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Voter intimidation, Russian influence, refusal to accept results: What could go wrong on Election Night

November 2, 2020, 2:30 PM UTC

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Hope for the best, expect the worst. That’s the motto when it comes to Tuesday’s election. Voting in the middle of a highly contagious and deadly global pandemic was never going to be easy, but woefully underfunded local election offices; President Donald Trump’s mobilization of armed “poll-watchers”; warnings of foreign interference; an unprecedented surge in mail-in ballots; the constant, typically inaccurate rhetoric coming out of the White House about mass voter fraud; and the potential for Supreme Court challenges make it seem highly improbable that anything will go according to plan. 

Businesses around the country are boarding up their shop windows ahead of this week’s vote—unsure of what to expect—and election-induced anxiety is high

So while Americans are hoping that their fears are overstated, here’s what they should expect, or at least prepare for. 

Outside interference 

The Department of Homeland Security ramped up warnings about election security last month, releasing a 26-page “Homeland Threat Assessment” that warned that “Russia is the likely primary covert influence actor and purveyor of disinformation and misinformation within the Homeland.” The paper backed an August assessment by U.S. counterintelligence chief William Evanina that found Russia was attempting to undermine the candidacy of Joe Biden. 

There are no signs that Russians have actually infiltrated voting systems the way they did in 2016, but state and local election networks are still incredibly vulnerable to attack. If the election results take weeks or months to report, that creates an opportunity for Russian trolls to spread disinformation and for hackers to implement malware that security officials believe may already be lying dormant in voting systems. 

U.S. security agencies, meanwhile, have been coordinating behind the scenes in an attempt to thwart hackers. The National Security Agency (NSA), for example, has been targeting Russian spies by knocking them off the Internet. The State Department has worked to revoke visas for those they deem working to influence the election. 

The President, however, has refused to take a hard-line stance against Russian election interference and has repeatedly played down the threat. “He is aiding and abetting Putin’s efforts by not being direct about this,” H.R. McMaster, Trump’s former national security adviser, said in a recent interview with MSNBC. “This sustained campaign of disruption, disinformation, and denial is aided by any leader who doesn’t acknowledge it.”

Militias mobilize 

President Trump has repeatedly urged his supporters to go to their polling places and “watch” or “monitor” for fraud, causing a fear of widespread voter intimidation. 

“I am encouraging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully, because that’s what has to happen—I am urging them to do it,” Trump said during the first presidential debate held in Cleveland last month. “There was a big problem. In Philadelphia, they went in to watch. They’re called poll watchers—very safe, very nice thing. They were thrown out; they weren’t allowed to watch. You know why? Because bad things happen in Philadelphia, bad things.” 

It is illegal in all 50 states for citizens to loiter around polling places and intimidate voters, meaning the President was urging his supporters to commit a federal crime. The Republican Party, meanwhile, responded to the President’s requests by creating a multimillion-dollar effort to recruit 50,000 volunteers to act as “poll watchers” on Election Day.  

Retailers, restaurants, and shopping areas like Rodeo Drive are planning for unrest. Walmart initially removed guns and ammo from sales floors, but then quickly reversed course

The President’s son Donald Trump Jr. used military language while discussing these watchers, calling them an “Army for Trump.” In a video posted to Facebook, he said that “the radical left are laying the groundwork to steal this election from my father, President Donald Trump.”

On Friday, a group of Trump supporters reportedly stopped and harassed a bus that belonged to the Biden campaign. Video shows the caravan of supporters surrounding the bus with their vehicles in Texas. The Biden campaign said the pro-Trump trucks tried to run the bus off the road. The FBI said on Sunday that they were investigating the violent incident. The President, meanwhile, defended his supporters’ actions. 

“In my opinion, these patriots did nothing wrong,” Trump said in a tweet. “Instead, the FBI & Justice should be investigating the terrorists, anarchists, and agitators of ANTIFA, who run around burning down our Democrat run cities and hurting our people!”

