Back in mid-October, I co-designed and ran a “contested US election” matrix game for The New Yorker Radio Hour in which we examined what could go wrong after election night. Due to an unexpected problem the segment never aired, but it was a terrific game. So, with polls starting to close and as everyone waits for the actual American election results to come in, I thought I would say a little about it.
As the 3 November U.S. presidential election approaches, the country faces an unfamiliar danger. While Americans have grown used to a certain level of rancour in these quadrennial campaigns, they have not in living memory faced the realistic prospect that the incumbent may reject the outcome or that armed violence may result. That has changed in 2020 because of the emergence of risk factors that would spell trouble in any country: political polarisation bound up with issues of race and identity; the rise of armed groups with political agendas; the higher-than-usual chances of a contested outcome; and most importantly President Donald Trump, whose toxic rhetoric and willingness to court conflict to advance his personal interests have no precedent in modern U.S. history. The risk of unrest may ebb and flow as the final days of the campaign unfold, but it is almost certain to remain, and it will increase if either side forms the impression that the vote has been rigged.
Our scenario envisaged a tight race in which much depends on the counting of mail-in ballots—something that advisors to the Trump campaign acknowledged to the New York Times was a distinct possibility:
Trump advisers said their best hope was if the president wins Ohio and Florida is too close to call early in the night, depriving Mr. Biden a swift victory and giving Mr. Trump the room to undermine the validity of uncounted mail-in ballots in the days after.
In his last days of campaigning, Mr. Trump has essentially admitted that he does not expect to win without going to court. “As soon as that election is over,” he told reporters over the weekend, “we’re going in with our lawyers.”
Trailing consistently in the polls, Mr. Trump in that moment said out loud what other Republicans have preferred to say quietly, which is that his best chance of holding onto power at this point may rest in a scorched-earth campaign to disqualify as many votes as possible for his Democratic opponent, Joseph R. Biden Jr.
If there is a clear-cut outcome on Tuesday night that could not plausibly be challenged via legal action, all of the planning on both sides could become moot. But if there is no decisive result, the following days would likely see an intensifying multifront battle fought in a variety of states.
After months of claiming that any election outcome other than a victory for him would have to have been “rigged,” the president used his final days on the campaign trail to cast doubt on the very process of tabulating the count, suggesting without any evidence that any votes counted after Tuesday, no matter how legal, must be suspect.
We weren’t the only ones to game out what could go wrong in the election, of course. The earlier work of the Transition Integrity Project has already been discussed at PAXsims.
The game ran over two days. On each day there were two matrix turns planned, for a total of four (November 4, November 9, November 16, and mid-December). In practice we abandoned matrix game procedures for the last turn, and free-styled it in a lively series of moves, countermoves, and open discussion.
There were six main sets of actors:
Donald Trump (including the Trump Administration, Mike Pence, and the Trump/Pence campaign)
Joe Biden (including Kamala Harris and Biden/Harris campaign)
The Republican Establishment (Republican Members of Congress, Republican Governors, Republican state legislators, former Republican elected officials)
The Democratic Establishment (Democratic Members of Congress, Democratic Governors, Democratic state legislators, former Democratic Elected Officials)
The Extra-Establishment Right (QAnon conspiracy theorists, militia members, Proud Boys, right-wing social media trolls, OAN, InfoWars, police unions, etc.)
The Extra-Establishment Left (Black Lives Matter activists, Antifa activists, left-leaning celebrities, progressive social media, etc.)
In addition, two other actors could take actions when called upon or otherwise appropriate, as well as contribute to the broader discussion:
The Courts (Supreme Court of the United States, other federal and state courts)
The Military (Joint Chiefs of Staff, State Adjutants General, senior military commanders, intelligence community)
All were played by New Yorker writers or others with appropriate expertise. Adjudication used the assessed probabilities, whereby after an action had been proposed by a player and discussed, we polled participants (via a Zoom poll) for their view of the likelihood the action would be successful. We used this to establish a probability against which we then rolled percentage dice. Since all of our participants could reasonably claim to be subject matter expertise on the game topic, it worked very well.
The scenario described a very close election, in which everything hinged on the outcome in Pennsylvania.
