Democrats say they fear election-week chaos, including vote-counting delays and violence in the streets

  • Democratic operatives are concerned about several nightmare scenarios during election week.
  • Potential issues Democrats fear include long lines at polling places, delayed vote counts, legal fights, and the president’s efforts to undermine the legitimacy of the election. 
  • Business Insider talked to half a dozen Democratic strategists and pollsters about their fears for election week. 
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has is leading President Donald Trump in both national and state polls and is favored to take the White House. 

While Democratic operatives are optimistic about Biden’s chances, they’re also raising alarms about a host of potential election week issues, including long lines at polling places, delayed vote counts, legal fights, and the president’s efforts to undermine the legitimacy of the election. 

Challenges at the polls and delayed results

Democratic activists and voting rights advocates have condemned hours-long lines to vote, technical issues at polling places, and partisan pranks during the early voting period. They fear these obstacles will continue through Election Day and suppress votes in key states. 

Basil Smikle, a Democratic political consultant and former executive director of the New York State Democratic Party, said the massive early voter turnout is good news for Biden, but warned the big numbers might not be enough to overcome systematic issues with voting.

“There’s a tremendous amount of enthusiasm and intensity in this race — if it’s not pro-Biden then it’s anti-Trump — and it suggests that the Democratic messaging around making a plan to vote and voting early has gotten through,” Smikle said. “But it also suggests that there are substantial problems with our election infrastructure and there are significant concerns about the potential for those votes to not be counted because of suppression and intimidation.”

With the historic surge in mail-in ballots, several battleground states expect it will take days after Election Day to finish counting votes. 

Just eight states say they expect to have 98% of their ballots counted by noon on Nov. 4, The New York Times reported Wednesday. More than 20 states will continue to count ballots as they arrive after Election Day, so long as they were postmarked by Nov. 3. Ongoing delays in the US Postal Service could further complicate this counting process. The number of provisional ballots, which often take longer to verify and count, are also expected to rise. 

Election officials in Pennsylvania and Michigan — both key battleground states — expect to report their vote counts up to three days after Election Day. In Pennsylvania, election officials are only permitted to begin counting mail-in ballots once the polls have closed, and in Michigan, officials can only begin verifying mail-in ballots on the day before Election Day. Officials in Georgia, another key swing state with two Senate seats on the ballot, also say it will likely take a few days for them to tabulate all their ballots. 

Charlotte Swasey, vice president of data and polling at the left-leaning group Data for Progress, said she’s concerned that delayed ballot counting will cause confusion and allow misinformation to spread next week. 

“I don’t think anyone is braced for how long this is going to take,” Swasey told Business Insider. “I’m just concerned that we’re going to have this extended period of time where people are just exhausted and looking for certainty that isn’t going to be there.”

Because of sky-high mail-in ballots this year, experts predict a handful of states will experience a so-called “red mirage” — in-person GOP votes will misleadingly indicate a state is leaning towards Trump and later experience a “blue shift” as disproportionately Democratic absentee ballots are counted later. 

This phenomenon may be particularly apparent in battleground Midwestern states like Michigan and Wisconsin and in Arizona — all of which are expected to count their substantial mail-in ballots later. At the same time, Florida, Arizona, and North Carolina may experience blue mirages.

Trump is calling to cut off ballot counting at midnight on Election Day, which would violate many states’ election laws, and might help him in states with a red mirage. 

Ian Russell, a former deputy executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, argued that Trump’s underdog status will make it awkward for him to fight against vote-counting. 

“If you go in as the underdog, you say, ‘we’ve gotta count every vote and we’re gonna be making sure every vote that was cast is counted fairly and we’re going to keep our options open,'” he told Business Insider. 

amy coney barrett

US President Donald Trump announces his US Supreme Court nominee, Judge Amy Coney Barrett (R), in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC on September 26, 2020.

Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)

Legal battles 

Activists on both sides of the aisle have filed hundreds of lawsuits challenging pandemic-related voting regulations in states across the country in the months leading up to the election. Republicans are largely attempting to make it more difficult to vote, while Democrats are pushing to loosen restrictions on voting. 

Biden’s campaign has drafted hundreds of lawyers, including top former Obama administration officials, to wage a number of fights related to ballot casting and vote counting. 

Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a freshman Democrat from a purple Michigan district, said she thinks the GOP will focus its legal efforts on challenging outcomes in individual counties in Michigan, Florida, and Pennsylvania. 

