America may well be headed for electoral chaos and not since the stolen election of 1824 that put John Quincy Adams in the White House could the resolution be as disruptive.
COVID-19 has made many Americans fearful of standing in long lines and entering voting booths. Millions more than in the past will cast ballots by mail or in advance at paper ballot drops designated by local authorities.
It is hardly clear that every state will have completed the counting and resolved disputed ballots before the Electoral College convenes on Dec. 14.
A more favorable performance by President Donald Trump in the final debate, the continuing civil unrest in many cities, and the unyielding demands of protesters to defund police and spend more on social programs when cities are falling into dysfunction from eroding tax bases could help Trump reduce former Vice President Biden’s lead. Trump would then be within striking distance in the Electoral College.
A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found 47% of Biden supporters plan to vote by mail whereas 86% of Trump supporters plan to vote in person. The morning after the election, Trump could hold substantial leads in the actual but incomplete state vote tallies but with the major networks and respected analysts asserting their models indicate an accurate count of all the mail-in ballots could flip the election to Biden.
In 2018, ballots counted after Election Day reversed Republican leads in several California congressional districts and the Arizona Senate race—facts we may hear referenced repeatedly from the media on election night and afterward.
You don’t have to be a Trump or anti-Trump conspiracy theorist to realize accomplishing an accurate and complete count in every state before Dec. 14 could be challenging.
Only five—Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah—routinely conduct all mail-in elections, and some 35 states haven’t heeded the Postal Service’s advice to require voters to request ballots at least 15 days in advance.
Ballots will arrive late—through no fault of the Postal Service—but many likely will be processed. Many mail-in ballots will be contested for signatures that don’t match voter registration cards and other irregularities. And offering voters reasonable opportunities to cure those will take time.
Several states—including Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania do not allow mail-in ballots to be opened before Election Day. Experiences from the primaries indicate the surge of paper ballots could overwhelm local officials and circumstances on the ground make the Keystone State particularly ripe for a contentious count.
The potential is ripe for lawsuits in many states—not just Florida as in Bush vs. Gore—that would find their way to the Supreme Court. The justices could be ruling favorably for one side in some states and the other elsewhere and lack the luxury of time to send decisions back to lower courts with only a few days left before Dec. 14.
Trump could hold a precarious lead in official tallies but no clear winner could be confidently declared. Violence could escalate and paralyze critical portions of major cities
That’s a recipe to damage the credibility of American democracy at home among peaceable citizens and abroad among investors.
The economic recovery is already slowing, and millions are seeing prospects of regaining full time employment dashed, as hopes for compromise between the White House and Congress on additional stimulus grow more distant.
Investors could panic SPX, 0.14%, and major American and foreign corporations could start dumping dollars BUXX, -0.31% and U.S. Treasury securities TMUBMUSD10Y, 0.723% in favor of yuan USDCNH, -0.45%, euro EURUSD, 0.16% and yen USDJPY, -0.28% denominated debt. Most hiring and significant investments in business expansion and developing new products would seize up.
Chinese leaders could then boast their model of stability and brisk recovery is superior to Mayor Bill de Blasio presiding over Mayhem in Manhattan.
Ultimately, the election could go to the House of Representatives where each state gets one vote, and the GOP controls 26 delegations in the current House.
Much work needs to be done to cope with the pandemic and restore the U.S. economy but cooperation between a Democratically controlled House and perhaps Senate, and second Trump administration with questionable legitimacy would be even worse than during the last four years.
Peter Morici is an economist and emeritus business professor at the University of Maryland, and a national columnist.