Will elections really be held in the U.S. on Nov. 3?
This is when the polls are set to open to elect not only the President, but also the House, a third of the Senate and a number of governors. A law dating back to 1845 established the timetable: the vote is held “on the first Tuesday following the first Monday of November,” an odd formula chosen by what was then the Congress of an agrarian country, in order not to disturb the summer harvests and to avoid travel when the cold weather was really starting to bite.
As a result, contrary to what happens in the rest of the world, elections are held on a working day, and only a dozen states have made Election Day a holiday.
Even under normal conditions, voting is less easy in the United States than in Europe (for example, registration on the electoral rolls does not happen automatically); furthermore, the pandemic came this year, which makes Trump’s preferred mass rallies impossible, but also places heavy restrictions on the exercise of the right to vote.
This has been seen in recent weeks during the primaries, with lines hundreds of meters long and hours of waiting before being able to access the few polling stations that were left open. Many states allow voting by mail, and some allow early voting, increasing confusion in the electoral processes.
However, the real unknown is whether a president with minority support, hated by the majority of Americans but supported by a base of believers whose loyalty nothing seems to diminish, will even “allow” a vote on Nov. 3. Trump knows very well that at this point Joe Biden enjoys an insurmountable advantage in the voting intentions of Americans: individual polls vary, but on average 51% of voters are determined to support Biden against 37% supporting the current president. This large advantage is entirely due to the disastrous incompetence with which Trump has managed the COVID-19 pandemic, which on Saturday recorded 75,000 more cases, bringing the total number of dead to over 141,000.
But the pandemic could provide the pretext to postpone the elections, or make it so that as few Americans as possible get to vote: the only thing the Republicans can hope for is a low turnout, especially in key states like Ohio, Pennsylvania or Florida. The voting date is set by law, so a Congressional decision should be needed to change it—but it wouldn’t be the first time in the history of the United States that a president would give himself powers he doesn’t have, in the name of an emergency, using executive orders.
Among Democrats, the suspicion is beginning to circulate that the inaction of the White House and Republican governors in the face of the devastation brought by COVID-19 will be the pretext they will use in November to save a doomed presidency. If the vote were held today, the Democrats would likely win by a large margin: experts estimate Biden would get from a minimum of 268 electoral votes (out of 270 needed to be elected) to a maximum of 332.
As is well known, in the United States the election of the president is accomplished by the Electoral College, a body composed of delegates elected by citizens state by state—a relic of the 1787 constitution that has a highly distorting effect on the will of the people today. In the 12 presidential elections of the last half-century, four times the margin between the two candidates was less than 3%. More than one out of three elections (in 1960, 1976, 2000, 2004 and 2016) was decided by a hair’s breadth, or even won by the candidate who had obtained fewer actual votes, as in 2000 and 2016.
These imbalances, as we know, work to the advantage of rural states and the Republicans: it is no coincidence that both George W. Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016 obtained a majority in the Electoral College despite having gotten fewer votes than their opponents. So it’s not unimaginable that a desperate candidate like Trump, supported by a fascist-like Republican party, should seek every means to stay in power, this time with the help of the coronavirus instead of Putin.
To this one must add the fact that pollsters tend to underestimate Trump’s electoral strength. In 2016 as well, they were not able to truly capture his appeal, especially in the traditionally Republican states: in 19 states won by Trump, his share of the popular vote had been underestimated by more than 5%. This means that, generally speaking, the polls tend to be unable to correctly estimate the strength of the traditional political affiliation of the voters, and, in particular, the determination of many conservative voters to stop the Democrats at all costs, perhaps for the sole purpose of securing a friendly Supreme Court: Justice Ginsburg, 89 years old, is in a very precarious health condition, and it might be just a few months until her replacement will need to be appointed.
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