The US has just witnessed one of its most important presidential elections in recent memory. Donald Trump, running for a second term, lost to Joe Biden of the Democratic Party. Still reeling under the COVID-19 pandemic, US society has been torn apart by anti-race protests sparked by killings of black men by trigger-happy policemen but sustained by systemic racism, and the President had deliberately unleashed all the dark forces of American exceptionalism, patriarchy and white supremacy in the name of ‘Making America Great Again’. His climate change denial, support to other right-wing leaders like Brazil’s Bolsonaro, the UK’s Boris Johnson and of course, Prime Minister Modi in India, his fuelling of armament build-up, his support to Israeli expansionism and many other foreign policy stances have earned him global notoriety. Hence this election is of interest, and concern, to people around the world. NewsClick will be publishing these observations periodically.
The American voters have spoken loud and clear during 2-3 weeks of early voting in October and also on the election day of November 3. Joseph Biden Jr. has beaten Donald J. Trump convincingly. For many people in the US and the world at large, this is very reassuring. However, the bad news is that both Joe Biden and Donald Trump received an astoundingly high number of votes ever recorded in US history. Even though Trump has been defeated, Trumpism will be alive and well for many years in the US body politic. I will come back to this point later in the column. In the US Senate, the Republicans have a net loss of only one seat so far. Two senate races in Georgia will go to runoff elections on January 5, 2021. Unless the Democrats win both of these races which is highly unlikely, the Republicans will retain their slim majority in the US Senate and be in a position to block any ambitious legislation by the Biden Administration for the next two years. The Democrats will lose 5-7 seats in the US House of Representatives and retain a comfortable majority in that chamber.
Biden has won the 2020 election with 292 votes in the electoral college compared to President Donald J. Trump's 232 votes as per Associated Press. Results for the State of Georgia race have not been called yet by the Associated Press pending a recount of the paper ballots by hand. With 99% of the votes counted, Biden is ahead by 14,000 popular votes and expected to win Georgia's 16 votes in the electoral college in the recount. The final tally in the electoral college is projected to be 306 vs 232 - exactly the same number Donald Trump achieved against Hillary Clinton in 2016.
In terms of popular votes, Biden received a whopping 78.6 million votes and counting. Donald Trump received a very impressive 72.9 million votes and counting. Biden's margin currently in the popular votes is 5.7 million and counting. This margin is the highest ever in both raw numbers and percentage of total votes polled by any Presidential candidate in US history. Adding another 2.6 million votes polled by three third party candidates, the total vote cast in 2020 will exceed 154 million votes. Percentage of eligible voters who voted in 2020 currently stands at 64.9% - highest in more than 100 years since 1908 which achieved a voter turnout of 65.4%.
Let us now dig deeper and examine what happened in the swing states. With 99% of the votes counted in the critical swing states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin which Trump carried in 2016 narrowly, Biden won these states back this time with the following margins: Michigan with a very comfortable margin of 146,000 (50.6% vs 47.9%), Pennsylvania with a narrow margin of 60,000 votes (49.9% vs 49%) and Wisconsin with a narrow margin of 20,000 votes (49.6% vs 48.9%).
With 99% of the votes counted already, Biden is on his way to win narrowly two traditional Republican states Arizona and Georgia for the first time after 30 years with the following margins: Arizona in southwest with 16,000 votes (49.4% vs 49.1%), Georgia in deep south with 14,000 votes (49.5% vs 49.2%). Besides these states, Biden ran a very competitive race in the traditional Republican state of North Carolina in the south (Trump's 50% vs Biden's 48.7%). Trump ran a competitive race in the Democratic state of Nevada in the west. With 95% of the votes counted, Biden is leading in Nevada with 36,000 votes (50.2% vs 47.5%). Even though there was a lot of late stage speculation on the deep red state of Texas in the south, Trump ultimately won Texas comfortably with approximately 6% margin (53% vs 47%).
