President Trump has repeatedly refused to say whether he’ll accept the results of the 2020 election. During one debate, he told a far-right street-fighting group to “stand back and stand by,” raising concerns about violence on November 3 and beyond. He’s also made false claims that the winner must be decided on election night, before many votes will be counted, and said he expects the winner to be decided by the Supreme Court.
All this has many people concerned that even if Democratic nominee Joe Biden wins the election, Trump will refuse to concede — or that the president will seek to block enough votes through court challenges that he will be declared the winner.
It’s a scary prospect not just for Biden supporters, but for the future of democracy in America. But activists around the country are already planning for such a scenario, and say there are actions ordinary Americans can take to push back.
It starts with normalizing the fact that, no matter what Trump says, we may not know the winner by the morning of November 4. “What’s going to be required of everyone in this country is to understand that we might not have immediate results and that this election may feel different than it has in the past,” Arisha Hatch, executive director of the racial justice group Color of Change PAC, told Vox. And rather than rushing to declare a victor on election night, “It’s incredibly important that every single ballot is counted.”
And if Trump or his supporters try to impede the process of counting, or refuse to accept the result, Americans can use tools that have worked against coups in other countries, from street protests to rolling strikes, Daniel Hunter, a founder of the activist group Choose Democracy, told Vox. The group has been hosting trainings to help people respond if Trump tries to block vote-counting or refuses to concede.
It’s possible that the group’s tactics won’t be necessary, Hunter said, either because Trump wins legitimately or because he concedes defeat. But he has repeatedly stated his willingness to subvert the course of democracy, giving Americans something crucial: time to prepare.
“Every inch that we gain right now, we’re ahead of the game,” Hunter said.
Progressive groups have plans if Trump tries to subvert the election
Activists agree that the first thing Americans can do to ensure a fair election is to vote. “The most important thing to do and the best way through this from our perspective is that people vote in massive numbers and that the results can’t be questioned,” Hatch said.
Beyond that, voters can also press their elected officials to make sure every vote is counted. “It’s a great time to tell them, we really believe it when we say democracy,” Hunter said. “We mean ‘count every vote.’” The group has guides and scripts for Americans to contact local officials and demand their commitment to counting all ballots.
If Trump tries to artificially halt vote-counting or throw out ballots, the next step is “getting into the streets,” Hunter said. A coalition called Protect the Results, which includes both Choose Democracy and Color of Change PAC, is calling for nationwide marches on November 4 and November 7 to demand full vote-counting.
They’re not the only ones coordinating action after the election. The Frontline, a campaign organized by the Working Families Party, the Movement for Black Lives Electoral Justice Project, and others, is hosting a virtual town hall on November 4 to organize protests or other actions. “We intend to make sure every vote is counted,” Jessica Byrd, founder of the Electoral Justice Project and leader of the Frontline, told Vox.
The Women’s March, meanwhile, is calling for local actions around the country on the night of November 3, in which participants will “shine a light on the process” of vote-counting by holding lanterns, flashlights, and candles.
“The goal of these events is to demonstrate community strength and this will serve us well as we honor the possibly lengthy process of tabulating election results in the days following November 3rd,” Women’s March executive director Rachel O’Leary Carmona said in a statement to media on Thursday. “Any premature announcement of a winner will be challenged and rejected through the public presence of local on the ground feminist activists.”
And marches and vigils aren’t the only tools Americans have to demand a fair election. If the president or others continue to oppose full vote-counting in the face of mass protests, it will be time for tactics to shift toward strikes, Hunter said: large groups of people refusing to work or go to school. “This relies on the notion that, at the end of the day, the president is not king and cannot make people do all the operations in the country,” he said.
Strikes have been successful in ousting dictators in places like Serbia, Hunter added. And several groups, including the youth coalition Count on Us, have already called for striking if Trump fails to respect the results of the election. The coalition, which includes the Sunrise Movement, the March for Our Lives, United We Dream Action PAC, and others, has been working on get-out-the-vote efforts in advance of November 3. But “if Trump tries to steal the election, we need to be ready to lead a mass strike to make sure every vote is counted,” the group states on its website. “We make this country run and if we all refuse to go to work or school, there’s no way for Trump to govern.”
Communities can come together for post-election support and safety
Of course, a scenario in which Trump or his supporters refuse to accept the results of the election could pose real physical danger, especially to people of color, undocumented immigrants, and other groups the Trump administration or white supremacist groups have targeted in the past.
“Regardless of who wins the election or what that is going to look like, the situation may not be safe for a lot of people,” rebel sidney black, founder of the Portland Disability Justice Collective, told Vox. Given that, “really looking out for our BIPOC friends and neighbors” will be crucial.
That “may mean opening your home to someone, even if that’s not the most safe thing to do with regard to Covid,” black said — something many Americans did during protests this summer to help demonstrators avoid arrest and police violence. People who choose to shelter others in their homes during protests can leave windows and doors open and wear masks to reduce coronavirus risk, black said.
Overall, “thinking about safety in communities” is important, black said. People should work on building relationships with neighbors, friends, family, and others so they can travel together, run errands for one another, or simply check in on each other if the situation in their area becomes dangerous. Many mutual aid groups around the country have sprung up during the pandemic to facilitate this kind of community support.
Forming a community is also important for protest, many say. “Get connected with five other people,” Hunter suggests. “Don’t go in the streets alone.”
Of course, taking to the streets isn’t possible for everyone, and is more dangerous for some than for others. People with disabilities, for example, may not be able to march or may be especially at risk of police violence. Given this, people without disabilities can volunteer to fill roles that require street protest, black said. People who have disabilities or are older, who have underlying conditions that put them at higher risk for Covid-19, or who face greater danger at physical protests for other reasons, can engage in social media campaigns or sign-making for protests, black said.
Overall, the time leading up to and immediately following the election is likely to be a frightening one for many Americans. But “we can channel that fear and pain into action —collective action — even if that’s just as simple as checking on a neighbor,” black said.
And some say the outpouring of popular protest in the past four years, from the Women’s Marches to the uprisings around the country this summer in response to police killings of George Floyd and other Black Americans, is proof that the country is ready to resist any attempt to subvert the will of the people.
“We have a lot of power,” Byrd said. “I don’t believe that this is happening in our generation because we’re unprepared.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misquoted President Trump’s comments to the far-right group the Proud Boys. Trump said, “stand back and stand by.”