It was an extraordinarily dangerous moment for the country. As the history of lapsed republics suggests, when the military becomes involved in domestic politics, it tends to stay involved. But two days after Mr. Trump’s speech, Mr. Esper publicly broke with the president, stressing that active duty forces should be used domestically only “as a matter of last resort, and only in the most urgent and dire of situations.” He concluded that “I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act.”

General Milley later issued a public apology for participating in Mr. Trump’s photo op. “My presence in that moment,” he said, “created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics.” He added, “I should not have been there.”

Mr. Trump’s plans ran afoul not of the law, but of an unwritten rule. In a few days, the active duty troops gathered around Washington were sent home. Though briefly tested, the norm had held.

The final firewall of the unwritten constitution has been the integrity of state elections officials. Corruption of the people and institutions that set election rules and count votes is an obvious threat to the democratic process. In Russia, for example, the neutrality of its Central Election Commission during President Vladimir Putin’s rule has been repeatedly questioned, especially given the tendency of that body to disqualify leading opposition figures and parties.

The story of Brad Raffensperger, the secretary of state in Georgia and its top elections official, testifies to the potential threats to an election’s integrity during a heated campaign. Mr. Raffensperger, a Republican, was loosely in charge of the vote in a state that went narrowly for Mr. Biden. In that capacity, Mr. Raffensperger was attacked and disparaged by higher-ranking members of his own party. This included such prominent political figures as Georgia’s two senators, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler. Both demanded Mr. Raffensperger resign for no apparent reason other than his failure to prevent Mr. Biden from winning the state.

Despite the pressure, Mr. Raffensperger and the state’s governor, Brian Kemp, held steady, along with an overwhelming majority of state elections officials around the country. They have refused to “discover” voting fraud without good evidence of it. Party loyalty — at this point — seems not to have fatally corrupted the vote-counting process.

Might this welcome result be credited to constitutional design? Not really. The states are an important part of the Constitutional design, and the document does give them a central role to play in federal elections. But what seems to have mattered most, in terms of ensuring the integrity of the voting process, was less the constitutional structure and more the personal integrity of the state elections officials. Their professional commitment to a fair vote may have spared the Republic an existential crisis.



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