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More than 64 million Americans have already voted. Turnout is expected to break records. To date, voters have cast nearly 43 percent of all ballots counted in 2016. National polls show Biden leading President Donald Trump by 7 to 10 points. In the midst of a national health crisis, Trump does not have enough time to pivot PR-wise — he has less than 7 days to close the gap. However, presenting data on a candidate’s popularity is not the same as actually predicting the correct winner. In American politics, the magic number is 270. If you win the Electoral College, you get to become president — even if the majority of the country’s population did not vote for you. In the modern era, the Republican Party has relied on this fact.
A recent study of election data by economic researchers at the University of Texas even suggested, “Republicans should be expected to win 65% of presidential contests in which they narrowly lose the popular vote.” Through a steady combination of voter suppression tactics, gerrymandering, catering to extreme parts of its base, and depending on low Democratic voter turnout, the Republican Party has held on tightly to its power.
This year, there are four states Trump cannot afford to lose: Pennsylvania, Arizona, North Carolina, and Florida. Yet, Trump and his team are not exactly betting on major wins. They want close calls and tight margins. Assuming he can still hold on to Georgia, Texas, Ohio, and Iowa; losing by a little in multiple battleground regions would still be enough for Trump to question the validity of final results. Remember, he just needs to be within the margin of error (which is usually +/- 3-5 percent) to start contesting outcomes. In North Carolina, at the time of press, Biden is currently beating Trump by two points.
Anything is possible. During the 2020 election cycle, results will not likely be announced immediately. An authoritative, decisive outcome might not be settled for weeks. While millions of mail-in and provisional ballots are being counted and certified, Trump will still be in office. The stretch of time between election night and inauguration day is critical. The Trump campaign can secure another term simply by circumventing the law. Waiting for a clear winner is what gives room for Trump to contest results, and let his power expand. After the election — but before results are formally declared — Trump can use his position to try to get ahead in regions where he is not leading, but remains within the margin of error. He and his team can find ambiguities in state laws, the Electoral Count Act, and even the constitution itself. Currently, more than 300 lawsuits have been filed in over 44 states. These legal disputes are all related to how mail-in ballots are collected, early voting requirements, voter fraud, and counting absentee ballots. If the election is very close, new cases filed in battleground states could reach the U.S. Supreme Court, just like with Bush v. Gore in 2000. If the court has to weigh in on a contested election — or demands for a recount — Monday’s confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who was nominated by Trump, now creates a 6-3 conservative majority that will likely favor the president.
The official deadline for resolving presidential election disputes is December 8, 2020. However, it’s not just a simple matter of Trump moving out of the White House by January 20. For example, the official counting of electoral ballots on January 6, 2021 will be overseen by Vice President Mike Pence. The Electoral College is made up of 538 electors who end up picking the president. Technically, electors (governors and legislatures) do not have to pay respect to national popularity. It’s an honor system— not codified into official law. Battleground states like Wisconsin, North Carolina, Michigan, and Pennsylvania all have Democratic governors and Republican-controlled legislatures. Electors are officially scheduled to meet on Dec. 14 to cast their votes. Ballots are supposed to be received by the senate president on Dec. 23. The senate president is Mike Pence. His “sub” or president pro tempore is Senator Chuck Grassley, another Republican. There is no legal penalty for missing the ballot submission deadline. In states with close races, Trump could take advantage of competing party electors to win and ultimately, stay in office.
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris winning by a landslide makes it harder for Trump to scrutinize post-election processing. High voter turnout matters because the evidence of a close result will not be there to cast a shadow of a doubt. In 2016, over 33 million Americans voted by mail. Imagine what tabulation efforts might look like this year in the age of COVID-19. As Aisha McClendon, National Outreach Director of VoteAmerica, explained to REVOLT: “For some people, it’s the only option they have. We need to do a better job of making sure people know what they need to do when they vote by mail. Like, they need to sign the back of the envelope in some states. People don’t know that. If you’ve never voted by mail, it’s not like someone is standing there to tell you how to do it. How would you know?”
Coronavirus has pushed over 8 million Americans into poverty. Setting social distancing measures aside, the pandemic plays a critical role in how people vote. Particularly for Black and Latinx communities, reaching the right polling station or dropping off a ballot on time requires a certain degree of access. Millions of people are living in emergency mode. In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott recently attempted to limit voter drop-off boxes to one per county. This means a major city like Houston — located in Harris County — would’ve been forced to share a single ballot drop-off box with the rest of an entire county. Currently, multiple drop-off boxes are still not immediately being reopened. McClendon pointed out, “You know, Harris County is larger than some states… and some of these counties are trying to be innovative. I think about (county clerk) Chris Hollins who is doing 24-hour voting. Why? Because we know that people who work hourly jobs don’t always have access and are not granted the time off to go vote.”
Encouraging low voter turnout has been a key strategy for Trump and the Republican Party. In Florida, the recent passage of Amendment 4 technically gives 1.4 million ex-felons the right to vote. Yet, new restrictions set by Republican Governor Ron DeSantis and state legislators (through SB 7066) require the payment of all court fines and restitutions. According to the Sentencing Project, this has disqualified more than 900,000 individuals from voting either because of their conviction or inability to pay court debts. In 2016, Hilary Clinton lost Florida by just 1.2 percent — a little over 112,000 votes. Under Amendment 4, only former felons who have paid outstanding debts are allowed to cast a ballot. A ProPublica analysis found that less than 8% of Florida’s ex-felons have actually registered to vote since the passage of Amendment 4. The majority of those who are now considered ineligible to vote are Black. “Voting impacts your life more than you think. And I don’t mean just the presidency, but up and down the ticket. Those are the people who are impacting your life — they make the laws about how fast you can go, things like your healthcare… so, don’t just look at the top of the ticket, view the whole thing,” advises McClendon.
University of Florida Prof. Michael McDonald (of the U.S. Elections Project) predicts that a record-setting 150 million people will end up voting in the 2020 general election. But across the country, Trump’s state and national campaign teams are already preparing for a scenario where final results can be challenged.
Do not let media hype and national polling regarding Biden fool you. Election 2020 is still very much in play. Voting matters. Trump may lose. But leave? Not so fast.