Donald Trump’s refusal to commit to recognizing the result of the US presidential election raises fears of a serious political and institutional crisis in a country deeply divided and under high tension.
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His opponents rose up and even in his own camp, the leader of the Republican majority in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, promised the Americans “a transition in good order”.
But as the coronavirus pandemic explodes the number of postal votes, which Donald Trump considers a source of massive fraud, the president could exploit incomplete results, the law and his powers to claim his victory on November 3.
What did Donald Trump say?
The president has refused this week to pledge to ensure a non-violent passage of power if defeated by Democrat Joe Biden, who leads him in the polls.
“We’re going to have to see what’s going on,” he said.
The Republican billionaire regularly complains about the conditions under which the election is held and claims, without supporting evidence, that postal voting is a source of potential fraud. He also appeared to call for an outright cancellation of the mailed ballots.
Donald Trump, who has voted by mail himself, had previously threatened not to recognize the 2016 presidential results when he faced Hillary Clinton.
What is mail voting?
In the 2016 presidential election, nearly a quarter of the votes (33 million) were cast by mail. This year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is expected to be used a lot more and many states have started mailing the bulletins. Voters can slip them into mailboxes or dedicated ballot boxes.
“We should have between 50 and 70 million votes by mail,” said Nathaniel Persily, professor of law at Stanford University in California.
These postal votes should instead benefit Democrats, according to polls.
But this influx of mail could lead to logistical problems, preventing La Poste from sending voting materials to voters or ballots to polling stations on time to be counted.
The primaries have already been disrupted in several states (lack of ballot, envelopes sent to the wrong address, delay in results …).
“The winner may not be, and we believe will not be, known on election night,” said the Transition Integrity Project (TIP), a group of academics worried that the Trump administration will reject the election outcome.
What are the potential problems?
Beyond isolated incidents, no serious study has reported major postal voting fraud, as Donald Trump claimed to justify Hillary Clinton winning the popular vote in 2016.
The FBI has never “seen in history a nationally coordinated attempt at voter fraud for a major election, whether by mail or otherwise,” according to its director Christopher Wray.
Donald Trump however affirmed Thursday that irregularities had already been noted to his disadvantage.
He appeared to be referring to an investigation launched by justice this week after the discovery of thirteen unaccounted mail ballots in Pennsylvania. At least seven of these bulletins, sent by soldiers, were in his favor. This state, narrowly won by Mr. Trump in 2016, recently decreed that “blank ballots” – which would not be anonymously sealed before being sent in a larger envelope – would be declared void.
What possible dispute?
In 2000, the presidential election between Al Gore and George W. Bush was played out in Florida by a few hundred votes and ended when the Supreme Court refused to order a new count. The Democratic candidate, who could have continued to challenge and express his disagreement, then admitted defeat.
This year, the Trump camp could take legal action to secure a vote recount in key states, including Wisconsin, Pennsylvania or Michigan, where the results could be tight.
According to the Transition Integrity Project, in one of the most extreme scenarios, the president could ask the courts or Republican governors to stop counting the votes on a given date after November 3, and to certify the results. He could even ask his justice minister, Bill Barr, to order the seizure of the postal ballots to force the counting to stop.
The group is also concerned about the “high risk” of violence between supporters of the president and those of Joe Biden if Donald Trump does not acknowledge his defeat.