The 2020 US presidential election has been filled with tension and suspense, but the end result is now no longer in doubt: Joe Biden won by 306 electoral votes to Trump’s 232 and will become the 46th US president at noon on January 20.
That Biden took home 306 electoral votes is ironic, as that’s was the precise number that Trump won in 2016 and that he himself called a “landslide” despite losing the popular vote by 2.8 million. 2020 was a different matter: Trump not only lost the popular vote, this time by 6 million, but he was also bested in battleground states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin that were key to his 2016 win.
Despite Biden’s clear victory, Trump has refused to concede, repeatedly claiming with no supporting evidence that Democrats engaged in “massive voter fraud” and that he should have won. Since the election, he and his lawyers have launched dozens of lawsuits seeking to overturn the results, the vast majority of which have been tossed out of court.
When the states of Michigan and Georgia certified their elections on November 23, effectively locking in Biden’s victory, the head of the General Services Administration authorized the start of the presidential transition process. Still, Trump continues to contest the election results.
As his legal remedies were being exhausted, the president has tried unsuccessfully to use the weight of his office to end official certification of the vote in some key states. For example, he summoned Republican elected officials to Washington in order to get them to pressure state legislatures to overturn the election results on the pretext of fraud.
In a now-infamous press conference at the Republican National Committee headquarters in Washington, DC, Trump’s team of lawyers, led by former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, claimed that there was a conspiracy hatched by Venezuela, George Soros, China, “Antifa” activists, and the Democratic Party.
That Trump is refusing to concede based on such far-fetched conspiracy theories is highly irregular, to say the least.
A wide range of journalists, scholars and politicians – including a number of high-ranking Republicans – have highlighted the danger that a contested presidential transition could pose to American democracy. To put things into perspective, it’s useful to look at history to understand how far presidents on the losing side of an election have gone and what is specific about the current situation.
Historical precedents for tense elections
Tense or contested elections have happened before. The 2000 presidential race between Gore and Bush saw results delayed until December 13, when Al Gore finally conceded defeat after the Supreme Court decision to stop counting ballots in Florida.
Another moment of tension is Herbert Hoover’s 1932 loss to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Although the circumstances are very different, there are interesting similarities between the two eras and two presidents. Like Trump, Herbert Hoover was a wealthy businessman who came late to politics. He opposed his party’s establishment, ruled alone and shattered the prevailing ideological consensus. He also supported an isolationist, protectionist and nativist policy, with mass deportations of immigrants.
Hoover also tried to scare voters about his opponent’s so-called socialism and lost the election because of his inability to resolve the crisis that followed the crash of 1929. Despite this, he continued to promise that an economic recovery was underway, using the long period between election and inauguration to sow discord, undermine the economy and limit the options for his successor. This period of tension eventually resulted in the 20th amendment, adopted in 1933, which moved the beginning and ending of the presidential term from March 4 to January 20.
Still, two major differences distinguish 1932 from the 2020 elections: the Republican Party had suffered a crushing defeat in both houses of Congress and Hoover never contested the election results.
We have to go back to 1876 to find elections that were subject to multiple allegations of electoral fraud, with disputes over 20 electoral votes in four states. Congress eventually stepped in to resolve the ensuing constitutional crisis through a bipartisan electoral commission. It gave birth to the infamous Compromise of 1877 under which the Southern Democrats acknowledged the Republican candidate as president on the condition of pulling the remaining federal troops out of the South. This ended the Reconstruction era as well as the hope of integration of blacks in the southern states. It eventually paved the way for the “Jim Crow laws” that, among other things, made voting difficult for black Americans.
Democratic norms of transition of power
The 1963 Presidential Transition Act facilitates the orderly and peaceful transition of power of the executive branch. Amended several times, it states that the General Services Administration (GSA) must provide the president-elect’s transition team with resources and access to government services. This year the GSA’s administrator, Emily Murphy, waited until November 23, three weeks after the major media had named Biden as the winner, before signing the paperwork.
While the transition has now formally started, Trump has continued to dig in his heels, and it is possible that he may refuse to give the traditional concession speech. The speech is a common practice among presidents since 1896 and has been seen as a way to ease tensions and unify the country, as was the case for Al Gore in 2000. There is also speculation that Trump could be the first president not to attend the inauguration of his successor since Andrew Johnson in 1869. In form as in substance, there is little to no historical precedent for his actions.
Donald Trump’s primary focus is to remain a force in politics and the media. To do so requires diminishing the authority of the existing press and politicians, so he has built up over time an alternative narrative blaming them for fraud and corruption. The goal is to delegitimize his opponent, place himself as a victim of the evil forces of the “deep state” and the “fake news”, and take on the role of the hero – that he is strong and not weak, a winner and not a loser. This narrative reversal is an attempt to protect Trump’s “brand” and keep his supporters in line. Despite the complete absence of proof, 70% of Republicans say that they believe that Joe Biden won by fraud (though that may be more wishful thinking than deep conviction).
While the United States’ democratic institutions and checks and balances, including the judiciary, have survived this test, the 2020 elections highlighted important weaknesses in the country’s electoral system: the lack of uniform standards for election certification, the uncertainty about the legal competence of obscure canvassing boards, and the theoretical power of some state legislatures to appoint their own electors in defiance of the popular vote.
What has saved American democracy so far has been the integrity of local officials, such as the Secretary of State in Georgia, who have followed the rule of the law and norms as practiced. One may wonder, however, what might have happened with a tighter result, as in 2000, or with a more competent authoritarian. This is especially worrisome if you consider the millions of Americans who, more interested in victory than democracy, seemed indifferent to or even supportive of Trump’s sustained assault on long-held norms.
The Fact check US section received support from Craig Newmark Philanthropies, an American foundation fighting against disinformation.