Although the US presidential election is less than 90 days away, it is—unlike any other election year before—not at the centre of public discourse or media coverage. Summer used to be the time of party conventions and nominations; campaigns used to kick off, with much fanfare, and media pundits used to slice and dice polling data and make predictions. But not this year.
Surging deaths from Covid-19 and grim milestones being reached every day have created an unprecedented situation in the US. President Trump is still in denial about the scope of the pandemic. His description of the staggering death toll, more than a thousand a day, as "it is what it is" was another testimony of his lack of empathy. The US economy is in the doldrums. At least 30 million are jobless and layoffs are continuing. During the March-June quarter, the US economy contracted by 32.9 percent—"the biggest drop in the gross domestic product" since the government began tracking such data in 1947, according to the media. Both public health concerns and economic hardship are overwhelming.
While uncertainty about life and livelihood is ubiquitous, what is certain is that the election will be held on November 3, 2020. In the wake of his falling approval rating and dwindling support compared to the Democratic Party's presumptive nominee Joe Biden, President Trump tacitly proposed to delay the election. But neither does the US constitution allow such a delay, nor does history suggest any precedents. Thus, his idea was pushed back. Vociferous opposition came from Democrats and constitutional experts, and some Republican lawmakers joined them too. These developments notwithstanding, the 2020 election faces three major challenges.
The first challenge for the candidates is to campaign and reach out to the voters. In 2016, around 138 million, roughly 58.1 percent of eligible voters, cast their ballots. The number of voters has grown in the past four years and this year the turnout is expected to be higher. Large conventions—a cornerstone of the electoral campaigns—are already scrapped. These conventions provided wall-to-wall coverage in all mainstream media for at least four days to each party and showcased their positions and debates. But now leaders of both parties are scrambling to find ways to have some sort of events to formally anoint their candidates. Large public gatherings maintaining social distance are now in the realm of impossibility, although this is something President Trump relishes.
Two reasons preclude such events: health risks for the participants and the risk of a poor showing. The rally organised by the Trump campaign on June 20 at Tulsa, Oklahoma was poorly attended, even though the campaign had trumpeted that hundreds of thousands would flock to the venue. Besides, the death of Herman Cain from Covid-19, a one-time Republican presidential candidate who attended the rally, has made everyone wary. Bus trips, a familiar feature of US elections, will be somewhat irrelevant this time around. Door to door campaigns may be conducted, but only to deliver printed materials. In previous elections, robust "knock-on-the-door" operations not only allowed campaign workers to reach the voters, but also were an indication of how a candidate may fare on election day. The scale will be limited this year.
These make the campaigns extremely dependent on reaching voters via media—mainstream and social. Electronic media, particularly television, has always played a key role in the US presidential campaigns. Since 2008, social media has gained salience. It was a key to the victory of Barack Obama. But the 2016 election revealed the darker side of social media. The machination of Cambridge Analytica in 2016, the spread of fake news by dubious sources often connected to foreign governments, and the ongoing Russian intervention threat have all made the situation difficult. Differentiating legitimate messages from fake news will not only be a task of the voters but also of the campaigns themselves. Evidently, these developments will make campaigning more like an "information war" than an election campaign. Campaign expenditures will increase, consequently the war chests of candidates may become a serious determinant to the success.
The second challenge is to make people vote. Considering the health risks associated with in-person voting, there is a growing demand for expanding the options for voting by mail. There are two ways of mail-in voting: universal mail-in voting, where all voters can vote by mail, and absentee balloting, where the voters can ask for a ballot via mail. Five states—Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah—have had the universal mail-in balloting system for a long time, while three states—California, Nebraska and North Dakota—allow individual counties to conduct their elections by mail. Another 30 states as well as Washington D.C. allow voters to take advantage of absentee ballot without any excuse. Democrats are pushing the demand that all states adopt universal mail-in voting. Trump has already begun a concerted campaign to undermine the process making false allegations that mail-in voting is unsafe and plagued by fraud. There is no evidence to support Trump's claim, as studies have shown that it does not benefit one party. Trump himself has voted via mail at least in three elections, including this year's primary election. About 16 members of his family, campaign team, and top officials in his administration have voted by mail in recent years.
The mail-in ballot issue has brought the US Postal Service into the centre of the debate. President Trump has recently appointed a Republican fundraiser as the postmaster general. Louis DeJoy has made several changes, including getting rid of overtime for hundreds of thousands of employees and requiring mail that arrives late to be delivered the next day. These are being considered as a way of the Trump administration to slow down mail delivery and influence the result. The Republican Party's opposition to universal mail-in voting is nothing but a political ploy and part of longstanding efforts of voter suppression. While the party supports mail-in voting in Florida and Texas, states with Republican governors, it has challenged a similar decision by Nevada in the court. However, there are some concerns whether states are ready to handle a large number of mail-in votes. In 2016, nearly one-quarter of votes were cast by mail.
The third challenge is whether the results of the election will be delayed, and the integrity of the election will be questioned. Except for a tightly contested election, the result of the election, particularly the Presidential one, is known by the early morning of Wednesday. However, if there are a large number of mail-in votes, it may not be "election night" but "election week". The slow process of counting might add to uncertainty, unless there is a clear winner. If Trump does not lose decisively, it is likely that he will challenge the result in the court and hope for a rerun of the 2000 election. One may recall how on December 12, 2000—after a month-long legal battle following that election—the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 vote, ruled in favour of Republican candidate George W. Bush.
As the election day approaches, more problems and questions regarding the electoral process and counting will appear. However, these three challenges will remain at the front and centre until a clear winner emerges. This is a grim reminder that we are living in a different time, an era of Covid-19 which not only influences life and livelihood but political processes too.
Ali Riaz is a Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Illinois State University, and a nonresident Senior Fellow of the Atlantic Council, USA.