Federal laws and longstanding custom generally leave the US military out of the election process.
But Donald Trump’s unsubstantiated warnings about widespread voting irregularities and exhortations to his supporters to become an “army for Trump” as uncertified poll watchers have raised questions about a possible military role next week.
If any element of the military were to get involved, it would probably be the national guard under state control.
These citizen soldiers could help state or local law enforcement with any major election-related violence, especially in the event of a contested result.
But the guard’s more likely roles will be less visible – filling in as poll workers, out of uniform, and providing cybersecurity expertise in monitoring potential intrusions into election systems.
Unlike regular active-duty military, the national guard answers to its state’s governor, not the president.
Under limited circumstances, Trump could federalize them, but in that case, they would generally be barred from doing law enforcement.
A contested vote could stir the kind of wild speculation that forced America’s top general to assure lawmakers the military would have no role in settling any election dispute between Donald Trump and Joe Biden.
A decisive result could allay such concerns by lowering the risk of a prolonged political crisis and the protests it could generate, say current and former officials as well as experts.
“The best thing for us [the military] would be a landslide one way or another,” a US defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters, voicing a sentiment shared by multiple officials.
A week before the election, a Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll showed Biden leading Trump nationally by 10 percentage points, but the numbers are tighter in battleground states that will decide the election and gave Trump his surprise 2016 win.
The coronavirus pandemic has added an element of uncertainty this year, changing how and when Americans vote.
The president, who boasts about his broad support within military ranks, has declined to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he believes that results coming in on election day next Tuesday or, more likely with postal ballots still being counted, a day or days thereafter, are fraudulent.
He has even proposed mobilizing federal troops under the 200-year-old Insurrection Act to put down unrest, and his tendency to be provocative on Twitter adds an extra element of tension, which caused discomfort among some military top brass.
“Look, it’s called insurrection. We just send them in and we do it very easy,” Trump told Fox News in September.
For his part, Biden has suggested the military would ensure a peaceful transfer of power if Trump loses and refuses to leave office after the election.
US army general Mark Milley, selected last year by Trump as chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, has been adamant about the military staying out of the way if there is a contested ballot.
“If there is, it’ll be handled appropriately by the courts and by the US Congress,” he told National Public Radio this month.
“There’s no role for the US military in determining the outcome of a US election. Zero. There is no role there,” he added.
Peter Fever, a national security expert at Duke University, cautioned that America’s willingness to look to the military when there is a crisis could create a public expectation, however misguided, that it could also help resolve an electoral crisis.
“If things go poorly and it’s November 30 and we still have no idea who the president is … that’s when the pressure on the military will grow,” Fever said, imagining a scenario where street protests escalate as faith in the democratic process erodes.
Steve Abbot, a retired Navy admiral who has endorsed Biden, said the danger that Trump would invoke the Insurrection Act “undoubtedly concerns those who are in uniform and in the Pentagon”.