Biden said Sunday afternoon that he was worried the President was encouraging his backers to be violent and that it might manifest on Election Day. 

Counting quickly is impossible 

A pandemic coupled with record numbers of mail-in ballots means that local election offices will both be understaffed and overextended. Seventeen states have statutes that say mail-in ballots can’t be counted until after polls close on Election Day. Other states, like Pennsylvania, will continue to count ballots as they come in after the election, so long as they are postmarked by Nov. 3. 

Counting a mail-in ballot is more time-consuming and difficult than an in-person vote: The envelope must be opened; ballots must be checked to make sure they’re signed correctly; and, in some cases, verified that signatures match. Some states require officials to contact voters who made errors on their ballots to give them a chance to correct them. It could take a very long time to process these votes. 

Swing states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin attempted to amend their election rules to allow for early counting of votes, but Republicans in the state legislatures blocked those efforts. The longer these states take to count votes, the more time there will be for Republicans to mount legal challenges to stop their efforts. 

Military votes, which are often cast as absentee ballots by soldiers serving abroad and at bases throughout the country, will also likely go uncounted until well after Nov. 3. In some states, those in service have different rules on required postmarks and deadlines. In Florida, a key battleground state where one in five military votes was cast in the 2016 election, ballots are accepted through Nov. 13. The President’s insistence that no ballot is counted after Tuesday could disenfranchise a large number of service members and impact the outcome of the election.

“We’ve seen in the past, obviously Florida is the key example, that it can come down to a single state and not very many votes,” said Jack Noland, a researcher for Count Every Hero, a nonpartisan military voting advocacy group, to McClatchy DC. “It is not out of the realm of possibility, at all, that some of these statewide or down-ballot races could be determined by overseas and military voters.”

The courts get involved 

The Trump administration has already made multiple appeals to the Supreme Court asking that states discard any mail-in ballots received after Election Day—even if they are postmarked before Election Day. With Postal Service slowdowns significantly delaying delivery of ballots, these requests could have election-altering potential. 

The President’s lawyers will likely continue to appeal a ruling in Pennsylvania which allowed ballots received up until Nov. 6 to be counted. 

“I think this will end up in the Supreme Court,” Trump told reporters last month about the election, just before he confirmed Justice Amy Coney Barrett to the bench. 

Still, it’s very unlikely that the outcome of a presidential election is determined by the Supreme Court. It happened in 1876 when five justices decided the race for Rutherford B. Hayes over Samuel Tilden and again in 2000 when the Supreme Court stopped a recount of votes, and George W. Bush became President over Al Gore. 

The Supreme Court has already made two rulings about this election—allowing Pennsylvania to extend its vote count deadline and denying Wisconsin the same privilege—but it’s still unclear what exactly Republican lawyers would argue if they lose the election and challenge that loss. “I think it’s terrible that we can’t know the results of an election the night of the election…We’re going to go in the night, as soon as that election’s over, we’re going in with our lawyers,” Trump said to reporters Sunday evening. 

If the President refuses to agree to a peaceful transfer of power, the court may also get involved. 

Candidates refuse to accept the vote 

Trump has reportedly told confidants that he plans to publicly declare victory on Tuesday if it looks like he’s “ahead,” even if there are still large numbers of uncounted absentee ballots. Trump has long been setting the scene to falsely say any ballots counted after election night are fraudulent and that Democrats are attempting to “steal” the election from him. 

Jason Miller, communications director for the Trump campaign, said this week that Trump would win the election and that Democrats are “just going to try to steal it back after the election.” Any challenges to counts by Democrats, he said, would just be “hijinks or lawsuits or whatever kind of nonsense.”

It’s not unlikely that if he loses or results are unclear, Trump will refuse to accept defeat or calls the fairness of the election into question. Either way, once the Electoral College votes are counted in early January, the results of the election will be consecrated.