If in-person voters are disproportionately pro-Trump, and mail-in voters are disproportionately pro-Biden, then you have the ingredients for an election night standoff, where the president claims victory before all the votes have been counted and tries to secure his “win” by keeping mail-in ballots off the table.
There are reforms that could keep the president from taking this tack. To account for postal delays, states can pledge to count ballots postmarked on or before Nov. 3, so that they’re included in the total even if they arrive late. To speed up the process, states could permit election officials to verify and count mail-in ballots even before Election Day. They could also decline to release results until all polls close and all votes are in. News organizations, similarly, could set expectations for viewers and bring as much transparency as possible to vote counts and other forms of election analysis.
Nonetheless, there is a chance that the president takes this path regardless of state officials and the media. And there’s every reason to think that some portion of the Republican Party will back him. The Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee are already challenging mail-in voting laws and suing to keep states like Nevada and Pennsylvania from enlarging their scope. It is easy to imagine a replay of Florida 2000, except on a national scale.
The best defense for the president’s political opponents is, if possible, to vote in person. For some, this will mean going to the polls in November, in the middle of flu season, when the spread of Covid-19 may worsen. In most states, however, there are multiple ways to cast or hand in a ballot. Every state offers some form of early or absentee voting, and 33 states — including swing states like Arizona and Wisconsin — allow absentee voting without an excuse. Trump supports absentee voting — it’s how his older supporters in Florida vote — and his opponents should take advantage of the fact that those systems won’t be under the same kind of attack. Many vote-by-mail states also offer drop boxes so that voters can deliver ballots directly to the registrar. And if you must mail in your ballot, the best practice would be to post it as early as possible, to account for potential delays.
Earlier this year, a group of more than 100 people — Republicans, Democrats, senior political operatives and members of the media — gathered to role play the November election, using predetermined rules and procedures. “In each scenario other than a Biden landslide,” writes Nils Gilman of the Berggruen Institute, who helped organize the exercise, “we ended up with a constitutional crisis that lasted until the inauguration, featuring violence in the streets and a severely disrupted administrative transition.”
There you have it. To head off the worst outcomes, Trump must go down in a decisive defeat. He’s on that path already. The task for his opponents is to sustain that momentum and work to make his defeat as obvious as possible, as early as possible. The pandemic makes that a risk, but it’s a risk many of us may have to take.