Unprecedented US presidential election amid COVID-19, increased mail-in voting, and threats not to accept the results

Suzy Elgeneidy
Friday 2 Oct 2020

The upcoming US presidential election is characterised by several factors that may not have happened before in any other elections since the founding of the United States in July 1776

The US presidential election, which will be held on Tuesday, 3 November, is characterised by several factors that may not have happened before in any other elections since the founding of the United States in July 1776.

The first is the increased voting by mail due to the spread of COVID-19, which may delay the announcement of the results for days. The second factor is that for the first time, an American president -- Donald Trump -- has said openly that he might not accept the election results if he does not win because of his suspicion of fraud in the mail-in voting, and he has also refused to pledge to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses to Democratic rival Joe Biden. He has even predicted the elections will go before the Supreme Court.

The third factor is the spread of the COVID-19 virus itself, which may hinder those aged over fifty from voting, even though they are the largest voting bloc and usually vote in high numbers for the Republican candidate.

Polls show that Trump has lost some of his popularity among voters aged 65 and over in six states due to his mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis, while Biden has grown increasingly successful among older voters. The fourth factors will be the votes of Latinos and women, which may affect or decide the election result for the first time.

The US State Department, in cooperation with the Meridian International Diplomacy Center and the Center for Foreign Press, organised several virtual interviews for about 200 leading journalists around the world for a period of eight weeks with a number of senior American specialists and experts. Al-Ahram was chosen as the representative of the Egyptian press.

Trump may not accept the results

Dr. Mark J. Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia, responded to a question by Al-Ahram on Trump’s hints that he may not accept the results so did it happen, or could it happen that one of the candidates doesn't accept the results.

“We’ve never had this situation; you'd have to go back to the early 19th century where there was a disputed outcome. Remember the year 2000, we had a disputed outcome to the presidential election for 36 days after election day. So, the electoral college count was extremely close between Al Gore and George W. Bush. The entire election came down to the popular vote in one state, Florida. Out of several million votes, only about 500 votes separated the two candidates. There were recounts of ballots, allegations of miscounting and improperly counted ballots. The Supreme Court of the United States after 36 days told the state of Florida, since states control their own elections, including elections for the presidency and the electoral college system,” he said.

“The Supreme Court told Florida to stop the recount and certify the election. It was a very controversial decision by a five-to-four majority. And George Bush was ahead by about 500 votes at that point. But Al Gore held a press conference to congratulate George Bush on becoming the next president of the United States, urging all Americans to get behind their new president and offering their full support to America's newly elected president. He showed such respect for our constitutional order and the rule of law that even though many people alleged that there were voting irregularities and that the result had not been properly determined, that there needed to be a continuation of the recount of the ballots to get the right result. The Supreme Court of the United States is the law of the land in this country. When the Supreme Court speaks, that's it, there is no recourse beyond that.”

“Al Gore did not even think for a minute about contesting that outcome. That’s the hallmark of the stability of our political system, that that's the way it works. There is concern in this election cycle, and I'm just repeating words that the president himself has said … that the president might not accept the legitimacy of the outcome of this election if the ballots counted by mail put Joe Biden over the top and make him the winner, which is one very possible outcome in this election. The president has been declaring publicly that there was an enormous amount of fraud as a result of voting by ballot. And he is calling into question the very legitimacy of the process that we have adopted. But again, this comes back to federalism and the states controlling their elections. The states decide, the federal government doesn't decide. Donald Trump can say all he wants about voting by mail and questioning its legitimacy, but it's up to the states to decide how to conduct their election procedures.”

“So it would be very destabilising to our system to have one of the two major party candidates refuse to acknowledge the outcome and concede the election. And it would be especially troubling if it happened to be the incumbent president of the United States. All I'm going to say is that there are procedures in place to take care of this situation should it happen. I don't live in fear that we're going to go past inauguration day, 20 January, with a dispute over the outcome of this election," he concluded.

Effect of mail-in voting

Rozell, who is the author of nine books on topics related to US politics, spoke about the effect of mail-in voting in the coming election. The election results normally come in state by state, “and at some point late at night, the networks declare a winner, somebody who got 270 or above in the Electoral College. Because of the pandemic, we are having much more voting by mail this year and also early voting, so that voting in person can be staggered over time, so we minimise the risk to people.”

“In Virginia, where I teach, they just started voting last week, even before the first presidential debate, and there were hours-long lines of people lining up already to vote. So what's going to happen on election night? Results will be coming in based on people who voted in person the traditional way on 3 November, election day. But counting of the mail ballots will take a few, perhaps several days, perhaps even longer. I'm not sure. We've not done this before. Therefore, we will not know most likely the result of the election on election night itself as had always been the case. We will have to wait for the mail-in votes to be counted.”

“And this has raised some concerns in our system because Joe Biden supporters, Democrats, based on polling data, tend to be much more likely people in our country than Trump supporters to wear a mask … to vote by mail, to not want to take any risk with the pandemic.

“Trump supporters, statistically, are more likely to vote on election day and less likely to wear masks in public. It's strange that we're talking about the pandemic as having a political impact, but it is possible that the election results as they're coming in on election night will show Donald Trump winning and winning and winning all over the place, but that's based on more of his voters showing up to vote in person. Then as the results come in from the mailed-in ballots, his margin is going to narrow, narrow, and perhaps be overtaken by Biden after several days.

“So it may take some time to really know who's going to win. But the Electoral College doesn't meet until a month after election day. That happens in December. So this process is not going to have any impact at all on what the electors do when they vote in the Electoral College,” he concluded.

