Monday, December 7, 2020

Vox explains why the U.S. waits so long to swear in a new president

I wrote the day after the election was called for Biden and repeated three times now, "I'm looking forward to not having to pay attention to Donald Trump again. I'll just have to wait until January 20, 2021 for that to be completely true." Vox explains why all of us who feel this way why we have to wait another month and a half in Why the US waits so long to swear in the new president.

Does it really have to take two and a half months?
American law specifies that the US presidential election happens in early November. It also specifies that the winner of that election isn’t actually sworn in until January 20th. That leaves about two and a half months in between, where, in situations where the incumbent has been voted out, the winner of the election still isn’t president. This is the “transition” period, during which the old administration trades places with the new one.

But does that period really need to be so long? In 2020, we found out what happens when an incumbent president loses reelection, but refuses to concede: Among other things, it pushes the start of the transition several weeks later, shortening that handover period. So does that matter? What actually happens in those two and a half months, and why do we let the loser continue to wield power for so long?
The example of the shorter effective transition after the 2000 election harming American security and contributing to the 9/11 attacks works well to convince me that the full two and a half month transition is actually helpful. That was a separate issue from Bill Clinton cooperating in the transition to the second Bush Administration. Once George W. Bush was officially declared the winner in Florida, Clinton cooperated.

Trump is cooperating much less for two reasons. First, as exactly one month ago today, "The real election is the Electoral College, which votes on December 14, 2020. That's followed by a joint session of the new Congress on January 6, 2021." Trump and his allies are gaming the system, however ineffectively. He and his supporters still think they have an outside chance of succeeding at getting enough slates of electors to vote him into a second term. Second, as the Vox video pointed out, "our tradition of a smooth transfer of power is just that, a tradition, not a rule."

I can see three silver linings to all this. First, what we are experiencing so far appears to be closer to the best case of Trump refusing to concede than the worst. So far, so good. Second, the last time the U.S. experienced a transtion this contentious, the result was that the transition period was shortened from March 4th to January 20th. That might happen this time, although it will require a constitutional amendment. Third, seeing all these attempts at manipulating the process might convince more Americans to scrap the Electoral College, which also needs a constitutional amendment. One can only hope.

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