There’s A Reason The Latest ‘Succession’ Episode Is So Terrifying For Lawyers And Election Officials

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Siobhan Roy takes a call during
Siobhan Roy takes a call during

Siobhan Roy takes a call during "Succession's" hotly contested election episode.

This article contains spoilers for Episode 8 of the fourth and final season of HBO’s “Succession,” “America Decides.”

After his dynastic right-wing television network declares victory for a fascistic presidential candidate, despite the likely-arson-related destruction of 100,000 Democratic-leaning ballots in Milwaukee, “Succession” character Roman Roy plays it cool.

“We’ve just made a night of good TV,” he says. “That’s what we’ve done. Nothing happens.” 

“Things do happen, Rome,” his sister Siobhan scolds him in return. 

Well, Milwaukee County’s top elections administrator agrees with Shiv. The election-related violence that took place in Sunday’s episode ― and the violence that the Roy children may have unleashed by naming fictional candidate Jeryd Mencken the winner amidst severe uncertainty ― hit home for some officials watching the series.

“I received death threats during the [2020] presidential recount,” Milwaukee County Clerk George Christenson told CBS 58 on Monday, adding that he was getting calls during the show. “You know, this is serious business, so I think it’s great for TV but not so great for us.”

And Christenson’s not alone in his concern: “Succession’s” writers went to great lengths to create a terrifyingly realistic electioncrisis. In short: The presidential election between Mencken and the generic-seeming Democratic candidate, Daniel Jiménez, comes down to Wisconsin’s electoral votes, but the fire in Milwaukee has destroyed a potentially decisive number of ballots. 

“It was the most uncomfortable hour of scripted television I have ever watched,” election law scholar Rick Hasen wrote in Slate.

Various characters at ATN, the fictional network run by the Roys that rushes to dub Mencken the legitimate winner, debate what happens next: How can the country pick a president amidst this chaos? In the “Succession” universe, the answer may come next week, but here in the real world, there’s no clear answer on what would actually happen after the show’s imagined ballot firebombing. 

“Sucession” very cleverly selected Milwaukee for the fire. Absentee ballots in the city are centrally counted at a facility called “Central Count.” What’s more, under Wisconsin law ― and unlike many other states ― absentee ballots can’t be processed or counted before Election Day.

As a result, a large fire at the Central facility could indeed be devastating. 

However, there is one silver lining, and it’s a detail the show got wrong: An ATN journalist claimed that there’s no way to know who cast an absentee ballot, but that’s not true in Wisconsin. Election officials do track absentee ballots, including scanning ballot envelopes as they are received at counting centers. It’s the reason Wisconsin voters can track their mail-in ballots as they churn through the system. 

As a result, election officials would have a pretty clear picture of the voters who’d been affected by the attack. But a big problem still remains: They wouldn’t necessarily know which of those votes had been tallied, rather than simply being received and processed.

“Now you’re getting into the ‘nobody knows’ territory,” Ann Jacobs, a Democratic appointee to the Wisconsin Elections Commission, the state’s election authority, told HuffPost in a phone call Tuesday.

And Wisconsin, like many other states, does not have laws on the books detailing what to do in such scenarios.

“There are no statutes that govern burned up absentee ballots so the courts would have to figure out a remedy,” Jacobs tweeted Monday

If the episode took place in the future, it’s possible a new law could create clarity. In the wake of Donald Trump’s campaign to steal the 2020 presidential election, Congress worked to clear up a major weak link in U.S. election law known as the Electoral Count Act. President Joe Biden signed the Electoral Count Reform Act into law on Dec. 29.

The law updates the United States’ “failed election” procedures, or what states are instructed to do when states fail to properly choose presidential electors ― for example, due to a natural disaster, as the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Michael Thorning pointed out.

The new language says, “In the case of a State that appoints electors by popular vote, if the State modifies the period of voting, as necessitated by force majeure events that are extraordinary and catastrophic, as provided under laws of the State enacted prior to such day, ‘election day’ shall include the modified period of voting.”

In other words, if state lawmakers want to avoid becoming a real-life “Succession” plotline, they would be wise to figure out a contingency plan in case some real life toughs attempt to subvert the will of the people. But that’s not yet the case, and in the fictional “Succession” universe, we can probably assume this law doesn’t exist.

In that scenario, the situation would certainly end up in court. And the potential responses to an arson attack are numerous, including a potential revote for people with affected ballots. Even then, questions abound, CBS 58 reported: How long would voters have to revote? What about voters who say they were wrongfully excluded from the pool of people eligible to revote? What about candidates who try to shrink that pool further?

The arson portrayed on the show happened during a general presidential election, meaning that both local and national races were on the ballot, and, ultimately, that the fight would likely reach the U.S. Supreme Court.

“It would be a litigation circus and nightmare in multiple courts with multiple theories,” Hasen wrote.

Voter anxiety over such a fraught question reaching the Supreme Court is understandable, Jacobs said on the phone Tuesday. She pointed to recentreporting on justices’ failure to disclose key financial information to the public. If the high court can’t be trusted to do that, she wondered, can we be sure they would look beyond partisan politics to protect the democratic process?

“The discomfort probably goes to the U.S. Supreme Court,” Jacobs said. “Is there trust that the Court would act in a nonpartisan way to effectuate people’s rights to vote? Or would it be as mercenary as the characters [in “Succession”] see it?”

“I am concerned about the legitimacy of our court,” Jacobs said, sounding entirely unconvinced that America’s top judges would be out of place in a Waystar Royco conference room.