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Transcript: What If a US Presidential Candidate Refuses to Concede After an Election

Full text of political commentator Van Jones’ TED talk: What If a US Presidential Candidate Refuses To Concede After an Election.


Van Jones – Political commentator

Okay, as an attorney, as a political commentator, and frankly, as a former White House official, I used to think I knew a lot about how America picks a president.

I was wrong, I did not know.

And this year, I’ve been doing some research into some of the fine-print and all the different things in our constitution that we never talk about, and I’ve discovered some legal loopholes that shocked me, I guarantee will shock you, and could determine the way that the presidential election of 2020 turns out.

For instance, did you know that under our constitution, a presidential candidate could actually lose the popular vote, fail to get a majority in the electoral college, refuse to concede, manipulate hidden mechanisms in our government and still get sworn in as the president of the United States of America?

That’s a true fact. I know it sounds like some crazy “House of Cards” episode, and I wish it was, because then we could just change the channel, but I just described to you a real-world, real-life possibility that could occur this year, the year I’m talking, in 2020, or in some other year, if we don’t fix some of these glitches in our system.

So if you think, though, that the American people’s choice in a US presidential election should actually be sworn in to become president of the United States, please pay attention to this talk. I’m going to teach you how to stop a coup, okay?

Now, where to begin?

All right, how about this: It turns out that one of the main safeguards of US democracy is not in the constitution at all. It’s not in the law at all. It’s actually just a little tradition, it’s a little custom. And yet, this one voluntary gesture is one of the main reasons that you almost never have riots and bloodshed and strife after a US election.

What I’m talking about is a concession speech. OK, it’s ironic, it’s the one speech no presidential candidate ever wants to give, and yet, it is that public address that is most important for the health and the well-being of our nation.

It’s that speech, you know, when a presidential contender gives, it’s after the advisers come and the media tells them, “Look, you’re not going to get enough votes to be able to hit that magic number of 270 electoral college votes. You’re just not going to get there.”

At that moment — you don’t think about this, but the fate of the entire republic is in the hands of a single politician and their willingness to walk out there and stand in front of their family and stand in front of the cameras and stand in front of the whole nation and say, “I am conceding the race, voluntarily. Thank you to my supporters. The other person has won now, congratulations to them, let’s unite behind them, let’s move on, let’s be one country. God bless America.”

You’ve seen it a thousand times. Make no mistake, this is a remarkable tradition in our country. Because at that moment, that candidate still has at her command a nationwide army of campaign activists, of die-hard partisans, tens of thousands of people. They could just as easily take up arms, take to the streets, they could do whatever they want to.

But that concession speech instantly demobilizes all of them. It says, “Hey, guys, stand down. Folks, it’s over.”

Moreover, that concession speech helps the tens of millions of people who voted for that person to accept the outcome. Acknowledge the winner, however begrudgingly, and then just get up the next morning, go to work, go to school, maybe disappointed but not disloyal to America’s government.

And even more importantly, that concession speech has a technical function in that it kind of allows all the other stuff that our constitution requires after the voting, and there are a bunch of steps like, you’ve got the electoral college that has got to meet, you’ve got Congress who’s got to ratify this thing, you’ve got an inauguration to be had, all that stuff can just move ahead on automatic pilot because after the concession speech, every subsequent step to either reinstate the president or elevate a new president just happens on a rubber-stamp basis.

The constitution requires it, but it’s a rubber stamp. But we sometimes forget, candidates do not have to concede. There’s nothing that makes them concede. It’s just a norm in a year in which nothing is normal.

So what if a losing candidate simply refuses to concede? What if there is no concession speech?

Well, what could happen might terrify you. I think it should.

First, to give you the background, let’s make sure we’re on the same page, let me give you this analogy.

Think about a presidential election as a baseball game. The end of the ninth inning, whoever is ahead wins, whoever is behind loses. That’s baseball.

But could you imagine a different world in which, in baseball, there were actually 13 innings, or 14 innings, not just nine. But we just had a weird tradition. If you are behind in the ninth inning, you just come out and concede. All right?

So all those other innings don’t matter. That’s really how the presidential elections work in America. Because the constitution actually spells out two different sets of innings. You’ve got the popular election process that everybody pays attention to. And then you’ve got the elite selection process that everybody essentially ignores.

But in a close election, if nobody concedes, the second invisible process, these extra innings if you will, they actually matter a whole lot. Let me explain.

That first set of innings, popular election, it’s what you think about when you think about the presidential election. It’s the primaries, the caucuses, the debates, the conventions, it’s election night, it’s all that stuff.

Most of the time, the loser on election night at that point just concedes. Why? “The American people have spoken.” All that.

But according to the constitution, the game is technically not over. After the cameras go away, after the confetti’s swept away, the constitution requires this whole other set of innings. This elite selection process stuff, and this is all behind closed doors, it’s among government officials.

And this process goes from the end of the vote counting in November, through December all the way and then January. You just never think about it, because for so many generations, these extra innings haven’t mattered much because the election-night loser just concedes. So this other stuff is just a formality.

Even in 2000, vice president Al Gore gave up as soon as the Supreme Court ordered an end to the vote counting. Gore did not continue the fight into the state legislatures, into the electoral college, into Congress, he didn’t try to discredit the results in the press. Frankly, he didn’t send his supporters out into the streets with protest signs or pitchforks or long guns.

As soon as the court said the vote count is done, he just conceded to George W. Bush. Because that’s what we do, that’s just kind of how we do things around here.

You don’t fight in the extra innings. Until maybe 2020, when one major candidate is already saying he may not accept the results of the vote counting. Curse you 2020.

So what could happen instead?

Instead of conceding, a losing candidate could launch a ferocious fight to grab power anyway, or to hold onto power anyway. In the courts, yes. But also in the state houses, electoral college, even in Congress. They could file, for instance, dozens of lawsuits attempting to block the counting of millions of, like, mail-in ballots, saying they should all be thrown out, they’re all fraudulent.

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