US President Donald Trump has suggested that he may not accept the results of the upcoming November presidential election in the event that he loses to Democratic candidate Joe Biden.
– The November election will likely be significantly affected by the pandemic, voter suppression tactics, federal troop deployments to strategic cities and foreign electoral interference
– The longstanding practice of mail-in voting has become a partisan issue with Trump and some Republican lawmakers, who view it as susceptible to fraud
– Irrespective of the outcome, the November election will likely be a turning point in US history, with Trump’s unwillingness to concede speeding up the decline of Washington’s democratic values, moral authority and international image
The 2020 US election may have the dubious distinction of being the first in modern US history where the result is not accepted by one of the major party nominees. In an interview with Fox News, President Donald Trump suggested that he may not accept the outcome and concede should Democratic candidate Joe Biden win, calling unfavourable polling ‘fake’ and akin to ‘suppression polls’. Given Trump’s remarks, the stakes are set for a contentious election that will occur amidst a chorus of major events including the nationwide spread of COVID-19, high unemployment, a record loss in GDP growth, and widespread civil unrest.
THE STAGE IS SET
Dominating news surrounding the election is the US response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the inconsistent patchwork of local, state and federal positions on mask-wearing and social distancing. States locked down and opened up with little coordination; some states such as Georgia only locked down very briefly, an approach that has resulted in severely delayed tests and infection spikes, including within newly re-opened school districts. With many state authorities failing or refusing to mandate mask-wearing, individual counties have instead been left to implement formal mask-wearing requirements (where they have not been overruled by the state). On a federal level, testing and contact tracing have been constrained, with Trump openly expressing hostility to widespread testing.
This lack of coordination between authorities has resulted in major caseload increases in several states. This has been most apparent in Florida and Georgia, two Republican-led states critical to Trump’s re-election prospects, which have seen uncontrolled spread and increasing case numbers. As death tolls continue to mount in both states, Trump’s approval ratings have started to dip, and suburban voters in cities like Atlanta have begun to electorally lean in favour of the Democratic Party. With support waning in these critical electoral blocks, Trump’s re-election campaign will need to rely on achieving large vote margins among older populations and rural areas.
Given the severity of the pandemic, the number of voters who will use mail-in voting instead of in-person ballot casting is expected to dwarf previous years. In Republican-led states, this practice is more established and is usually targeted at older and more rural voters who may not be able to access voting booths on Election Day. Despite this, mail-in voting has become increasingly politicised by the Trump administration and seen as presenting a high risk for voter fraud, an unsubstantiated claim that been disputed by election officials and some Republican governors. Trump is likely to continue discouraging mail-in voting, which may in fact serve to suppress Republican turnout in rural areas; alarm at this possibility has prompted his campaign to target key demographics with messages that encourage postal voting.
The discouraging of mail-in voting is not the only act of voter suppression that authorities have taken. Voter suppression tactics have historically been used to constrain Black and Hispanic voter turnout, groups that tend to lean heavily towards the Democratic Party and will be critical to Biden’s electoral prospects. In Georgia, Governor Brian Kemp has been roundly criticised for voter suppression tactics such as reducing the number of polling stations and voting hours which, in places like Atlanta, could severely depress turnout. Legal challenges to these tactics and efforts to force extended voting hours will likely come up against state laws and potential federal emergency laws implemented to ensure public order.
Combined with the risk of voter suppression, renewed civil unrest is likely in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in late May. Many cities across the US have seen daily protests, some of which have turned violent and resulted in attacks on federal buildings and law enforcement. Trump has deployed federal forces to cities such as Portland and has threatened to send more to Democrat-led cities if the threat of violence remains high. Trump has also floated the idea of deploying troops around polling stations — an action considered an intimidation tactic and would be illegal under federal law.
The omnipresent threat of foreign interference, too, remains a key issue facing the November election, especially as racial injustice and police brutality are the topics of nationwide discussion; these divisive issues were critical points of engagement for Russian trolls on social media during the 2016 elections. The risk remains high that Russia will again exploit these deep divisions to pursue its own geopolitical agenda, such as, according to intelligence officials, aiding the re-election of Trump and undermining the Democratic Party. Intelligence officials have also expressed concern that China, Iran, Cuba, North Korea and Saudi Arabia could try to influence the outcome. While Russian interference is unlikely to change votes once they are cast, the proliferation of Russian-based websites and social media trolls could steer debate and incite tensions, further eroding Americans’ trust in key institutions.
