A bitter campaign season marked by extreme ideological disputes and an unprecedented pandemic is now over. On Saturday morning, the Associated Press and other media outlets declared Joe Biden the winner of the 2020 United States presidential election after four days of electoral uncertainty. And despite Donald Trump's repeated insistence to the contrary, there has been no sign whatsoever of intentional voter fraud.
As he had telegraphed for months before Election Day, incumbent Donald Trump has attempted to discredit this year's electoral process on the grounds that expanded mail voting and the counting delays it caused in some states represent large-scale fraud. “If you count the legal votes, I easily win the election!" Trump said in an all-caps campaign statement on Thursday. "If you count the illegal and late votes, they can steal the election from us!" In a press conference Thursday evening, Trump unleashed a torrent of lies centered on discrediting the electoral system in states he seemed poised to lose.
Despite those claims, Trump and his campaign have presented no actual evidence of "illegal" votes at all. And the ballots Trump describes as "late" were all cast on or before Election Day. In fact, in spite of the daunting challenges posed by the pandemic, Election Day and the early and absentee voting leading up to it went as smoothly as it could have. Consider what has already been accomplished: Roughly 160 million people voted, a record turnout representing about two-thirds of all eligible voters.
Trump has not yet conceded the race, and seems unlikely to anytime soon. There will likely be a recount in Georgia, because the victory margin is so close, and there could be others in states like Wisconsin as well. But as numerous courts have already signaled in response to a volley of spurious lawsuits filed by Trump's campaign, every aspect of the election was fully legitimate. If it weren't, you'd know it by now.
The Mail Voting Is All Right
One of the Trump campaign's core gripes is that expanded absentee by-mail voting, motivated by the pandemic, was actually a plot by Democrats to increase the party's voter turnout and enable fraud.
"Democrat officials never believed they could win this election honestly," Trump said in his Thursday evening press conference. "That’s why they did the mail-in ballots, where there’s tremendous corruption and fraud going on."
For one thing, research indicates that expanding mail voting doesn't necessarily benefit Democrats in every instance anyway. (In this case, Trump explicitly telling his supporters not to vote by mail may have led to more partisan imbalance than usual.) But even more important, local and state election officials around the country deployed expanded mail voting as a nonpartisan way to reduce crowding at polling places and make it easier for people to have a contactless voting experience.
To Republican leadership, though, an unprecedented pandemic that has killed more than 200,000 people in the US alone has not been a convincing reason to deploy systemic safety measures.
"They used Covid as an excuse, and it was allowed to happen, and it is just wrong, and it is rigged," GOP chair Ronna McDaniel told FOX News on Thursday.
The Trump campaign particularly took issue with states like Nevada and California that for the first time sent mail ballots to all registered voters this year because of the pandemic. At the end of September a Nevada judge dismissed a Trump lawsuit aiming to block the practice in the state. Ahead of Election Day on Monday, a judge in Carson City, Nevada, also dismissed a suit by the Trump reelection campaign aimed at changing how Democratic-leaning Clark County verifies signatures and counts mail ballots.
On Thursday, the Trump campaign planned to file a lawsuit that would challenge 10,000 Nevada mail ballots. The campaign alleges that the ballots were submitted by voters who no longer live in the state or are dead. Trump is pursuing similar suits in other states as well, so far without much success.
Regardless, with more than 150 million votes counted, there's no evidence of mail vote-related fraud and certainly not on a scale that would change the results of the election. Besides, even Trump himself may not be as suspicious of mail voting as he seems. "Early voting and vote-by-mail start TODAY in ARIZONA!" he tweeted at the beginning of October. "We want all eligible voters to vote, and have it counted! Request your vote-by-mail ballot by clicking below!"
Only Election Day (or Earlier) Votes Have Been Counted
In his Thursday evening press conference, President Trump laid out two of his core concerns. "They’re finding ballots all of a sudden," he said of the Democrats. "Votes are coming in after Election Day. And they had a ruling already [in Georgia] that you have to have the votes in by Election Day … In Pennsylvania, partisan Democrats have allowed ballots in the state to be received three days after the election."
Counting, auditing, and canvassing always takes time after an election, and each state determines its deadlines for when mail ballots must be postmarked and received. Pennsylvania originally set Election Day as the deadline to receive absentee by-mail ballots but didn't list a postmark deadline. In October, the state revised the timeline so ballots postmarked through Election Day would be counted if they were received by 5 pm Friday (today) local time. A federal court and the Supreme Court both upheld the change. In Georgia, absentee ballots sent from overseas must be postmarked by Election Day but will be accepted through today.
Regardless of the specifics in each state, multiple days of processing does not mean that late absentee ballots are being counted or that states are changing their deadlines on the fly. Pennsylvania in particular was expected to count late into the week, because of a state law that prevented officials from starting to count mail ballots in advance of Election Day.
"There has never been, in modern history, a federal election in the United States where we had official results on Election Day," says Larry Norden, deputy director of the Brennan Center's Democracy Program at New York University School of Law. "It is quite normal for counting to take more than one day. Official tallies in federal elections almost always take several days to weeks, and the reason is simple: We want to make sure the count is accurate."
