USA

The 2020 election will be an extended nightmare -- no matter who wins

Everywhere you turn these days -- especially if you turn to Twitter -- you will find these one-day-closer countdowns until November 3. We're almost there, people say! Soon this will all be over, they say!

Nah, man.

Yes, the national vote to either reelect President Donald Trump or replace him with former vice president Joe Biden is, technically, 84 days from today. But if you think that the election will be over on that day or the next day (or even the next week), well, you are almost certainly engaging in a whole lot of wishful thinking.

As The New York Times noted in a hugely important piece over the weekend:

"Imagine not just another Florida, but a dozen Floridas. Not just one set of lawsuits but a vast array of them. And instead of two restrained candidates staying out of sight and leaving the fight to surrogates, a sitting president of the United States unleashing ALL CAPS Twitter blasts from the Oval Office while seeking ways to use the power of his office to intervene."

In short: If you think the 34 days the country waited to see whether George W. Bush or Al Gore had won the presidency in 2000 was bad, you ain't seen nothing yet.

The reasons for this near-certain delay (and swath of litigation) are very clear.

1) The Covid-19 pandemic has made the idea of standing in long lines -- especially indoors -- to cast a ballot in the fall less than appealing to many. It's also raised questions about poll workers, more than 60% of whom were 61 or older in the 2018 election -- the group most susceptible to negative outcomes from coronavirus infections. Those concerns have, in turn, led to a number of states ramping up their vote-by-mail and absentee ballot efforts. According to The Washington Post, there are now 89 million Americans who can vote by mail. That includes 18 states and the District of Columbia, which changed their absentee ballot procedures to allow more people to vote that way due to Covid-19.
2) Trump has seized on mail-in-balloting as a way to potentially challenge the election results. "We don't want to have a rigged election, I know that," Trump said on Monday at the White House. "And you have to be very careful when you mention, as you constantly do, Russia, or you mention China or you mention Iran or others that attack our election system. And when you have this mail-in voting, it's very susceptible." He's sent innumerable tweets suggesting that increases in mail-in balloting will lead to a "rigged" and "biased" result. Worth noting here: There's scant evidence of widespread ballot fraud when it comes to absentee balloting (or in-person voting).

3) Early returns on mail-in vote counting speed are not encouraging. While many states have changed their vote-by-mail rules to accommodate those wishing to avoid going to the polls in person, the process of counting these ballots in a timely fashion seems to need a lot of work. As the Atlantic's Edward Isaac Dovere wrote recently of the New York primary vote:

"More than a month after New York's June 23 primary elections, state election officials are still counting votes. In some legislative districts, they haven't even started counting absentee votes. In the best-case scenario, election officials hope to declare winners by the first Tuesday in August -- six weeks after Election Day. It might take a lot longer than that. Election officials in New York City have already invalidated upwards of 100,000 absentee ballots -- about one of every five that were mailed in from the five boroughs. And furious candidates are already filing lawsuits charging discrimination and disenfranchisement.

"The chaos in New York is a warning about November's elections: Voting is being transformed by the pandemic. But no state has built new election infrastructure. No state has the time or the money to make sure vote-counting will go smoothly in November. And just about every state is about to be hit with a massive surge of absentee ballots."

Add it all up and you can see how bad things are likely to get -- particularly if the election is at all close and networks resist calling a winner on election night due to the huge uncertainties tied to the number of absentee ballots.

That would be a problem in any national election, but especially one in which the incumbent president is someone who a) seems likely, at the moment, to come up short in his bid for a second term and b) has shown a penchant throughout his life for being totally unwilling to accept defeat in any way, shape or form.

As far back as May 2019, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (California) warned publicly that her party needed to win "big" up and down the ballot to ensure that the public had faith in the results. "We have to inoculate against" Trump claiming the election was rigged, Pelosi told The New York Times back then. She noted that in the days leading up to the 2018 midterms, she pushed for a necessary big win because "if we win by four seats, by a thousand votes each, he's not going to respect the election. ... He would poison the public mind. He would challenge each of the races; he would say you can't seat these people."

Of course, what Pelosi had no way of knowing then was that a pandemic would sweep across the country -- and the world -- that would make gathering in large groups a very dangerous thing. And that winning "big" might not even be enough to stave off massive controversy because, well, it might not be clear that Biden (and Democrats) have either won or lost convincingly for days or weeks after the election.

Even with a normal-ish occupant of the White House, this would all be worrisome. With Trump, it borders on the nightmarish.

Trump is someone who loves chaos. Who tends to provoke rather than calm. And who is, as I noted above, fundamentally incapable of ever admitting he has lost. All of which means he sees the likely uncertainty surrounding the results on November 3 (and the ensuring days) as an opportunity to be exploited. For someone who has a vested interest in preserving the idea that he is always a winner, the delay in knowing who won where and by how much is a golden opportunity. And the longer it takes to affirm the result, the more doubt Trump can sow. And the more effective he will be in doing so.

For those counting the days until November 3, then, you might want to circle late November (or even later) as the realistic date that we know who won. Happy (early) Thanksgiving! You're welcome!

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