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Society and communities

Covid-emocracy: challenges and lessons from the US Election

Throughout the primary season and in the run up to the November Presidential Elections in the United States, election officials put in place a variety of measures to carry out the largest election in American history during a once in a 100-year public health crisis.

Mitigating the risk of transmission and seeking to protect the fundamental right to vote, electoral bodies across the 50 states ensured that mixed modes of voting were available. When coupled with a record turnout of over 150 million votes, a prolonged and very close vote count ensued, the results of which the Trump administration is challenging in a number of jurisdictions.

With Joe Biden declared the winner, with a margin over five million popular votes and 306 electoral votes to date, what are the reasons for this turn of events? And what are the broader lessons for conducting elections under conditions of existential threat such as a global pandemic?

Risks and mitigations

In a previous blog and a journal article, Luca Di Gennaro Splendore and I set out the likelihood and impact that the Covid-19 pandemic poses for all stages of the electoral cycle and charted out the possible mitigations for minimising these risks. Between March 2020 and the November US Election, the world has seen over 70 elections take place. Our analysis and recommendations in light of these challenges for having genuine and transparent elections have played out in the US, from mixed campaign strategies, mixed modes of voting, delays in processing, and contested results.

"The Democratic primary process in 2020 featured a large number of candidates, many debates, and contests through which Joe Biden secured the nomination. "
Professor Todd Landman

The campaigns

Campaigns for the US President typically begin two years before an election, but in the case of the Trump campaign, fund raising began shortly after he took office in January 2017. The Democratic primary process in 2020 featured a large number of candidates, many debates, and contests through which Joe Biden secured the nomination.

During the spring and early summer surge of the pandemic this year, Joe Biden engaged in a series of ‘basement broadcasts’ to launch his campaign, which slowly gave way to more socially distanced events in the run up to the election.

In contrast, Trump, who places great value on large rallies, held his first indoor rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma on 20 June, followed by more rallies at airport hangars, and then concluded the campaign trail with 17 rallies over a few days across key battleground states.

Both candidates took part in two live debates and their own competing virtual town halls on different television networks. There was even a special reunion episode of The West Wing aired on 15 October to stress the importance of voting.

Both candidates engaged in digital campaigning, ad buys, and other ways to reach out to voters. This year’s election was not only the largest in terms of total voter turnout, but also the most expensive, as each campaign raised billions of dollars to push out political messages. The campaign season also saw grassroots organising, civil unrest, citizen violence, and instances of heavy-handed responses from law enforcement officials, all of which added to the drama and emotion of an already divided America.

Mixed modes of voting

US Elections have always used a variety of modes of voting, including mail-in, on-line, and in-person. Mail-in and on-line voting provides the opportunity for expatriates, military personnel, and others who cannot be physically present to cast their vote. On polling day, it is typical that these votes are counted after the tabulation of in-person votes.

For this election, use of mail-in voting expanded considerably as it provided a safer alternative to in-person voting under the threat of community transmission of covid. On the eve of the election, more than 94 million Americans had already cast their vote through remote and early in-person means.

The combination of the virus and high turnout meant that a large volume of mail-in ballots were cast, putting pressure on election returns teams to process votes after the polling booths had closed. This combination was further confounded by the disproportionate number of Democratic voters using mail-in ballots, where early leads for President Trump on election day were eroded as the mail-in ballots were counted. This ‘whittling away’ of votes for the President led to his claim that fraud was evident, and that only the ‘legal’ votes should be counted.

"In an unprecedented, but not unexpected move, Donald Trump has refused to concede the election."
Professor Todd Landman

Voting deadlines

While election day was 3 November, many states sought to extend voting deadlines to take into account the disruption caused by the pandemic, which brought further legal interventions and in certain states, the Supreme Court either upheld provisions (as in Pennsylvania) or struck them down (as in Wisconsin). The variation in voting deadlines by state along with the volume of votes that needed to be counted created further uncertainty and delay to the outcome that in many ways mirrored what had happened in the 2000 election between Democrat Al Gore and Republican George Bush.

Swing States

The changing electoral landscape meant that several states were classed as swing states with decisive electoral college votes at stake, where demographic changes and voter volatility made them too close to call based on available pre-election polling data. In the days after the election, results were being updated for these states on a regular basis, as both campaigns waited for the tipping point of the required 270 votes to win the presidency.

In the event, all the major news media networks called the election in favour of Joe Biden on Saturday 7 November after a sufficient number of popular votes in Pennsylvania secured his victory. Other swing states such as Texas, Florida, Iowa, and Ohio went for Trump, while Biden retained Minnesota, and then flipped Wisconsin, Michigan, Arizona, and Nevada. The margin in Georgia was so small (less than 5%) that it now requires a recount.

Legal challenges

In an unprecedented, but not unexpected move, Donald Trump has refused to concede the election, has denied the Biden transition team access to funds and other resources for a smooth transfer of power, and has launched a series of legal challenges across the swing states alleging widespread voter fraud.

Senior Republican Senators Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham support the President’s actions, while other top Republicans have begun distancing themselves, and an increasing number of world leaders, including UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, have congratulated Biden on his victory.

Lessons learned

The main lesson from the US Election is that it is possible to hold an election even under the extreme conditions of a global pandemic, which by election day, had already claimed over 235,000 American lives. Planning, candidate selection, fund raising, campaigning, voting, and tabulation were all carried out relatively successfully, albeit in modified forms. The election and its aftermath have been a real political rollercoaster for many, but the evidence of widespread fraud has been found wanting. In the face of efforts to dispute the outcome and barring any last minute verifiable revelations, Joe Biden will be inaugurated on 20 January 2021 as the 46th President of the United States.

Professor Todd Landman

Professor Todd Landman is Pro-Vice-Chancellor for the Faculty of Social Sciences and is Executive Director of the Rights Lab beacon.

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