Observers Have Had Access All Along
For those concerned about the legality of various mail ballot receipt deadlines and vote tallying after Election Day, the counting and canvassing processes are open to campaign observers and, in most states, the public. In Michigan and especially Pennsylvania, the Trump campaign alleges that ballot processing is being done in secret.
"We are suing to stop Democrat election officials from hiding the ballot counting and processing from our Republican poll observers," deputy campaign manager Justin Clark said in a statement on Wednesday. Philadelphia's public livestream of the process was apparently not an adequate gesture. On Thursday evening, a district judge dismissed the Trump campaign's filing earlier that afternoon to halt counting in Philadelphia over lack of Republican observers. In a hearing, campaign officials admitted—contrary to Trump's public claims—that they in fact had been allowed to send observers into vote-processing facilities. The issue they raised was not being allowed to send as many as the Democrats had. Judge Paul Diamond, who became increasingly exasperated throughout the hearing, suggested brokering a set maximum number of observers for each party. The group eventually landed on 60 each.
"By having the public observation, that holds people accountable—making sure that people can see what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and that you’re following the rules," Marian Schneider, an election and voting rights consultant for the ACLU of Pennsylvania and the former president of the election integrity nonprofit Verified Voting told WIRED in August. "It’s just part of our democracy to have processes in place that allow citizens to participate as observers."
And while the Trump campaign paints the situation as dishonest Democrats gallivanting about in party strongholds, there's representation from both parties among election officials if you look across all of the districts and states that needed more time to declare preliminary results. Nevada has a Republican secretary of state, and Georgia has both a Republican governor and secretary of state.
Election Officials Are Already Monitoring for Fraud
Voting fraud can happen, and over the past year President Trump has frantically highlighted isolated examples around the country of investigations that exposed issues. But research—including findings from right-leaning policy groups—has consistently shown that voting fraud is very rare and almost never shows up on a scale that would substantially impact a major election. The fact that Trump has been able to find examples at all, though, speaks instead to the monitoring measures that election officials have in place to catch wrongful votes.
Exact strategies vary by state, but all monitor for double voting, vet absentee ballots for correct personal data like Social Security number and signature matches, and number or otherwise track ballots to ensure that random forgeries can't just make their way into the pile. Any ballot that has an inconsistency, looks suspicious, or is a provisional ballot gets pulled for manual review.
"When it comes to vote-by-mail and voter impersonation, you might get away with impersonating a small number of voters, but you won’t swing the election, and if you do anything at scale you’re going to get found out," says Ben Adida, executive director of VotingWorks, a nonprofit developer of open source voting machines and election auditing software. "I don’t worry about the risk of fraud, because there are processes in place for ensuring everybody only gets to vote once."
The decentralized, state-controlled nature of US elections gives the system even more resilience. In spite of the Trump campaign's general impatience, unsupported allegations, and incendiary rhetoric, there is no one centralized body the campaign can lobby to push results out before they're ready. They can't universally undermine the quality controls that make the process time consuming. And while it's always possible (though, again, extremely unlikely) that a bad actor manipulated ballots during voting, it would require a massive inside job—while the country, the world, and Trump campaign observers are watching—to execute a massive, intentional fraud campaign during counting.
Trump Is Lighting a Powder Keg
Despite the lack of evidence to support the Trump campaign's allegations, the president's statements and those of other GOP leaders have stoked anxiety and unrest. Trump supporters in both Detroit and Phoenix protested outside ballot-processing sites on Wednesday, alternately calling for officials to "count the votes" and "stop the count." In Maricopa County, Arizona, officials shut down the election office just after 9 pm local time, over fears that the protest could become violent.
Meanwhile, social networks have been grappling with how to handle false information about vote processing. On Thursday, Facebook removed a group with more than 360,000 members called "STOP THE STEAL" for violating its policies. Twitter added misinformation warnings to a number of Trump's tweets throughout the week, and flagged other posts as well, including one from Donald Trump Jr. that said, "The best thing for America’s future is for @realDonaldTrump to go to total war over this election." YouTube and Twitter both suspended former White House adviser Steve Bannon's web show and removed an episode in which Bannon literally called for the beheading of top US pandemic expert Anthony Fauci and FBI director Christopher Wray.
The most important thing to remember, though, is that despite fanning those flames, the Trump campaign and its supporters have yet to produce any actual evidence of wrongdoing. It has lost multiple court cases already in its opening bid to toss wrenches into democracy's gears. And the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which sent independent observers to monitor US Election Day at the request of the federal government, called claims of election fraud "evidence-deficient" in its preliminary report on Wednesday night.
"The 3 November general elections were competitive and well managed despite legal uncertainties and logistical challenges," the OSCE wrote. It did, though, find one potential threat to the integrity of the vote: "Baseless allegations of systematic deficiencies, notably by the incumbent president, including on election night, harm public trust in democratic institutions."
Expect those baseless allegations to continue with increasing volume. But ultimately, it's not Donald Trump who gets to decide the next president of the United States. It's the voters. And they've chosen Joe Biden.