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OP-ED: An election that was … and wasn’t

  • Published at 10:03 am November 4th, 2020
election 2020
Photo: REUTERS

This election was proof that pollsters have lost their magic touch

“We believe we are on track to win this election.” That was Joe Biden telling his supporters, reassuring them that they had nothing to be disillusioned about.

And then there was Donald Trump, first with his tweet. “They are trying to steal the election,” he said. Some time later, angry that votes were still being counted in a good number of states, he went for the authoritarian. Fraud was being committed, he said. And then he threatened to go to the Supreme Court to, of all things, put a stop to the counting of votes.

That unpresidential behaviour caused distress in Republican lawyer Ben Ginsberg. Similar was the embarrassed reaction of former Republican senator Rick Santorum.

The reality is that Election Day in America has come and gone. Votes are still being counted. There is no clear winner (as of this writing), for neither of the two candidates for the White House has reached the magical number of 270 electoral votes to claim victory. As this scribe writes, Joe Biden has 224 electoral votes in his bag. Donald Trump has 213. Arizona and Nevada lean toward Biden. Trump has seized a good number of the states that matter, those that have historically been classified as battleground states. Ohio, Florida, Texas, North Carolina, and a few others have gone to him.

It has been an election the likes of which have never before been observed in American history, unless of course one tends to recall the agonizing vote-counting in Florida in 2000. Al Gore the Democrat was well on his way to victory, as some have repeatedly averred over the years. But then the US Supreme Court stepped in, stopped the counting of votes and declared George W Bush the victor. So much for judicial integrity.

But Florida 2000 does not compare with the circumstances that have arisen in America today. The reasons are obvious: There are at least three states -- Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin -- where millions of absentee and mail-in votes are still being counted and indeed will be counted over the next few days, perhaps until the weekend.

That is what has caused umbrage in Trump. He is unhappy that these votes are being counted for the good reason that once the final figures come in, they might tip the balance in Biden’s favour. But, then again, they might not and indeed could give Trump enough of a lead for him to chart a course to victory.

It is one of those improbable moments in American history (again, there is Florida 2000 to recall) where Americans have not had the experience on Election Night of seeing a defeated candidate for the presidency concede the election and the victor emerge before his supporters to thank his rival and the American people for reposing their confidence in him. Bitterness, a big chunk of it from the Trump camp, has characterized the campaign, with the president consistently refusing to inform people if he would accept defeat should he lose.

Well, he has not lost. Neither has he won. What he has done is to describe the vote counting going on as a fraud. In simple language, he has argued that the millions whose votes are being counted should be ignored, ought to be disenfranchised.

That is not going to happen. The Supreme Court will not intervene in vote counting, at least not at this point, for the constitution guarantees that every single vote at every single election for every political office is counted and tabulated and registered.

That is the point, a very legitimate one, that the Biden camp has been making, in the expectation that at the end of it all, there will be a Biden presidency ready to take over from the erratic administration Trump has led in these past four years. But expectations often are lost in the dust as people make their voices heard.

Four years ago, Hillary Clinton prepared a list of individuals she thought would serve in her cabinet. The dream came to pieces on Election Day. Till mid-December 2000, neither Gore nor Bush knew who between them would succeed Bill Clinton. It stands to reason to put it about, therefore, that until those absentee and mail-in ballots are finally counted in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin -- over days or over weeks -- Americans will not know who between Biden and Trump will be inaugurated on January 20, 2021.

This tight, inconclusive nail-biter of an election has thrown up, yet once again, a sordid political reality of our times. We speak of opinion polls. We speak of the lofty projections of a Clinton victory made by the media and by polling organizations four years ago. Those projections came to be cast to the winds by voters. This year, till the eve of the election, pollsters conveyed the idea of redefined maturity as they pointed to an easy triumph for Joe Biden.

The election was proof once again that pollsters have lost the old magic touch. Credibility has gone missing. The lesson was clear: Opinion polls are at variance with people’s desires. It was gut-wrenching to watch Biden supporters progressively lose their smiles when the realization dawned in them, second by second, that taking the presidency back from Donald Trump was proving to be an uphill task.

It should have been a consequential election. It ought to have been a clear choice between a renewal of the idea of America and a continuation of a slide into narrow nationalistic jingoism. It turned out to be neither.

Americans, and with them the world, will just have to wait to see what the end of the count of absentee and mail-in ballots throws up. Back in August 1974, a day after he took over from a disgraced Richard Nixon, President Gerald Ford reassured Americans that their long nightmare over Watergate was over. Today, in November 2020, a different nightmare threatens democratic politics in America. The incumbent in the White House has begun to bank on the Supreme Court to keep him in power. His challenger waits for that moment when he can fumigate him out of the presidential mansion.

Everything of course rests on how many more votes Biden and Trump can add to the 224 and 213. They have 105 votes they will be fighting over. Those 538 electoral votes are a poor measure of democracy at work. But, of course, it is the United States of America. Here’s a thought: What happens if each candidate ends up with 269 votes in his bag? 

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.

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