There Are So Many Ways the 2024 Election Could Go Wrong

“Americans can and should have confidence in our election system,” said FBI Director Christopher Wray in January. “The other part, though, is the chaos…..And there is the potential, if we’re not all collectively on guard, that chaos can ensue at varying levels.”

Wray, who was speaking at January’s International Conference on Cyber Security, was referring to the risk of foreign interference in U.S. elections by China, Russia, and Iran. But America is a proud, independent nation. We’re doing just fine sowing homegrown chaos at varying levels on our own.

Wray can take solace in the fact that most Americans actually do have confidence in our election system. About two-thirds tell Gallup they are very or somewhat confident that votes will be accurately cast and counted in U.S. elections; that number has been mostly stable since at least 2004. There is a gap opening up under the surface, however. In 2017, 77 percent of Republicans were confident about American elections. The most recent figure is 40 percent.

At the same time, a poll from the Associated Press and NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that majorities of both Democrats (72 percent) and Republicans (55 percent) say democracy is at risk depending on the results of the next election, though presumably for different reasons. Relatedly, in a CBS News/YouGov poll released in January, 49 percent of Americans say they expect a violent response to future presidential election losses.


All of this adds up to a worrying situation, especially given dozens of newly constructed off-ramps on the road to a peaceful transition of power. Americans—including our politicians—are hyperalert for misconduct on the part of those who disagree with them politically, thanks to dramatically increased affective polarization. The proliferation of state-level voting laws and regulations could generate a cascade of legal and partisan challenges regarding voter eligibility, ballot access, and counting procedures. Newly appointed state election officials might introduce errors into the counts, either through guile or incompetence. Mail-in ballots might be counted too early. Mail-in ballots might be counted too late. A real cyberattack might raise concerns about the integrity of electronic voting machines. A fake cyberattack might do the same. Partisans might engage in voter intimidation. Partisans might allege voter intimidation where none occurred. Election workers might commit fraud. Election workers might not commit fraud but be accused of doing so anyway by prominent figures in a defamatory way. A sitting president might attempt to bully state election officials into finding “lost” votes. Never mind the Electoral College, which has been bonkers from the start. And that’s all before we get to the legal challenges that both parties have promised to file after the fact.


It was hard to pick just one potential breaking point from this wealth of options, but in this month’s cover story, Princeton University’s Keith E. Whittington explores one of the ways 2024 might go off the rails in an underexplored and unprecedented way (page 20). The four criminal cases pending against Donald Trump might come to fruition in at least seven different scenarios that would leave the country grappling with a president who could or should be behind bars. Pair that with the possibility that one or both of the elderly men seeking the presidency could experience some kind of subfatal medical event as a candidate or president-elect, and it’s time to call in the experts.

According to a January release from Gallup, “less than a third of Americans say they would be willing to vote for someone nominated by their party who is over the age of 80 or has been charged with a felony or convicted of a felony by a jury.” Thus, in a Trump-Biden contest, “voters would face a choice between two of the most objectionable characteristics to Americans of those measured—someone who has been charged with a felony (Trump) and someone who is older than 80 (Biden).” In the end, about one-third of eligible Americans—including me—will likely not vote for either major-party candidate.

Perhaps the greatest destabilizing influence is simply the widely held belief that the election will be destabilizing. A January poll conducted by Echelon Insights found that only 27 percent of Americans think Biden will usher in more stability, while 49 percent say things would be less stable. The responses for Trump are more evenly split: 45 percent more stable, 43 percent less stable.

By doubling down on undesirable candidates backed by partisans who are increasingly skeptical of the prospect of a fair and peaceful election process, we’ve dramatically increased the risk of disarray without the possibility of any outcome that voters genuinely want.

In 2016, disruption—and, yes, maybe even a little chaos—sounded fun and appealing to many Americans, perhaps even for its own sake. But after two cycles of turmoil and very little real change, voters are seeking stability from an election that offers nothing of the kind.

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