The astonishing question that awaits American politics as we enter the last month before presidential elections is whether President Trump will accept electoral defeat. Trump has several times indicated that he may not accept the result of the November presidential election if he is defeated by his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden.[1]

Likely Dispute of Election Outcome

According to most scenarios for the evening of November 3rd, unless the scale of Trump’s defeat quickly appears to be overwhelming, the administration is likely to dispute the outcome at the courts and in Congress.[2] A growing number of analysts also argue Trump may declare victory that night -- based on partial results, before mail-in votes are counted.[3] The so-called “blue shift” always comes late as Democrats are more likely to vote by mail than Republicans. A recent survey by TargetSmart in light of early voting in US presidential election shows a rise in vote by mail among Democrats (53%) compared to 36% among Republicans.

Compounding all this is the coronavirus pandemic, which will force dramatic changes in how voters cast their ballots. The number of mail-in ballots will increase substantially: recent national polls suggest that about a third of all voters plan to vote by mail this year. Trump has assailed the practice of voting by mail, asserting without evidence that it is susceptible to fraud. In fact, Washington, Oregon, Colorado, and Utah have used universal mail-in voting—in which the state mails a ballot to each registered voter—for some time, including in previous Presidential elections, with few significant problems. There is no meaningful difference between absentee voting and mail-in voting, but Trump supports absentee voting, even using it himself.

Last month, the House of Representatives passed a bipartisan bill to provide an additional twenty-five billion dollars to the U.S. Postal Service, largely to insure that it could process the additional mailed ballots. Trump has vowed to veto the bill if it reaches him. “They need that money in order to make the post office work, so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots,” he said. “If we don’t make a deal, that means they don’t get the money. That means they can’t have universal mail-in voting. They just can’t have it.”[4] In recent weeks, he has also attacked the use of drop boxes, which allow voters to deposit their ballots before Election Day. He has claimed, without evidence, that they can be used to perpetrate electoral fraud.

The “Blue Shift” and its Consequences

This year’s blue shift may be particularly dramatic. In a recent poll by Hawkifsh, a data firm associated with Democrats, only nineteen per cent of Trump supporters said that they planned to vote by mail, compared with sixty-nine per cent of Biden supporters. Using data from late-summer polls, Hawkfish predicted that Election Night results could show Trump in the lead, with a total of four hundred and eight electoral votes. Four days later, with seventy-five per cent of the mail-in votes counted, Biden would take the lead, with two hundred and eighty electoral votes and, with all the votes counted, the former Vice-President would win the Presidency, with three hundred and thirty-four electoral votes.

There is indeed a strong likelihood that the dispute will carry on in the courts—and potentially before Congress and the Supreme Court. A winner is almost certainly to be declared before Inauguration Day in January as parties seek to unwind the social unrest and economic damage that the dispute will cause.

What to Watch? (Likely Scenarios)

Two linked factors stand out as being especially important. The first is the margin of victory. The greater the victory, the harder it will be for the defeated candidate to argue that they have been cheated. Most forecast expect the election to be fairly close, with the outcome largely decided by a handful of major swing states and an unusually large number of postal votes, which will delay the vote count. Assuming that it is Trump who challenges the outcome, the second factor is how supportive other senior Republicans, such as the vice-president, Mike Pence, or the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, will be. Without the Republican Party machine behind him, Trump would risk looking shrill and out of touch. But if Republicans close ranks behind Trump, they could be successful in de-legitimizing a Biden win.

In case swing states results are too close, the first recourse will be the courts. If Biden has a narrow victory, Trump could appeal to demand a recount or the invalidation of postal votes. However, legal precedent—for example in the case of the Bush-Gore election in 2000—suggest that although the courts can rule whether or not to order a recount, they will not decide the winner of the election, given their apolitical nature. This means that the dispute is likely to be carried on to Congress, which is responsible for tallying Electoral College votes. In this case, whether Trump retains the backing of Congressional Republicans will be critical.

Another possible scenario is one where Trump wins the Electoral College by a comfortable margin, but Biden takes the popular vote by 5 percentage points or more, which would prompt calls for a recount. The Biden camp could ask recounts in decisive states where Democratic governors would support such action, whereas Republican-controlled state governments would object and send their electors to Congress.

The official results, however the vote plays out, will take several days, due to the process of counting the high amount of mail-in ballots. Both camps may declare victory during that time and their supporters could stoke social unrest resulting in sporadic clashes with the police. How quickly this unrest subsides depends on how quickly the election result is confirmed.

The worst case scenario will be if the election dispute ends up before Congress with no clear winner. Then the outcome is less clear. If there is agreement that no winner has yet been identified, the leader of the House of Representatives – in this case, Nancy Pelosi — assumes control on Inauguration Day as an interim leader. However, this chain of command would probably not kick in if both candidates still claim victory at that time which would mean Trump could refuse to leave office.

Such a deadlock would impact all legislation including the budgetary decision which will be suspended, probably resulting in a government shutdown in early 2021. With the country still recovering from the economic fallout from the pandemic, and tens of millions of households reliant on state-backed unemployment benefits, such an outcome would be disastrous.

Endnotes

[2] https://www.eiu.com/n/would-donald-trump-accept-electoral-defeat/

American presidential elections are lengthy and complex. The president and vice-president are not elected by popular vote, but through the Electoral College. The candidate who wins a plurality of the popular vote in each state typically wins all of the state’s Electoral College votes (with the exception of Maine and Nebraska, where the distribution is proportional to the popular vote). The size of the slate varies by state; California has 55 electoral votes, whereas Wyoming has three. The candidate who wins an absolute majority of Electoral College votes (270) is elected president.

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