The coronavirus pandemic was always going to make the 2020 election uniquely complicated, and Donald Trump’s norm-busting style was always going to make it tense, but headlines in recent days have started to read like political thriller plot lines. We’ve seen Iranian skullduggery, dummy ballot boxes and mysterious threatening emails. Congressional Democrats are pleading with the military to respect a peaceful transition of power. A poll shows that barely a fifth of Americans believe this year’s election will be “free and fair.” There’s concern about violence, especially by militias and white supremacists. Some Americans are even laying in extra food and water, fearing what comes next.
Americans have little experience navigating disputed elections at this scale, and none at all doing so with a president hinting he might not leave office if he loses.
So what could we really be in for after November 3? Beyond a vague, crippling sense of dread, a feeling informed by hours of late-night doom-scrolling, what could actually go wrong?
The closer we get to the election, the more the picture comes into focus. Three months ago, POLITICO Magazine surveyed experts about what could go wrong on Election Day itself—from voter suppression to sinister “poll-watchers” to complete voting chaos—and as the day approaches we asked more than a dozen election, constitutional and national security experts about the concrete problems they’re planning for once the polls close.
Some have already been involved in “wargaming” scenarios for a bitterly contested election; others have been busy gathering legal memos to plan for this contingency or that or enlisting corps of lawyers and observers to deploy on Election Day and to any trouble spots in the days that follow. Their fears run from a narrow election night Trump lead in Arizona to a reprise of the 2000 “Brooks Brothers riot”—this time with AR-15 rifles—to the outsized importance that might weigh on Montana’s sole congressional race if the presidential race ends up in the House of Representatives.
One bit of good news: The U.S. election system is relatively resilient and guided by strict legal procedures, so we can expect the uncertainty—tense as it may be—to unfold with distinct phases. “There are different points where we’ll know what kind of world we’re living in,” says Stanford Law School election expert Nathaniel Persily. “Every nightmare scenario begins with the early states not being decisive and the absentee vote in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin being outcome determinative. We’ll know within four hours of polls closing whether we live in that world.”
“If Biden wins by 2, 3, 4 points, we’re in this world,” says one Democratic strategist who spoke anonymously to avoid letting on that his group is involved in preparing for a contested election. “The 4-to-6-point range is still pretty significant. Even if there are no shenanigans and it’s a clean count, the Electoral College bias probably requires getting to 3 or 4-point margin of victory for a Democrat before you win the Electoral College too.”