they are not something you can really hedge unless you’re going to renounce your citizenship and move abroad.
And just to make sure we have our insurance bases covered, in these extreme scenarios, political violence, riot, and even war covers could be at risk.
President in Prison
This hopefully is a 1 in 100 or more! However, there is a reasonable chance Trump can win the election and be sent to prison for any of the outstanding lawsuits.
If this happens, he is still allowed to serve as President. Nothing in the constitution prevents a prisoner from being President or from running for office.
While this would be an absurd outcome, it is actually not that high on my panic scale. The government would function and there would not be anarchy.
Presidential Self Pardon
Of course, one way for a President to avoid governing from prison is to pardon himself as a “get out of jail free” card.
There is some debate about whether this would be allowed, but I think most experts suggest it is not banned, and thus would be permitted.
This is more likely to lead to chaos, because of the perceived abuse of power. There would certainly be mass protests, impeachment hearings, Congressional gridlock, etc. but it’s probably closer to a Nixon event than the end of democracy.
Third Party Gridlock
If ever there were a year where the public could support a third party candidate, 2024 would seem to be it. The problem with third parties is they can cause Electoral College chaos.
They only have to win a few states to keep either of the other parties from getting to 270 electoral votes. In this case, the election would go to the House.
Since Republicans control the House, you might think that guarantees a Republican victory. Or that a few rebel Republicans can tip the scales. But that’s not quite how it works.
Votes are held by state. In the 2020 election, 26 states (DC included) electoral votes went to Biden and 25 to Trump.
But members of the House don’t have to vote in accordance with the electoral result. Currently, 23 states have more Democrats in the House than Republicans, 26 have more Republicans, and one is a tie so a party line vote would go Republican.
However, eight of those states have just a one member advantage. That matters if the third party convinces a few of them to vote its way.
In other words, a vote that goes to the House may not produce a clear winner. It is unknown what happens if the House is tied and can’t find a compromise.
That’s our first 1 in 250 outcome. If you write political violence in the US, you may want to stop before next November if a third party gains real traction.
Even in a two party race, there is no guarantee of a winner. Besides the possibility of a 269-269 tie, there is the risk of faithless electors.
This is when an Electoral College voter does not vote the will of the people in his or her state. This has happened infrequently over the years, but never at the scale to change an election.
But if there were ever a year for faithless electors to emerge as a threat, would 2024 not be it? Can you not imagine electors from swing states choosing not to honor the election results and voting instead for their favored candidate?
While there are some rules to prevent faithless electors, they are weak and not prevented by the Constitution.
So there’s our second 1 in 250. A vigilante group of electors overrule the voters of a state and decide the Presidency on their own.
While this could hopefully be prevented from recurring by a future Constitutional Amendment, until then, we would likely see widespread violence from groups protesting the stolen election and others fighting back to support their candidate.
Refusal To Certify
Stop if you’ve heard this one before! Trump wins and Biden pressures Harris to refuse to certify the results in the Senate. She goes along and the Supreme Court has to intervene to decide if this should be allowed or not.
Depending on the outcome, we again have a result where the voter’s will is abrogated leading to civil disobedience and anarchy.
Is there some level of fraud in every election? Sure. But it has been small scale or one off type stuff.
What if one side intentionally decided to commit large scale fraud by mailing in large numbers of fake ballots?
To use a sports analogy, they’re not going to call holding on every play. Some teams abuse this and do hold every play knowing the three or four times they get called is worth it for the 50 times they get away with it.
If a party took that approach to voting, they would get some votes disqualified, but more than enough would go undetected and possibly swing the election.
Before you say it couldn’t happen, if it happens in other parts of the world, why couldn’t it happen here? The temperature on both sides is so high, that the temptation is surely much higher than during Obama-Romney or Reagan-Mondale.
If it turns out we can’t trust that we have free and fair elections, that is truly a 1 in 250.
It would change our place on the world stage and lead to social breakdown domestically. Congress would either cease to function or become a one party quasi dictatorship.
Our way of life would change dramatically. Yet, we don’t have any good safeguards to prevent this from happening.
State Level Fraud
Determined not to be fooled twice, Trump plans ahead to overturn votes he doesn’t like. Rather than call Secretaries of State in swing states after the fact to overturn results, he speaks to them ahead of time.
Back room deals are made. Several states are bought and sold for Trump and the will of the voters in those states is denied.
Chaos ensues trying to rectify the situation. Maybe the votes are submitted properly. Maybe the rogue states get away with it.
Let’s say it’s the latter. Would the electors of said state follow the actual votes or the legally submitted ones? Regardless of which they choose, would they be sued as faithless directors by one side? Would that matter if there are no teeth to faithless elector laws?
It’s certainly possible the Electoral College can be rigged to deny the will of the people. What then?
But who is to say all the risks begin on Election Day? If Trump is prepared not to respect the Presidential vote, why would he respect a primary vote that went against him?
Let’s say Haley takes a number of states and she begins to look like a potential threat. Do we really think Trump won’t challenge those primary results?
How does a nominee get chosen if 1/3 of the votes are under legal challenge and the remaining 2/3 aren’t enough for one candidate to win?
I don’t know which (if any) of the above scenarios are more likely than the others, but they are all terribly bad for the nation.
Remember, Jan 6 was an event that came together relatively quickly and thus was more of a riot than an organized show of force.
Anyone who isn’t prepared to accept the results of the next election has had four years to prepare their resistance. They will likely have more weapons and more willingness to use them.
If the election is “stolen” in the House or through indisputable preconceived fraud, we will have a full out Constitutional crisis. A Supreme Court decision will not be accepted as easily now as in 2000.
Since we’re talking 1 in 250s here, I can start telling scary stories about how this leads to Civil War.
If one side refuses to acknowledge the other and leaves Congress, we have a one party state in power and another one party state seeking to expel it, either through the courts or by force.
While this may sound like a movie of the week plot, so would have predictions about Covid four years ago.
The primary cause of civil wars over the course of history is a contested “throne”. If we are unable to determine a victor next year – or if the the victor is prevented from serving – it is actually a fairly normal occurrence for that to lead to armed conflict.
Preparing for the Worst
Hopefully, none of this comes to pass obviously, but, if you are in the risk business, you need to be thinking about outcomes like this.
If you are running an insurance company, you really should be considering where you may have unintended exposure. War exclusions are great if things really escalate, but there is plenty of other risk to the economy that could be exposed.
If you are a concerned citizen, I don’t know that I’d suggest buying a bunker in Nebraska yet, but perhaps it would help to stop treating these elections like entertainment and start taking them more seriously.
Demand higher standards of those you vote for. Don’t let them play chicken with the country. Don’t commit so strongly to your “team” that you lose sight of what’s at stake. None of us want to see what happens next after a 1 in 250 election.