Latino and women voters

Answering a question by Ahram Online concerning the effect of Latino, women and minority voters, Rozell said that the Republican party looks very much like a white party these days -- it's about 90 percent or more non-Hispanic whites. The Democrats are about 70 percent white, by contrast.

“But Democrats have appeal among the fastest growing segments of our population, minority populations, particularly Latinos and African Americans who typically vote well over 90 percent Democrat. The Latino votes, very interesting to watch this year. Democrats have tended to do very, very well with the Latino vote in recent election cycles,” he said.

Hillary Clinton “got about two-thirds of the Latino vote in 2016,” he continued. “Barack Obama got over 75 percent of the Latino vote. That was about a 10 percent drop off from Obama to Clinton and was actually really important in some of the key swing states in the election. There are some polls right now showing that Trump is actually picking up even a little bit more support. So the key for Trump is to hold down his losses among minority voters and to ratchet up the white Republican-leaning vote as much as possible. Also, Republicans tend to vote at slightly higher rates than Democrats, which is an interesting phenomenon that's held for many, many years.”

Rozell added that minority voter turnout has not always, but has usually lagged behind white turnout. “The Democratic Party is a coalition of minorities to some extent. So many different minority populations heavily identify with the Democratic Party. Black voters, heavily Democratic, Latino voters by two thirds, three quarters, Democratic, Asian Americans, a fast-growing segment of our population, increasingly democratic. A generation ago there were more Republicans, particularly the older generation immigrants who came to this country in the sixties, seventies and eighties. But their children and grandchildren have tended to be much more Democrat and new immigrants have tended to be much more Democrat because of the perception that Donald Trump and the Republicans are the anti-immigrant party. Whether fair or not, that perception very strongly exists right now.”

“So, who turns out is key to the outcome of this election. Where Joe Biden and the Democrats, I think, are very concerned right now, and something to look at, is the Latino vote. The fastest growing segment of the American population is the Latino population. The fact that it dropped from three-quarters to only two-thirds Democrat from 2012 to 2016 was a problem for Hillary Clinton in that very, very close election. The fact that some polls are showing Donald Trump has picked up a few more percent of the Latino vote, better than how he performed in 2016, should also be a serious concern to Joe Biden and the Democrats. So I think a lot of this campaign, going forward, is going to focus very, very heavily on the Latino vote, which I think will be critical in some of the most important states of the electoral college, particularly the state of Florida,” he concluded.

Appointing a new Supreme Court judge

Dr. Jeffrey M. Stonecash, a distinguished professor emeritus of political science at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University in New York, answered a question from Ahram Online concerning the effect of the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

"That is the $64,000 question. No one's quite sure right now. I think Donald Trump presumes that if he can get someone on the court, it will sure up his base because he'll appoint some conservative. I think a lot of Republicans think this is their shot. So they believe they can then shore up their support among conservatives. What no one knows right now is whether or not there might be a reaction that this is a little rushed, it's too blatantly political, the Supreme Court is not supposed to be a partisan organisation. To the extent it is portrayed as a raw partisan institution, it's probably going to be trouble. So it may backfire, but no one knows. We're just going to have to wait and see," he said.

Stability and the divide between the parties

Stonecash, who is an expert on political parties, spoke about the ideological differences between the US’ two main parties and its effect on stability.

“I think we now have a society in which there's a growing percentage of people on each side who thinks the other side is a threat to America. They think that if this other side gets in power, America's going to end. If you follow the campaign, Trump has been telling people that ‘I am the only thing that stands between you and the demise of America.’ Liberal groups are out there saying that if Donald Trump gets elected, it could risk the demise of America. So as you can imagine, it's not easy to get a conversation going when you think the other side is a threat to the continuation of American democracy.” he said.

He added that Trump has really increased unity in his party through three means. He has a remarkable dominance of the media. He's a master at getting himself into the media. And he uses social media and Twitter enormously. He is not afraid to attack his opponents. Anyone that criticises him at all he goes after, and then he has a very loyal following and they really listen to this. “And so you have many senators and House members who are afraid over the Twitter attack from Trump, and that leads to greater party unity. They are really reluctant to defy him because he has such strong support among his supporters. So we have a system that's seemingly very decentralised, but it is simultaneously being pulled together within each party because of these trends of the same outcomes. And because of what Trump does.”

“I might say we have no idea whether Trump is the future, or he's a unique character as a presidential candidate,” he said.


Concerning immigration, Stonecash said: "I don't mean this to pick on Donald Trump, but he's a perfect example of a person who seized on issues to try to bring voters over to his side. When he ran in 2016, he constantly talked about immigration and crime and I think he really strongly believes that if he can get Americans afraid that they will move over to his call. In 2018, he made immigration a really serious issue, all sorts of stories about caravans coming to invade America, et cetera. Now he's using riots and protests in cities as an argument about, ‘We need law and order, and you need to elect me because I'll protect the integrity of the country and the safety,’ et cetera.”

“Does it cause division? Oh yeah it causes division. People get really angry. I mean, his supporters become really jacked up about it ... ‘Why isn't somebody doing something?’ His opponents become really angry about the portrayal of all immigrants as rapists and murderers ... And so it causes real anger on both sides. And it's really an explosive mix. I think, when we had several black men who were killed by police this summer, it will affect black population voters,” he concluded.  

*The writer is the Deputy Chief Editor of Al Ahram Alarabi Magazine

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