However, the Democrats have been increasing their vote share in every election cycle for the last eight years in Texas, a red bastion in the south with ominous implications for the Republicans in future. Overall, Biden and the Democrats made impressive inroads in some of the southern states and Arizona in the southwest in this election cycle. Additionally, Biden also won back the blue wall states on Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania in the midwestern region this year.
Also read: Dispatches From Dallas: Trump’s Days Look Numbered
Ultimately, Biden is on his way to win comfortably both in the electoral college ( 306 vs 232) and the popular vote count. However, a very high percentage of Democrats cast their votes through postal ballot in most states because of COVID-19 concerns. On the other hand, a very high percentage of the Republican voters voted electronically on the election day and during early voting as urged by their fearless leader. Since many swing states counted the electronic ballots first and counting high volume of postal ballots takes a long time, an illusion was created in the first12-24 hours of vote counting that Trump was winning big in the swing states. This was predicted by Bloomberg News and other astute observers before the election. This distorted scenario added a lot more drama for the viewers as tranches of vote counts were released in small quantities by the swing states in a haphazard way over a period of few days. This was possibly excellent for TV show ratings but nerve-racking for the poor viewers in the US and around the globe.
What comes next? In normal times, the rest of the steps in formally electing a President in the US is fairly routine. However, with Donald Trump in the White House and refusing to accept the outcome of the election results, 2020 is not a normal year. An overview of the three steps in formally electing a President and how Trump is actively trying to impede or delay the process through legal challenges and shenanigan attempts are presented below. (Hint: breathe normally.) So far, the American democracy has proven to be resilient enough to withstand the challenges from a rogue President.
Step 1 - States Certifying their Election Results
County or municipal election officials in a state count all ballots, double check for accuracy and report the results to the chief election official in that state, most of the time the Secretary of State. The chief election official compiles the results, certifies it and submits it to the Governor of that state. Each state sets its own deadline for certification before the election day. The key swing states have the following certification dates by the chief election official this year : Georgia ( Nov 20), Pennsylvania (Nov 23), Michigan (Nov 23), North Carolina (Nov 24), Arizona (Nov 30), Nevada (Dec 1), and Wisconsin (Dec 1).
The Trump campaign organisation, directed by Trump personally has filed more than a dozen lawsuits alleging voter frauds and irregularities without any evidence in the swing states involving a very small number of ballots and demanding a halt in vote counting at the county or state levels in those states. They have lost every case decided promptly so far often with very harsh words by the judges to the Trump lawyers about the frivolous nature of these lawsuits.
To both independent observers and lay people, it is pretty clear that Trump's real objectives are to delay the vote certification process and create a false narrative among his base that this election was stolen from him. This strategy of delaying or derailing the vote certification process is not working at all. However, among Trump's hard core base of 35-40 million people out of close to 73 million who voted for him, creating a false narrative part of the strategy seems to be working. This is not a good omen for future functioning of healthy democracy in the US.
Step 2 - Selection of Electors for the Electoral College by the Governors by December 14, 2020
Each Governor must send US Congress a "Certification of Ascertainment", certified vote totals and the names of the electors from that state in the Electoral College by December 14 when the electors meet. There is an incentive for the state Governors to complete this step before December 8 which protects the process from any legal challenges. For the last 192 years, all 50 state legislatures have passed legislations before the election day that the winning candidate of the popular votes in that state will get all electors pledged to the winning candidate from that state.
Only two exceptions are Maine and Nebraska. These two states split their electors. They allocate one elector for each of their congressional districts based on which Presidential candidates won the highest number of votes in those congressional districts ( 2 in Maine, 3 in Nebraska). Remaining four electoral votes ( 2 for Maine, 2 for Nebraska) are allocated to the winner of statewide vote tally for each Presidential candidate in that state. These legislations passed by the legislatures in 50 states before the Presidential election day are signed into law by the respective Governor in that state. The Governor is entrusted in the legislation to select the electors based on this state law.
