Threats and anger as US election day looms

Signs of the times: Americans have quit social media over fears they could be physically targeted. © Getty

Should the world be ready for a contested US election? Tomorrow, the most powerful nation on Earth will vote for its next president – but both candidates may end up claiming they have won.

“Across the United States, political signs have been set ablaze, cars have been vandalised and neighbourhood scuffles and shouting matches have proliferated in the waning days of the most toxic election season in more than half a century.”

The venerable American newspaper, The Washington Post, was in little doubt yesterday. As election day looms, to express a political opinion has become tantamount, for many, to a declaration of war.

It is the most important election in living memory. Ninety-two million people have already voted by mail and in person. The turnout is expected to be the highest in over a century. The result will have enormous implications for the future of democracy around the world.

And the choice is stark: a change of direction with Joe Biden. Or four more years of Donald Trump.

Who will win? Nobody can say.

In the US, each state sends delegates to an Electoral College, where they promise to vote faithfully for the presidential candidate with the most votes in their state. Their vote is approved by Congress and the new president is sworn in on 20 January 2021.

In most cases, this system reflects the popular vote – but not always. Four years ago, Trump received almost 2.9 million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton – and still won the Electoral College.

In normal times, as soon as it is clear who has won, the loser makes a concession speech and the victor prepares for government. But these are not normal times.

Historian Timothy Garton Ash says we must expect a contested election. In 1800, the Electoral College failed to choose a president, with supporters of Thomas Jefferson threatening violence if their man didn’t win. In 1876, the process was thrown into disarray when four states sent two sets of delegates to the Electoral College.

In 2000, it took five weeks and a ruling by the Supreme Court to decide the election. Democratic candidate Al Gore narrowly won the popular vote, but a handful of recounts in Florida dragged on into December. When he finally conceded, he called for the country to unite behind the Republican candidate George Bush.

Ash says it is difficult to imagine Trump accepting defeat. The political atmosphere is febrile, each side has “its own facts,” and Trump has already declared that the election will be be the “most corrupt” in American History.

In 2000, the dispute was over hanging chads. This time, mail-in ballots may decide the result. Trump says postal voting is open to fraud and has encouraged his supporters to vote in person.

On Tuesday night, attention will turn to the swing states both sides need to win. If Bidens wins Florida, analysts predict Trump will lose the White House. But if he holds on, the result could come down to postal votes.

Garton Ash warns this will create a confusing “blue shift,” where Trump takes an early lead and declares victory, but Biden closes the gap as mail-in ballots are counted. With claims of interference and fraud, a contested election could be fought on social media, in the courts and on the streets.

In the worst-case scenario, both men and their supporters could turn up on 20 January 2021 to claim the presidency.

Should we be ready for a contested US election?

Stick or twist

Some say no, a disputed outcome is very unlikely. Even if the vote is close, there will be overwhelming pressure to defend the democratic process and to bring the election to a peaceful resolution.

Others say yes, we should be prepared for the worst. If Biden declares victory but Trump stays in the White House, the US will enter uncharted and dangerous territory, with the future of democracy at stake.

You Decide

  1. Should voting be compulsory?
  2. Is the Electoral College a good way of choosing a country’s leader?


  1. Design a newspaper front page for Wednesday, predicting the result. Will we know who has won?
  2. Watch the video on the importance of concession speeches in US political history. Now write a concession speech for either Biden or Trump.

Some People Say...

“Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried.”

Winston Churchill (1874 - 1965), former British prime minister

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that one side must concede defeat after the election. This is not just a polite formality, it is a necessary procedure that ends the contest and enables the peaceful transition of power. Unlike a game of football, there is no independent referee to declare the winner - both sides must agree to uphold the democratic process.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around what happens if neither candidate backs down. This would be the first time in American history that the incumbent president, sitting in the White House, refused to relinquish his office. Will he use his position to interfere with the election? Some argue the process is governed by local state laws and Trump’s powers are limited. Others are concerned he will take advantage of a confusing situation, to use emergency powers to overrule the election.

Word Watch

Joe Biden
If he wins, the 77-year-old Democratic candidate will become the oldest US president in history. He served as Obama’s vice-president for four years and made his first bid for the White House in 1988.
Electoral College
Each state is allotted a number of delegates proportionate to their population. For example, a heavily-populated state like California has 55 electoral delegates whilst Delaware has only three.
Vote faithfully
This system means that the winner takes all. A state won by one vote, will vote unanimously for the winning candidate in the Electoral College. Sometimes a delegate ignores this convention and is known as a faithless elector.
Thomas Jefferson
American Founding Father and third president of the United States. His political philosophy of individual liberty and limited government inspires modern Republicans who oppose centralised federal government.
Supreme Court
Involving the highest court of the United States in the 2020 election would be seen as especially controversial after the recent appointment of Amy Coney Barrett. Opponents of Trump’s appointment argued that the decision should have waited until after the election.
A political mood dominated by strong emotions, anxiety and excitement. The word comes from the field of medicine, to describe the symptoms of a fever.
Hanging chads
Each state has its own electoral procedures. In Florida, voters punched holes in ballots to cast their vote. Not all holes were neatly punched and these so-called hanging chads became the centre of attention in the controversial recounts.
Swing states
The election is thought to be close in the southern “sun belt” states of Florida, Arizona and North Carolina, as well as the Midwestern “rust belt” states of Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan.
Blue shift
The association of the Democratic Party with the colour blue is a relatively recent development in US political history, dating back to the media coverage of the 2000 election. The Republican Party is associated with the colour red and swing states are referred to as “purple states”.
Popular vote
The total number or percentage of votes cast for a candidate by voters in the 50 states and the District of Columbia (Washington DC). The candidate who gets the most votes nationwide is said to have won the popular vote.


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