Divided America fears violence on the streets, whatever the election result

There are just hours to go now until the most divisive, angry, expensive and fraught election in American history reaches what ought to be its denouement. Around 100 million people have already cast their ballots in early voting or by mail. The candidates are making their final swings through the states which will decide this thing: Pennsylvania; Florida; Wisconsin; Iowa. The champagne has been put on ice ahead of rival celebrations in Washington DC and Delaware, where Donald Trump and his Democratic rival Joe Biden will spend election night.

And, depressing but perhaps inevitable, police have begun to prepare for what seems certain to be a violent response no matter which candidate emerges as the victor.

The rioters and looters who marauded through major cities during the Black Lives Matters protests over the death of George Floyd under the knee of a white police officer last summer aren’t going to greet the prospect of four more years of President Trump with equanimity. 

And if anything the violence will be worst if Mr Trump loses; the self-described volunteer “security force” of “Western Chauvinists,” the Proud Boys, will no doubt take seriously the President’s call in the first TV debate to “stand back and stand by,” while every white supremacist and crank  with a grudge will consider themselves called to action should their hero falter.

It is a depressing fact that most Americans view the outcome of this election not with exhilaration and optimism but fear and trepidation. Stores have begun to board up windows and people are getting in supplies in case the streets are unsafe for the next few days. Some of the motivation behind the record early voting figures is a nervousness about ugly scenes or even violence which could take place on election day itself.

And what if there isn’t a clear-cut victory tomorrow night, what if the result is tight, or even an electoral college tie?  A cottage industry of lawyers trained in each state’s specific election rules has been beavering away for months, preparing to challenge ballots in what is likely to become a retrospective mass disenfranchisement of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of voters.  “[A]s soon as that election is over, we’re going in with our lawyers,” Mr Trump said of Pennsylvania and North Carolina yesterday, where the Supreme Court ruled absentee ballots postmarked before election day but arriving after it could be counted.

The legal battles over Election 2020 are likely to make Florida’s hanging chads of 20 years ago seem like a cake walk. There was a joke on this week’s Saturday Night Live which went something like this: “Three days to go until election day, which means it’s now several weeks until the Supreme Court tells us who we voted for.” The laughter from the socially distanced, mask-wearing studio audience rang a little hollow.

In my mind, this is the most likely outcome for tomorrow’s election: a messy result and a protracted, unedifying legal battle which drags on for months and serves no American well. But that’s not even the worst scenario for tomorrow night.

In November 2016, it was pretty clear by around 9pm on election night that the opinion polls had got it wrong and Hillary Clinton’s victory was not as assured as she and most of the Washington elite had assumed. She made her concession call to Candidate Trump at the Hilton Hotel in midtown Manhattan at 1.50am. This time around, if the polls turn out to be right and Mr Biden wins by a landslide – in fact, especially if the polls are right and Mr Biden wins by a landslide – there will be no early hours concession call. 

Mr Trump will cry foul; he will claim voter fraud and ballot irregularities, he will demand recounts; he will claim the election has been stolen. He will not go quietly. Conversely, it could be Mr Biden who refuses to concede if the early results go the way of the President and he attempts to call the election before all the votes have been counted in states where the absentee and early ballots don’t begin to be tallied until after polling night. Many of those states are the very swing spots which could decide the election.

The smooth transfer of power is one of the most fundamental tenets of a democracy. Lose that tomorrow evening, and America will be a scary and unhappy place for years to come.

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