US POLITICS AND THE PANDEMIC
What If the US Cancels its Elections?
There is a way Mike Pompeo could be sworn in as the next United States President. The combination of the Covid-19 pandemic and President Donald Trump’s unconcern about constitutional propriety has led to speculation that the US presidential elections in November could be cancelled. The result would be an unprecedented constitutional crisis. It seems unlikely: the US held an election even during its civil war. But if that were to happen, the US Constitution lays out a half-dozen other ways a new US president can be chosen.
The Constitution is clear the president does not have the right to cancel an election. It specifically says only the Congress, not the president, can select Election Day but it can vote to not choose such a date. In addition, the 20th Amendment clearly states “[t]he terms of the President and Vice President shall end at noon on the 20th day of January.” But there are a number of paths a future president could be selected without an election. The key is that a full-fledged president must secure a majority of the electoral college which is chosen by the state governments, each getting electors equal to the number of legislators they have in Congress. If that does not happen, there are a number of ways to choose an acting president.
1) If Trump cancels the elections without the support of Congress, individual states could decide to hold elections as scheduled. After all, voting is administered at the state level. If only Democratic Party-ruled states defy the president they would not produce enough electoral college votes to secure the presidency for Joe Biden.
2) State legislatures can in theory appoint electors without a vote. Going by present state governments, this would lead to an electoral college of 219 Democrats and 214 Republicans. As Article II (1) 3 requires only “a Majority of the whole Number of Electors appointed” this would mean a President Biden.
3) If the electoral college has not chosen a president when its votes are counted on January 6, then Article II (1) 3, and the 12th Amendment require the House of Representatives to “choose a president from those receiving the most votes from electors”. If the November elections are not held, the House would exist only until early January. If it votes before then, going by the current House and the fact the vote must be decided state-by-state, as Republicans control 26 state delegations compared to 22 for Democrats (two states are equally divided), Trump would retain the presidency.
4) If the House cannot assemble a majority of 26 state delegations for one candidate, the 20th Amendment says one of the two vice-presidential candidates, if selected by the Senate, can become acting president. Article I (3) and the 12th Amendment require a quorum of two-thirds of the senators to elect a vice-president. Just over a third of the Senate end their terms in November so without elections there is no quorum — unless two states with expiring Senate terms held elections on their own. State governors could also appoint senators to fill vacancies. If current governors appointed members of their own parties to join the 65 holdover senators, the result would be a 51-49 Democratic Senate.
5) If neither House nor Senate can produce a majority to resolve an electoral college impasse, the 20th Amendment calls for Congress to designate by statute who would then be acting president. That statute is section 19, Title 3 of the US Code, and it designates the Speaker of the House as next in line to the acting presidency. If the House does not exist because of a lack of elections, the president pro tem of the Senate would become acting president. Tradition dictates the most senior member of the majority party is elected. That would mean Vermont’s Republican Senator Patrick Leahy.
6) In case the electoral college deadlocks and neither chamber of Congress is functioning, section 19 passes the acting presidency to confirmed cabinet members, beginning with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Note that in only one of these scenarios does Trump retain the presidency, and that scenario relies on every member of the House surviving the pandemic and individual congressmen strictly following the party line.
David Daley is an author who has chronicled how the Republican Party has used gerrymandering and other tactics to undermine Democratic votes and how the Democrats have fought back. Such tactics mean that 59 million Americans live in states where the Republicans rule locally despite having polled less votes than Democrats. Daley also discusses the difficulties that will face the US if, because of the pandemic, it has to hold elections only using mail ballots. Republicans have sought to disallow such methods because they feel this would increase Democratic voter turnout – being on average poorer they find it more difficult to physically show up at voting centres. But the recent experience of the Wisconsin primary elections is a reminder that underfunded state election boards struggle to handle so many mail ballots, ensuring any close results will be strongly contested in the courts.
War With Governors
Why is President Trump inciting his supporters to hold rallies and call for an end to the lockdown?