The Trump campaign and the conservative groups have been trying to create confusion, chaos and legal hurdles so that the election officials in the swing states cannot certify the results before the December 14 deadline. Biden's lead in the swing states are in the ranges of 14,000 - 150,000 votes - well outside the range of any impact of a recount request. In the past, a statewide recount has changed the results by only a few hundred votes.
The theory in the conservative circles is that if the state election officials cannot complete the certification process on time, the Republican controlled legislatures in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin may step in and name a slate of electors pledged to Trump flouting the prevailing state law and acting against the verdict of the voters in that state. The Republican legislative leaders in Pennsylvania, a key state, have indicated publicly that they will not go that path. Biden needs only Pennsylvania and one other state among the five listed above to put him over the top. Even if a Republican legislature in another state chooses to go rogue, it will most likely not survive a legal challenge. The possibility of this strategy by the Trump team being successful is extremely low.
Step 3 - US Congress Certifying the Election Results on January 6, 2021
On January 6, the US Congress will count and certify the election results. In a normal year, the "Certification of Ascertainment" by the Governors by December 8 or December 14 is the end of all election related disputes. That will probably be the case this year also. In case a Legislature and the Governor from a state submit a competing slate of electors from a state, the US Congress (House of Representatives and the Senate in a joint session) will have to choose which slate to accept. Chances of this happening this year from any state is extremely low. Even if it does, it will not affect the final outcome of Biden being sworn in on January 20, 2021 as the next President of the United States.
The last time the US Congress had to decide between competing slates of electors was in 1960. The Governor of Hawaii certified a Richard Nixon victory by 141 votes, named a slate of electors for Nixon and a recount was in progress but was not completed yet. Richard Nixon, as the sitting Vice President and presiding officer of the joint session of Congress, called for "unanimous consent" to count a pro-Kennedy slate since the final outcome did not depend on that decision. Those were the good old days when civility mattered and was valued by the US political leaders and the electorate at large.
Also read: Dispatches from Dallas: Trump is Running Out of Time
Coming back to the significance of Trump receiving close to 73 million votes in spite of his openly stoking racism and the divisions between the whites and other racial / religious minorities for four long years (e.g. Hispanics, Muslims, blacks), gross incompetence in handling the COVID-19 pandemic, lurch towards authoritarianism, big tax cuts disproportionately favoring the wealthy and the big corporations came as a major surprise to most observers including the whites.
One of my elderly white friends in a suburb of Dallas, Texas noted, "All racists voted for Trump. But all people who voted for Trump are not racists. They have been misled." For the last 40 years, the Republicans have been successful in demonising the government and persuading the rural voters and low income voters everywhere to vote against their economic self interests. The Republicans focused on emotionally charged issues of the day and emotionally connected with the voters through very effecting messaging (Abortion, gay marriage, gun rights, allegiance to the flag, dog whistles about "those people").
Through this election cycle, Trump has established that openly exploiting the fears and anxiety of the white population of losing their pre-eminent position in society and a misinformation campaign against the Democrats through unfiltered social media messaging are potent election strategies in many parts of the country. In the 2018 election, the Democrats ran a spirited campaign with a very strong message to protect the healthcare reforms enacted during the Obama years and bread and butter issues. Republicans lost the House of Representatives, held on to the US Senate with a slim majority, lost critical Governor's races in the midwest and several state houses all over the US.
In 2020, Trump lost the Presidential race but managed to save the skins of many Republican senators and congressmen in close races. Additionally, the Democrats did not gain a majority in any of the nine state houses they had targeted in 2020. In the next few years, Trump will continue to exercise enormous influence on the Republican party overall and especially among the hard core base of the Republican party of 35-40 million people. Even if Trump fades away in a few years, Trumpism which combines racism, authoritarianism, anti-science views and policies regarding pandemic control, climate change etc. will persist in the US body politic as potent forces for at least next 15-20 years, possibly more. Combating these forces in the US and globally will be the defining challenge for our generation and the next. Dear Reader, which side are you on?
Based in Dallas, Texas, the writer is in the thick of the US Presidential Election campaign.