“What if there’s no winner on November 4?”

I have written this piece for CNN. It begins:

What will the United States and the world wake up to on November 4, 2020, the day after Election Day? And could the US endure a close election in which Joe Biden is declared the winner but President Donald J. Trump refuses to concede?

Given current polling of the presidential race, it is possible to imagine three scenarios, either on November 4 or on days soon thereafter: a narrow Trump victory in the Electoral College, with a huge loss in the popular vote; a Biden landslide in which Trump claims he lost because of a “rigged” election; or a very close and potentially flawed election going into overtime that could lead to a prolonged struggle over the presidency and the country. Each of these presents its own set of challenges for American democracy….

If Trump loses by up to 5 million votes in the popular vote, as he could well do, and he remains in office thanks to an Electoral College victory after a divisive first term, it would vindicate his strategy of catering to a fervent white, rural and older base of voters while spurning a more multi-cultural and eclectic American majority. The American left would view such a narrow victory as the product of political manipulation, especially after Republicans over the last two decades played hardball on gerrymandering and restrictive voting laws. But if history is any indication Democrats are unlikely to do more than loudly complain unless there is evidence that Trump engaged in actual electoral tampering to ensure his victory.

A Biden landslide in both the popular vote and the electoral college, which seems plausible given current polling, would raise its own set of challenges. It is hard to imagine Trump accepting a loss with grace and giving a magnanimous concession speech wishing Biden and the country well. The best-case scenario under this potential outcome is that Trump grumbles on his way out, ready to rebuild his business empire and perhaps start Trump TV while a number of lawsuits and investigations play out.

Should Trump decide not to go quietly following a Biden landslide, there’s good reason to believe that American institutions as well as Republican election leaders would accept his defeat and refuse to allow him to make an authoritarian power play. Trump has tested American norms since his candidacy in 2016, and has on multiple occasions refused to commit to a peaceful transition of power….

But what if it is close? This is the scenario that keeps me up at night. The race could come down to Pennsylvania or Michigan, two battleground states with a history of poor election administration in big cities including Philadelphia and Detroit.

If the race is close, Trump and his campaign could file lawsuits and use evidence of election administrator incompetence to convince key segments of the American right that Democrats stole the election through deliberate fraud. Trump has already sowed distrust in the results by saying without evidence that the only way he loses is if the election is “rigged.”

I am most worried about a race that is too close to call — especially in states struggling to count a torrent of mail-in ballots, such as Pennsylvania, whose legislators so far have refused to give election officials a head start as they do in other states like Florida to process absentee votes.


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