The president, worried at polling showing growing disaffection with his handling of the pandemic and a thinning lead in the battleground states, plans to use the next fortnight to deliberately cause confrontations with state governors on the issue of lifting the lockdown. The state governors will, like China and the World Health Organisation, be blamed for not handling the pandemic properly and driving down the economy. The result will be a patchwork of different levels of lockdown across the US which will make handling the crisis all that more difficult. But this is being seen by Trump and his advisors as a means to rally his base and force the polarisation on which he thrives. “The White House has been setting itself up for weeks now to blame governors for the response to the coronavirus, including any failure to procure medical equipment and resources, or problems that arise from restarting businesses and resuming public life.” The strategy is risky. If the result is a resurgence in viral deaths, Trump may lose more support. Republican Party’s internal polling, however, shows that an increasing number of voters, especially among their base, would like the economy to be opened up even though wider polls still show two-thirds of Americans are nervous about lifting the lockdown too early.
Ex-US President Barack Obama’s endorsement of Joe Biden last week was billed as “a momentous political event.” Obama was the last Democrat to cobble together a winning coalition: motivating a massive turnout of black voters, exciting millennials and persuasive enough to get upper Midwestern whites to support him. “At its core, Biden’s candidacy is premised on restoring that halcyon Obama era — electorally as much as politically.” Obama’s post-presidential approval numbers have been strong. Gallup’s first retrospective job approval rating for Obama in 2018 was 63%. YouGov polling between February 2019 and February 2020 found 55% of Americans have a positive opinion of Obama. In comparison, Biden’s approval in polling averages is 45.7%, according to RealClearPolitics. Trump currently has a 44% approval rate. And Biden is the “white Obama” candidate — “a white, male Democrat trying to ride the former president’s ‘hope and change’ coattails.”
The US Senate may prove difficult to hold on to for the Republicans. New polls show Democratic challengers ahead of GOP incumbents and the party is recruiting strong candidates. There is a tight correlation between presidential and senatorial voting trends so the choice of Joe Biden as the presumptive presidential candidate will give Democrats a boost. The Republicans are still likely to maintain control of the Senate but with a reduced majority as most of the states where the Senate will be decided lean red. Republicans currently have 53 Senate seats to Democrats’ 47. Colorado, Arizona and Maine remain too close to call. Montana, however, has become vulnerable for the Republicans.
With the Democratic candidacy in the bag, Joe Biden’s advisers reached out to a number of progressive groups, including those that endorsed Bernie Sanders. Biden recognises he needs to win over the leftwing of his party. These groups represent causes ranging from climate change and immigrant rights to gun control and mobilizing underserved black and brown communities. A key group the former vice-president wants to attract is young voters. “Broadly speaking, they view Biden as one of the least-inspiring candidates in the sprawling Democratic primary field.” He has adopted some elements of the left’s platform, backing proposals on student debt and free college. But progressives want more ideological postures on gun control, the Green New Deal and immigration.
Several of Biden’s foreign policy advisors have met their counterparts in Bernie Sanders team to iron out a “united platform on foreign policy.” While still at an early stage, they indicate how much Sanders was able to influence the foreign policy agenda of the Democratic Party. This includes “opening a debate on conditioning aid to Israel,” cuts in defense spending and tightening congressional war powers authority in response to the US’s involvement in the Yemen conflict. Biden, a centrist, has stuck to his guns on some traditional foreign-policy priorities. This includes keeping special forces deployed in West Asia to counter terrorism says Stehen Wertheim, a co-founder of the Quincy Institute.
Already there are signs that handling China will be a crucial part of the US presidential campaign’s foreign policy agenda. The Trump election team launched a series of ads accusing Biden of being “soft” on China. The Biden camp responded almost immediately, claiming Trump’s unwillingness to confront China helped lead to the present Covid-19 pandemic. Trump’s team says it has surveys saying as much as 77% of Americans blame China for the outbreak.
Mixed on China
Republican senators and rightwing US media have increased their attacks on China, blaming Beijing for the Covid-19 pandemic and the economic damage that has followed. This is partly out of genuine anger, existing beliefs that China is an adversary but also part of a strategy to divert attention and blame for Trump’s slow response to the pandemic. However, the results have been mixed largely because the US president has tended to muddy the message. Trump still wants to salvage his trade deal with China and needs to import large amounts of Chinese medical supplies to handle the pandemic. He has publicly continued to call Xi Jinping his friend, says the US is “dealing in good faith” with China and has dropped his earlier description of Covid-19 as the “China virus.”
(The views expressed are personal)