The early count had Trump ahead, but mail-in ballots were still being counted and these were breaking two-to-one for the Biden campaign. It seemed likely—unless something happened—that the Democrats would eventually come out on top.
This is, of course, the worst possible scenario, which is exactly why it was the one we gamed. A unambiguous Biden or Trump victory wouldn’t pose the same risks to political stability.
The briefing sheets all outlined essentially the same situation, but were very much tailored to the world-view of the actors. The Biden briefing, for example, noted:
Once again, polls underestimated public support for President Trump. In late October, moreover, the President announced a successful COVID-19 vaccine—though the medical establishment is divided on whether the vaccine in question is efficacious enough for widespread distribution. In several states, voter suppression tactics by Republican-led administrations may have cost the campaign tens of thousands of votes. As a result of all this, the Presidential election has proven to be much closer than expected.
On election night the Biden/Harris campaign lost in both Arizona and Florida, and won only narrowly in Wisconsin and Michigan.
Pennsylvania has emerged as an electoral battleground.
In Pennsylvania, the President is currently ahead. However, according to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, mail-in ballots can still arrive for three more days (until Nov. 6th). Between COVID safety precautions and teams of lawyers challenging every ballot, a long count awaits.
Pennsylvania’s election was beset with irregularities. On election day and during the counting, groups of (often heavily-armed) Trump “poll watchers” have intimidated voters and officials alike. We’ve heard unsubstantiated reports about missing mail trucks, which some on the right have fixated on as proof that mail-in voting was somehow rigged.
A legal challenge about whether these ballots (which are expected to strongly favor Biden) can be counted is on its way to the US Supreme Court.
The Republican-controlled Legislature in Pennsylvania has said that unless a winner is declared by December 1st, it will award the state’s electors to Trump (one full week ahead of the deadline to name electors). State Democratic legislators have threatened to relocate to West Virginia to prevent a quorum. Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf (D) has vowed that Pennsylvania will not name electors until the full election results are certified by Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar (D).
President Trump is ahead in the national vote by a small fraction. However that lead will certainty be reversed as mail-in ballots in places like California get counted.
Democrats seem to have narrowly captured the Senate, but three races are essentially too close to call. The new majority will not be seated until January 3rd. Democrats have kept control of the House.
Amy Coney Barrett has not yet been confirmed by the Senate. Barrett has cleared her hearings in a party line vote. Mitch McConnell has vowed that she will be confirmed by the Senate.
Encouraged by the President, right-wing activists and militias have mobilized, with some arguing that force might be used to prevent a peaceful transfer of power. Several liberal justices have requested enhanced security measures in view of this growing threat.
The number of COVID-19 cases is sharply on the rise once more. Some 300,000 Americans are projected to die by February, a total which could rise to half a million if the President and some Republican governors are successful in further easing restrictions, mask mandates, and other public health measures. Expert consensus is that, despite the premature President’s vaccine announcement, widespread vaccination will not be possible until the late summer.
Conversely, the Trump briefing spun the situation as a Trump victory that would be stolen away through absentee ballots. For its part, the Extra-Establishment Right briefing warned:
America now faces perhaps its greatest DANGER since the Revolution. The Deep State and communist agitators are CONSPIRING to overturn the election results. The President has signalled that he needs OUR HELP to defeat this conspiracy. #WWG1WGA … We have information that the Democrats plan to flood the count fraudulent Biden mail-in ballots, previously harvested by their activists. Before the election, Antifa anarchists stole several mail-trucks containing blank ballots. Local officials in some Democratic-controlled districts also rebuffed poll-watching and ballot security measures undertaken by patriotic groups of Americans freely exercising their 2nd amendment rights. Clearly they had something to hide.
As previously noted, we ran this as as a matrix game over Zoom, with a deck of Google slides used to update the players with the current vote count, news stories, legal deadlines, and other information. Using Google slides in this way it was possible for me to share them with the players, while other members of support team modified future slides behind the scenes to reflect new developments. You can see them here:
In the past, I’ve found matrix games a bit ponderous online—people simply just aren’t as efficient at online discussion and you lose the ability to easily have multiple side conversations during game play. I must say, however, that the team put together by The New Yorker were outstanding. I think this had a lot to do with most of them being journalists, and most having substantial television or radio experience—a setting in which you rarely have more than a minute to answer any one question and only six or seven minutes in the entire segment to get your broader analysis across.
