/ 5 November 2020

Diary of an elections spotter

Ballot Counting In Michigan Us Election
DETROIT, MI - NOVEMBER 04: Election workers and Election observers and challengers at the Detroit Department of Elections Central Counting Board Voting at TCF Center, Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2020 in Detroit, MI. With the surge in vote by mail/absentee ballots, analysts cautioned it could take days to count all the ballots, leading some states to initially look like victories for President Trump only to later shift towards democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

November 2: The day before

Doom-scrolling Twitter seems to be the default setting for millions of us less than 24 hours before the official Election Day in the United States, one that seems like more of a Day of Reckoning than any in my lifetime. Tens of millions of us have already voted, though many of those millions did so by mail, a process that the Republicans have tried to undermine — as they have tried to undermine so many elements of ballot access, not just in 2020 but for more than a generation. They cry about fraud that is virtually nonexistent, they make up rules that don’t exist either in the constitution or in law, and they simply block access wherever they can, because they know that the demographics of the US simply do not favour Republicans if every eligible voter actually casts a ballot.

The rest of the world is laughing at us, of course, and when I am in South Africa — something that may not happen for a while despite it being an annual pilgrimage for several months every year for almost two decades — I hear that laughter regularly. I cannot say that I blame you.

So I doom scroll. I look for indicators from the latest polls. I seek information on the latest Republican anti-voting shenanigans and hope to see how they are being countered. And I refresh-refresh-refresh. Because what else can we do?

And the polling data are good. Joe Biden has a much more consistent polling lead than Hillary Clinton did at this time four years ago and he has had consistently better polling data than she did at any point four years ago leading up to now. Biden’s probabilities are far stronger than Clinton’s were leading up to election day — close to 90% according to Nate Silver’s 538, whereas by election day in 2016 Donald Trump had a 29% chance to win according to the same source — certainly not likely, but hardly negligible. And of course the polls were shockingly accurate on the popular vote in 2016, but America’s anachronistic Electoral College system meant that the popular vote did not matter as it did not in 2000. As it might not this year.

Trump, a fiery ball of hatred and grievance, ego and misinformation, defied the odds. The underdog sometimes wins. Still, the remaining shred of optimism that 2020 has left me with keeps doing the calculations and can see Biden escaping with as many as 350 Electoral College votes. If all of the votes are allowed to count. That is a big “if” in Trump’s America, I am sad to say.

It is ironic that Americans assume that elections in the rest of the world need election monitors. Because it sure feels like we need them now.

November 3: The day of

Since 2008 every election year I have done live election coverage on two local affiliates of national networks that partner up for election day. In 2016 I had to play the role of dispassionate analyst as I watched the slow-motion car crash happen. I will be doing the same tonight.

There is every sign that Trump simply plans to win this election even if he does not win this election and there are ample signs of his supporters gearing up for violence to ensure that there is no peaceful transition of power to have even level-headed folks concerned about what things will look like tomorrow, next week, next month and on 20 January, when either Biden or Trump is to be given the Oath of Office and sworn in. That is a long, lame-duck period with plenty of room for destabilisation, corruption, and general malfeasance, especially if Trump feels that he has nothing to lose. As a result, while I am desperately hoping for a Biden victory, I am also hoping for a landslide. But, paradoxically, if President Trump does emerge victorious I want for it to be comfortable enough that it is not plausibly the result of theft, chicanery, or plain smash-and-grab robbery.

Meanwhile in the era of the permanent campaign these will be the longest hours from where I sit at 6am central time. We’ll check Twitter incessantly, go to our favorite polling and data sites, and continue to refresh-refresh-refresh, but realistically we will know almost nothing more in 12 hours than we know now, and then the news will come in as a slow, painful trickle. Trump is up in Florida? But Miami/Dade County results, which will favour Biden, are not in yet? Wait, there are polling irregularities in Western Pennsylvania? What does that mean? Every bit of news can be worse than no news at all. It will be a long day.

