During a visit to Wilmington, North Carolina, on Wednesday, President Donald Trump suggested that voters cast a vote by mail and then go vote in person, which would be illegal. Credit: Matt Born | The Star-News via AP

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Michael Cianchette is a Navy reservist who served in Afghanistan and in-house counsel to a number of businesses in southern Maine. He was a chief counsel to former Gov. Paul LePage.

This has been a chaotic year. I’m worried about what November will bring.

That’s not a commentary on Joe Biden and Donald Trump. Nor is it about Susan Collins and Sara Gideon, or any other political personalities of the day. It is more fundamental than that.

It’s what will happen on Election Night.

Reports are beginning to circulate on the internet about the massive surge in absentee balloting driven by the pandemic. It is weighted heavily in favor of Democrats, as one might expect; the COVID-19 situation has taken on an increasingly partisan dimension.

Meanwhile, in what should be a surprise to exactly no one, the presidential election is only indirectly determined by what happens on that Tuesday in November. Whether you love it or hate it, it is the Electoral College — as established by the Constitution — that will decide the election. Unless there is a tie.

These two parallel tracks towards November carry a freight train fraught with potential trouble. Analysts are suggesting that Election Night might bring word of a Trump victory, based on in-person voting totals.

Then, when the mailed-in ballots are ultimately counted (with their Democratic-leaning advantage), the so-called “red mirage” will disappear and Biden’s disadvantage with it.

The road to this scenario will be bumpy. We will probably see lawsuits filed requesting courts to order election officials to count — or reject — ballots that present varying degrees of questionability. Maybe they were mailed too late. Maybe they don’t have the appropriate attestations, or their mark on the ballot isn’t perfectly clear.

The parties will predictably be at each other’s throats. You will probably hear accusations from the GOP that ballot fraud has run amok. Democrats will counter that it is all in their heads.

Most claims of electoral tampering are probably overblown. Until they aren’t. Like Maine Democrats’ hijinx in the 1992 State House election or Chicago circa 1960 when John F. Kennedy benefitted — to the detriment of Richard Nixon — from the Daley political machine’s machinations. Or when a North Carolina Republican operative allegedly interfered with ballots in a recent congressional race.

The spectre of voter fraud hangs over every election. It is best countered by time-tested tradition, like Maine’s historic system. To truly sway a large election, a massive conspiracy needs to arise, undetected. It’s implausible that hundreds of town clerks throughout our state, together with thousands of citizen-volunteers, are all secretly in on the fix.

But each step away from straightforward, simple voting processes presents a new opportunity for either failure, fraud, or foreign interference. Electronic machines present vulnerabilities not present in paper ballots.

Mail-in processes instead of in-person balloting creates chain-of-custody issues. And tabulation by computer algorithms — instead of simple, physical counting by citizens — makes the process less transparent. That is particularly true in a ranked-choice election, where there may be hundreds or thousands of different ways to mark a ballot.

If the predictions of a “red mirage” come true, questions will inevitably arise about the validity of the Democratic ballots. The intensity of those questions will depend on the other aspect of our Constitutionally-ordained voting system: the Electoral College.

Prognosticators have shown plenty of plausible predictions that lead Biden to a majority of the popular vote, only to see Trump claim victory (again) with the Electors. Democrats will then argue there is some unfairness in the constitutional order.

It is shaping up to be a mess.

To beat it, candidates will need to rise above. Oddly enough, history gives us an example. Nixon believed he lost the presidency in 1960 to Kennedy due to the Chicago Democratic machine and Lyndon Johnson’s rumored fraud in Texas.

But Nixon refused to fight for the office, believing it would cause a rift in the country and kick off a constitutional crisis. Instead, he announced shortly after the election that he would not contest the results.

So, what is the most 2020 thing that could happen in November? We will need either Trump or Biden to follow the example of Nixon.

Maybe we should plan on an asteroid instead.