The game started with President Trump complaining vociferously about mail-in ballot “fraud,” a narrative that was much amplifed by the Extra Establishment Right (including faked videos of supposed wrong-doing). The courts were not very responsive to such complaints, however, seeing no evidence of widespread or systematic abuse and preferring to leave the status quo intact in the midst of vote-counting.
The White House escalated by ending federal law enforcement to (federal) post offices and mail sorting centres in Pennsylvania for “security” purposes and seize ballots and look for evidence of the alleged fraud. It was a bit late, however—but this point almost all the ballots were at (state/county) counting centres. Moreover, the (Democratic) Governor of Pennsylvania responded by deploying Pennsylvania State Police to vote-counting locations. As tensions rose the Extra-Establishment Left organized peaceful candlelight vigils. These soon grew to a national campaign.
As the vote started to shift decisively to the Biden campaign, Pennsylvania Republicans considered assigning their own set of electors for the Electoral College. That initiative was unsuccessful, however, with too many members of their own party finding it a step too far. Had they been successful, the Democratic establishment was thinking of responding in kind in other states.
Given the failure of efforts in the Courts to stop the counting and with Pennsylvania Republicans unwilling to override voters, President Trump’s Twitter feed became even hotter and more voluminous. Police resources were increasingly overstretched by the need to safeguard vote counting centres and keeping an eye on vigils. There was some low-level violence and arson attacks, but the risk of something more serious couldn’t be discounted. As a result, Pennsylvania decided to call up some National Guard units to assist the police.
There was growing concern in the Pentagon about how this might all play out. Indeed, efforts had made to assure any military response would be slow and deliberate, stalling for time if necessary and trying to stay out of the political fray. Concerns grew further when the President started to tweet about federalizing the National Guard too, putting soldiers in the position of having their Commander-in-Chief seemingly at odds with their Governor. Pennsylvania National Guard commanders were careful in which units were called up and where they were sent, focusing on those that were known to have good discipline and calm, level-headed commanders—a tacit acknowledgement that some in the military might handle a fraught situation worse than others.
At this point, Russia dramatically stepped-up social media and other digital activities with the intention of further escalating tensions and possibly provoking more widespread violence. In response, the Pentagon took the decision to retaliate with limited offensive cyber attacks against certain Russian internet capabilities. The White House was not consulted in advance on this, with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs arguing this was an immediate defensive response by United States Cyber Command that required no prior approval.
As tensions grew, the stock market started to tank. It also became apparent that the Supreme Court—even with the addition of Amy Coney Barrett—was not going to intervene in the election tally in the absence of actual evidence of fraud. With this, many key Republicans (including many major Republican donors) became concerned at the growing potential for violence, political chaos, and economic crisis . Some reached out to the Democrats to see whether Biden campaign might offer political inducements (such as a promise of no “court packing”) to secure Republican endorsement of the election process and outcome. Biden was under pressure from the left of his party not to agree, but he was inclined to hold firm anyway. He had very much stayed the course throughout, counting on the process to work while the Democratic Establishment mobilized legal and other resources to fight for every vote cast.
And so the game ended, with President Trump still tweeting angrily from his bunker beneath the White House, National Guard, federal law enforcement, and State Police deployed across Pennsylvania, sporadic acts of limited violence—but a transition to a new Biden presidency seeming largely assured.
Whether the political divisions and fractures caused by the process might afflict the United States in the coming years remained to be seen.
After it was all over, some participants said they felt reassured that the process and institutions had indeed worked. To me, however, it rather felt like careening down the hairpin turns of a steep and narrow mountain road in a car with no brakes. Sure, it’s great to arrive intact at the bottom of the mountain at the end, but it is also worth remembering how close you came to careening over the edge of cliff. There were several points in the game where things could easily become much worse.
In practical terms, it was one of the best matrix games I’ve taken part in: thoughtful participants, great discussions, and useful insight. At the time of writing this, I have no idea how prescient it might be—but let’s hope the actual days following November 3 are rather less contentious.