NEW YORK: As we await confirmation of the result of the US presidential election, it is easy to forget that, beyond the delays, confusion and misinformation, the truth of the contest and its result was precisely determined days ago and remains safely sealed in the ballots that remain to be counted.
About 130,000 of those ballots are in the pivotal state of Pennsylvania, where Joe Biden pulled ahead on Friday after steadily erasing a large initial lead built by Trump on election day.
Democrats were, therefore, in a cheerful mood in the early hours on Friday, as the counts of those final ballots started to trickle in, many of them from blue strongholds: 37,000 from Allegheny County in Pittsburg, for example, and 20,000 from Philadelphia.
Support for Biden was trending much higher than the percentage point lead he needed in the remaining ballots to win those counties. This appears to be thanks in large part to a high turnout by suburban women and mothers, arguably the demographic most affected by the coronavirus crisis. Women have borne the brunt of the pandemic nationwide; in September alone, nearly 1 million women lost their jobs. Many sacrificed their careers to care for locked down or quarantined children.
But even the tallies of remaining mail-in votes from traditionally Republican counties in Pennsylvania were favoring Biden. He netted 2,500 votes in Mercer County alone last night.
Trump’s supporters rallied outside tabulation centers under the slogan “Stop the Steal,” and described mail-in ballots as “write-ins” that were received after election day. Election officials have segregated ballots that might be challenged in court later.
As Biden edged past Trump in Pennsylvania, TV news networks faced a politically fraught question: when would they call the race? Prominent statistician Nate Silver encouraged them to do so, and fast.
“Whichever network calls this first will look good in retrospect,” he tweeted. That is not such an easy task for networks given that this is a highly unusual election. Fox News, for example, already took a lot of heat from the Trump campaign after calling Arizona for Biden early on in a very close race.
Biden, meanwhile, already looks like someone who has taken on the mantle of president.
“Democracy can be messy,” he said during a press conference on Friday as he again called for patience and reiterated that every vote will be counted. He then moved on to discuss the COVID-19 briefing he had just received. Biden had made the pandemic the main focus of his campaign — and today the US hit a record high of 116,000 new cases.
Meanwhile, pundits were wondering where Trump was. He has largely remained out of the public eye but emerged on Thursday evening to make a statement in the White House. His stance was quite a departure from Biden’s, as once again he called the integrity of the election into question, made claims of widespread voter fraud and threatened to take his fight “to the highest court in the land.” He described media polls as “election interference” aimed at “creating the illusion of momentum for Biden.” As he was speaking, the captions on TV screens were being updated with the latest nationwide vote shares: Biden 50 percent, Trump 48 percent.
In a highly unusual move, some networks cut away from the conference, telling viewers they were doing so because the information given by the president was misleading.
Trump’s camp has been hinting for some time that no one should expect him to concede defeat gracefully. “This election is not over,” a campaign attorney said.
The president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., blasted Republicans who are not supporting Trump’s efforts to discredit the election, going so far as to suggest that this should be remembered when the 2024 Republican presidential primary comes around.
“Everyone should be watching who is actually fighting this flagrant nonsense and who is sitting on the sidelines,” he said in a message posted on Twitter. “The total lack of action from virtually all of the 2024 GOP hopefuls is pretty amazing.”
Aside from a few lukewarm statements of support — from South Carolina Senator Lyndsay Graham, for example, and Vice President Mike Pence — most Republicans have remained silent about the commotion surrounding the results. Many observers believe this illustrates the dilemma they face between supporting their party’s candidate while also respecting the democratic process.
The Trump campaign also ratcheted up its pressure on election officials, accusing the states that remain uncalled of being run by Democrats — even though the governors of Arizona and Georgia are Republican. Since 2005, the GOP has also controlled the latter state’s representation in the House of Representative and Senate.
Despite the noise from protesters outside, election officials and poll workers continue the thankless task of counting votes as if inoculated from the reality outside. Election commissioners have suddenly found that everything they utter becomes breaking news, as they continue to reassure the people of America there is no evidence of voter fraud.
Normally anonymous secretaries of state have also found themselves in the spotlight as they battle misinformation. The latest example was “Sharpiegate,” a conspiracy theory that went viral claiming that ballot papers filled in using a Sharpie, a particular brand of pen, were invalid. New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver offered a detailed explanation of how tabulation systems are designed to scan ballots correctly under a variety of conditions.
Democrats dismiss all of this as a distraction from the reality that Biden is inching toward victory.
What, then, are the remaining pathways to the White House for the candidates? Biden has many. With 253 Electoral College votes already in his pocket, winning the 20 on offer in Pennsylvania alone would clinch the election. Victory in Arizona and Nevada offers another way for Biden to reach the magic 270 Electoral College votes he needs to secure the presidency. In fact, any two from North Carolina, Arizona, Nevada and Georgia will do. Trump currently leads only in North Carolina.
Keep an eye on those states. Pennsylvania promises to have enough votes counted to call a winner any time now. Arizona said counting will not be completed before the weekend.
But no one in the US is under any illusion that this election will be over in a day or two, even if all the votes have been counted. All eyes are on states — but also on the rival camps as they gear up for what could be a protracted legal battle for the Oval Office.