Don’t Call the Race Too Early

An early declaration of the election result from a partisan network—on the left or right—could trigger violence in the United States.

This article is part of Election 2020: America Votes, FP’s round-the-clock coverage of the U.S. election results as they come in, with short dispatches from correspondents and analysts around the world. The America Votes page is free for all readers.

A Democratic Party supporter reacts by giving the finger after Donald Trump's victory is announced on television in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Nov. 9, 2016.
A Democratic Party supporter reacts by giving the finger after Donald Trump's victory is announced on television in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Nov. 9, 2016. Omar Havana/Getty Images

A disputed and violent election in the United States threatens to undermine the credibility of the political system and lead to a further loss of U.S. prestige around the world. As President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden trade insults and accusations, entrenching deep social divisions, trust in the electoral system is faltering.

With armed civilians marching past polling stations and fear of unrest prompting some individuals and communities to mobilize themselves in self-defense, a controversial outcome could trigger clashes across the country. If the 2020 election does explode, the way that the result is communicated to the American people is likely to be the trigger.

That’s because how the result is announced can be as important as the result itself.

The controversial Kenyan election of 2007 provides a good example of how important the process of announcing the results can be. The presidential election was expected to be tight, but some opinion polls suggested that the main opposition candidate, Raila Odinga, had a slight lead. The early results appeared to confirm this, in part because some of those numbers came from Odinga’s political heartlands. Then the results stopped coming, and opposition leaders warned that the election was being fixed. When President Mwai Kibaki was finally declared to have won in a rushed announcement—from which most of the media was excluded—it appeared to confirm Odinga’s fears. In the political clashes that followed, more than 1,000 people died.

The outcome of the election would have been controversial whatever the process, but the way it came about poured fuel on the fire.

The United States is heading in the same direction. On the one hand, Trump has already implied that a victory for Biden would mean a rigged election. On the other hand, favorable opinion polls mean that the Democrats are confident of winning and are unlikely to view a Trump win as credible.

Against this backdrop, the way the results will be announced seems almost designed to cause trouble. The United States lacks a centralized and unified electoral commission responsible for presidential elections—in stark contrast to most democracies. This means that many Americans take their cue from television stations, which have tended to announce the outcome early based on exit polls and other projections. This is always a risky strategy, but could be catastrophic in 2020.

This year, many Democrats have voted by mail because of public health concerns. Republican voters are less concerned about COVID-19 and so more likely to vote on Election Day—and in many states, in-person votes are counted before mailed ballots.

This means that the early results and exit polls conducted at polling stations could suggest a Trump win, which will encourage the president, his social media followers, and perhaps some of the media outlets that support him to declare an early victory before all votes have been counted. Things will look very different however, when postal ballots are finally counted—which could take days. Once postal votes are added to the totals, we may well see a clear Biden victory.

As in Kenya, a late change of electoral fortunes, with both sides claiming victory, would inflame passions and foster accusations of manipulation. It could also lead to a political impasse in which the U.S. Supreme Court—now loaded with Trump appointees—would have the final say. This would be unlikely to lead to the kind of loss of life witnessed in Kenya, but it would generate remarkable political instability, especially if rival parties trade accusations of voter suppression and ballot-box tampering, further reducing public confidence in democracy.

Nic Cheeseman is a professor of democracy at the University of Birmingham and the author of How to Rig an Election. Twitter: @Fromagehomme

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