I’m predicting that Biden wins with 350 Electoral College Votes and 54% of the popular vote (and I am emailing my editor this prediction at 6:10am on election day). But my level of confidence, especially after 2016, is not high.

00:09 am, 4 November: So I was right not to be confident, and it looks like this uncertainty will last for a while. Much like in 2016 I had to be as much of a dispassionate observer as possible on television as I watched what appeared to be a slow motion car wreck, at least compared to my obviously inflated expectations for both the presidential election and the Senate. Once again it appears that the Democratic candidate will get the most votes. Once again — for the third time since 2000  — it is quite possible that the winner of the presidential election will be a Republican who won substantially fewer votes than his opponent. If you think this makes a mockery of America’s often sanctimonious pronouncements to the rest of the world, you are right. But Republicans are not going to abandon an Electoral College that has served them, if not the country or the world, so well.

So it will be a sleepless night here in the US as votes trickle in and as Republicans try to prevent completely legal votes from counting. Trump has already tweeted that he is going to declare victory, yet another massive violation of norms for a president for whom norms, decorum, and politesse mean nothing. And his speech doing so was even more grotesque, more autocratic, more brazen, more absurd, and more duplicitous than even I thought he was capable of. He is planting the seeds to destroy American democracy. I know how hyperbolic this sounds. But the president of the United States just claimed victory in an election where millions of votes are yet to be counted and no one is even close to the magic 270 Electoral College votes and he asserted that continuing to count those votes was tantamount to voter fraud even though vote counting past midnight and past election day has taken place in the vast majority of American presidential elections. This is why I will not sleep tonight.

November 4: The immediate aftermath

10am: It has been a long morning as news drips in, as results continue their slow accumulation. Biden has taken the lead in Wisconsin and Michigan. He holds leads in Arizona and Nevada and holds a lead for three of Maine’s four Electoral College votes (Maine and Nebraska both allow their Electoral College vote to be split between Congressional districts and the statewide vote.)

7:04pm: Fists unclenched. Butthole unpuckered. Nerves settling. In an unprecedented election during a global pandemic that Trump absolutely exacerbated, Democrats chose to exercise voting-by-mail in unprecedented numbers. And as those numbers are rolling in it is clear that there was, in fact, a Biden firewall, that Democratic turnout was likely to be a difference-maker, that reliable constituencies might have voted from home but they did not stay home. It looks as if Biden might win and might win more comfortably than many of us thought late last night.

But, of course Trump is not going gently into this good night. So he is filing lawsuits left and right — to stop counting votes where it looks bad for him while insisting counting must continue in states where he is behind.  His arguments are ridiculous and meritless, but in the US these days something being without merit is not sufficient to protect us from meritless claims. Trump has successfully stacked the courts in the US and all it takes is one judge unencumbered by a sense of shame or a code of ethics to stop the counting or worse. Biden is winning. That does not mean he will be allowed to win.

9:15pm: It has been sitting at 253-214 in Biden’s favour in the Electoral College for hours now, and while Biden is technically behind in all of them except for Arizona and Nevada (and in both Trump is catching up at an alarming rate) apparently the internal numbers indicate that Biden is ahead and should or could or might win. Which is to say, we know nothing. Suffice it to say that this is all nail biting enough that I went out and bought bourbon because in a case of epically bad timing, I had no booze in the house.

9:38pm: I now have booze in the house.

10:47pm: Damn you time zones! We still are too many states removed from knowing anything, but I owe my editor at the Mail&Guardian an article tonight. So I will use authorial authority. It looks like Biden is ahead, but it is clear that President Trump is trying to undermine and thwart the will of the people. He cannot win on his merits. But he knows he lives in an America that might support him, at least those with weapons.

Two days later: 5 November

We’ve set the highest number of new daily cases of Covid-19 since the pandemic hit. We have Trump fans embracing conspiracy theories about voting in order to deny counting legitimate votes. We do not know who our next president is. This is America 2020.