Since the end of the Second World War, the US has sought to promote the values of democracy and freedom, while developing a complex network of allies and partners to create and maintain its primacy. But in the event that Trump refuses to accept defeat, Washington may lose its perceived status as a world power that can guarantee free and fair elections and the peaceful transfer of power. This erosion of democratic norms would likely have global ramifications. States such as China and Russia could be expected to exploit the situation, claiming increased legitimacy in their authoritarian structures and manipulating the power vacuum to their geopolitical advantages — for example, Beijing may seek a greater leadership role at the UN. While this is a significant and very real threat, there are indications that many of the US’ traditional allies in the Indo-Pacific such as Japan, South Korea and Australia are seeking to strengthen ties among themselves and reinforce the traditionally US-led ‘rules-based order’. Nonetheless, there is a clear lack of trust in Washington even among its steadfast partners. Should Trump refuse to concede a potential loss in November, there is a real risk that the US-led liberal democratic order it has crafted for decades will fragment irreparably.
There is also the risk of political interference by Trump in the certification process that would serve to question the legitimacy of the vote. The politicisation of the United States Postal Service (USPS), for example, risks compromising the integrity of the vote count, leading to all but four states being warned that mail-in votes may not be counted in time. While Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has proclaimed that the USPS will be ‘just fine’, the backlogs caused by increasing restrictions to the USPS will likely affect both Republican and Democratic voters in rural and urban areas, despite Democrats being more likely to vote by mail. Some reliably Republican states may tilt in favour of the Democrats on the back of this disruption to postal votes, with South Carolina Senator and fierce Trump ally Lindsey Graham facing a tightening race against Democrat Jaime Harrison.
Continued postal vote disruptions may result in a backlogged and chaotic vote count that is unlikely to produce a clear result on Election Day. It is possible that, given these disruptions, Trump may not concede once the winner is clear, instead waiting several days or weeks all while questioning the validity of certain vote counts. Republican leaders may be eager for Trump to concede and attempt a normal transition period in the event of a resounding Biden victory. However, if the vote is less than decisive, Trump may even refuse to concede at all, bolstered by support from Republican governors including Brian Kemp of Georgia and Ron DeSantis of Florida, who have echoed his unsubstantiated concerns over voter fraud and electoral irregularities. Either way, political interference and attempts to restrict mail-in voting are likely to produce unintended consequences for both the Democratic and Republican parties and undermine the sanctity of the electoral process.
While the US Armed Forces traditionally has an apolitical role, this has changed under Trump. In June, General Mark Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, enforced Trump’s ‘law and order’ campaign against Black Lives Matter (BLM) protesters by walking around Washington D.C. in his military fatigues to inspect troops. Milley also appeared next to Trump for the president’s infamous photo as he held a Bible outside St. John’s Church, across from the White House; protesters had been forcibly evicted from the area only minutes earlier. While Milley subsequently apologised and military leaders such as former secretary of defense James Mattis condemned the military’s actions, the incidents have harmed the Armed Forces’ apolitical credibility. Should Trump lose in November, the US Armed Forces, like other key institutions such as Congress and the Supreme Court, will likely face a critical dilemma as to how to respond. Trump could pressure the Armed Forces to intervene against expected demonstrations, repeating tactics used during the June BLM protests when helicopters — including Red Cross-marked helicopters — ‘buzzed’ protesters around the White House. As the election nears, it is likely that Milley and the US military at large will play an increasingly important role in ensuring a peaceful transition of power.
The ingredients are present for a chaotic electoral process and a prolonged, and possibly violent, period of uncertainty. Institutions such as the military and Congress will come under pressure to either enforce the Constitution or bend to the political will of the president. Regardless of the outcome, public and international trust in US elections, institutions and the military may take many years to reach a level that is conducive to a healthy democracy.