“Legitimate or illegitimate, I think one of the president’s strategies is going to be to protest the results in certain key counties in certain key states,” she told Politico recently. 

Democrats are desperate to keep election-related lawsuits out of the Supreme Court, which now has a conservative super-majority following Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation this week.

The high court has already hinted it would defer to Republican state officials and legislatures in determining how to run their elections, including when they decide to limit vote-counting and throw out ballots. This week, the Court sided with Republicans in Wisconsin by overturning a federal court ruling allowing election officials to count mail in ballots that were postmarked by Election Day for up to six days after Nov. 3. 

“Everybody’s goal is to keep this damn thing away from the Supreme Court, so that there’s no reason for them to intervene,” Russell said.

A solid Biden victory would likely discourage the high court from intervening and ruling in Trump’s favor — a move that could undermine its legitimacy. 

A refusal to concede? 

The president has for months claimed he can’t legitimately lose re-election and has refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power. He’s claimed that this year’s election will be “the most corrupt election in the history of our country” and that mail-in voting in the 2020 election will be “a fraud like you’ve never seen.” 

“The only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged,” Trump said in August. 

Trump’s allies have boosted those claims. Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son and top campaign surrogate, has claimed Democrats are planning to “add millions of fraudulent ballots that can cancel your vote and overturn the election.”

Democrats are raising alarms about how Trump might attempt to cling on to power or undermine the election outcome and the transition process if he loses. 

“Trump has shown a willingness to weaponize the federal government for his political purposes in a way never before seen,” Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist who served as a spokesman for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, told Business Insider. “What worries me in a week is, if he loses, it will ignite a revenge from him on the American people.”

While the president’s attacks on the integrity of the election are relatively predictable, it’s less clear how Republican leaders will handle election night and the days following. 

Russell argued that all eyes will be on top GOP leaders in the House and Senate and whether they back up Trump’s voter fraud claims and push for the Supreme Court to take up any election disputes. 

“The question really becomes … what does Mitch McConnell, what does Kevin McCarthy, what does the remaining Republican leadership do?” Russell said. “Do they really want to, first of all, cast doubts on the legitimacy of their own re-elections? And do they want to go down with a ship that’s already struck the iceberg and is flooding?” 

How state-level Republicans respond will also be crucial. 

Ed Sarpolus, a Michigan-based Democratic pollster and consultant, said he fears Republicans will effectively suppress Black and Brown voters in Michigan with restrictions on mail-in voting, a ban on third parties transporting voters to the polls, and insufficient voting machines on election day.

“The bottomline is, if Trump takes more interest in Michigan again, that increases the chances that there will be more threats and attempts to suppress the vote,” he told Business Insider. “The question is what do his lieutenants do in Michigan?”

The Boogaloo Boys stand on the steps of the Capitol Building during a rally on October 17, 2020 in Lansing, Michigan.

The Boogaloo Boys stand on the steps of the Capitol Building during a rally on October 17, 2020 in Lansing, Michigan.

Seth Herald/Getty Images

Potential choas in the streets 

Far-right provocateurs have fear-mongered about violence breaking out between Trump and Biden supporters in the days following Election Day. Former Trump adviser Roger Stone, whose prison sentence the president controversially commuted earlier this year, said the president should impose martial law and imprison his political opponents if he loses the election. 

Trump has said he would eagerly “put down” any leftwing protests following the election. And Trump Jr. has starred in Trump campaign ads calling on “able-bodied” supporters to “enlist” in an “army for Trump’s election security operation” to prevent fraud on election day. 

On Wednesday, the leader of the prominent right-wing militant group Oath Keepers told conspiracy theorist Alex Jones that he and fellow militants plan to “protect” Trump voters at polling places across the country on Election Day. The group leader, Stewart Rhodes, said there might be a civil war between the political right and left following the election and that his members are prepared to kill “radical left … street soldiers.” 

Christine Pelosi, a Democratic strategist and daughter of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, said violence over the election results woud be the “worst-case scenario” next week. 

“We can’t afford to be drawn into the kinds of street demonstrations that Trump would like to see in order to justify some sort of martial law idea,” Pelosi said. “The worst-case scenario isn’t that the voters make their choice and we lose — that would be terrible, but that’s on us. The worst-case scenario is if we get goaded into some sort of national unrest.” 

Pelosi warned that Democrats need to avoid “getting drawn into the histrionics” and “cynicism” and stay focused on protecting the voting process.

Like most Democrats, Pelosi argued that the “only antidote to all of my fears” is massive voter turnout. 

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