by Raza Rumi*
On November 3, 2020, Americans will elect their next president, but this is not the traditional electoral contest. In many ways, this race will determine the political direction of the country. American voters are confronted with the choice of advancing Trumpian policies or accepting the centrist agenda of Joe Biden, the nominee of the Democratic Party. While both candidates have contrasting approaches to issues of national concern – from civil liberties to climate change, and from the coronavirus to healthcare – this election is a moment beyond the ongoing economic and public health crises.
What are the polls predicting?
Joe Biden has been ahead of Donald Trump in most national polls since the start of the year. He has hovered close to 50% in recent months. After the final presidential debate, the CNN poll found that 53% of viewers thought he had done the better job, while 39% favored Trump. A YouGov snap poll was similar, with 54% putting Biden ahead, compared to 35% for Trump. FiveThirtyEight, a political analysis website, says Biden is “favored” to win the election, while The Economist projects he is “very likely” to beat Trump. The outcome could be very different from what the polls say right now, however. The volatility in the polls could actually translate into a neck-to-neck competition on Election Day, as NPR’s polling director Patrick Murray suggests.
Though Joe Biden is leading Donald Trump in the national polls, that doesn’t guarantee his victory. In 2016, Hillary Clinton also had a clear lead but she ended up losing in the electoral college. As Hillary Clinton discovered in 2016, the number of votes won is less important than from where they’re won. Some states, labeled as “red” and “blue,” nearly always vote the same way, leaving as primary battlefields the “swing states” where both candidates stand a chance of winning. These are the places where the election will be won and lost.
Vulnerabilities of Elections
As Election Day nears, more than two thirds of the votes cast in 2016 have been polled. Many including official channels have warned that some elements could spread disinformation. This is compounded by four key vulnerabilities noted by Boston Review: flawed infrastructure; organically generated conspiracies and public outcry; vulnerability to low-cost, unattributable system hacks; and susceptibility to trolls and bots. Altogether, these weaknesses jeopardize the security and integrity of the election system.
The reliability and transparency of the election system is questionable as heightened concerns on hacking, disruptions and technical glitches persist. The lapses in security could allow someone to tamper with and compromise the results, thereby subverting elections. Donald Trump has repeatedly hinted about potential rigging, thus fanning mistrust of the election infrastructure. It is also notable that machines, not voters, register ballots. A study found that only 40 percent of voters double-checked their ballots. Moreover, on many occasions during the last decade, most recently during the 2018 midterm elections, the election software has broken down.
In addition, the staffing for polling stations may also be insufficient this time due to the coronavirus.
With systems breaking down, people could carve out conspiracy theories as to “what might have happened” during polling, as with the rumors echoed soon after the 2016 elections and Iowa Caucus. This year, there could be a prolonged delay in the reporting of results because counting mail ballots could take days, or even up to a week. This could provoke voters to cast doubts about whether each vote was counted. Journalists also tend to project theories such as these, spurred by the free and abundant flow of digital information.
System hacks present another infrastructure vulnerability, and they are difficult to attribute and trace. A small unnoticeable worm – for example, the SQL injection in the 2016 Russian hacking case – can gain access to election administrators’ websites, or into state and local voter registration databases. Adversaries can also execute an even lower-tech hack using 4Chan. Users on the platform, under anonymous accounts, engage in political trolling, jam phone lines, stretch waiting times (as with the 2020 Iowa caucus) and post comments to skew results. Similarly, distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks could be used to delay reporting on Election Night. Online trolls could exploit the incessant drive for quick results.
These vulnerabilities pose serious threat to the reliability of elections and need to be addressed by election officials.
Key Issues in Election 2020
The COVID-19 crisis by far remains the foremost issue in the presidential race. In addition, climate change policy, immigration, civil rights, economy (primarily employment) and healthcare remain major issues. The Trump administration, as Barack Obama said in a recent rally, “completely screwed this [coronavirus pandemic] up.” The rising cases and spiking fatalities did not ring alarm bells for the Trump administration as the White House practically gave up on COVID-19.
Even before the COVID-19 crisis, the authorities persistently introduced restrictive new policies to limit immigration and reduced the number of refugees and asylum-seekers reaching the U.S., ultimately fanning xenophobia. Gun violence incidents — such as mass shootings in Parkland and Texas — and police brutality with impunity — including George Floyd’s killing in May 2020 — spiked during the last few years. About half a million “March for Our Lives” protestors were ridiculed as subjects of a conspiracy that they were getting ‘paid’ by the Left [Democrats].
The Rural Vote
Over the past few years, America’s meat industry has undergone tremendous mergers and concentration by a few companies, at the expense of farmers. The Packers and Stockyards Act, the antitrust legislation of 1921 designed to regulate meat companies, has not been effectively implemented. Weak oversight by the government has caused farming families that incurred massive debt to go bankrupt. Farm bankruptcies increased 24% over 12 months – they stood at 580 in September 2019, up from 468 the previous year. By the end of March 2020, the number of bankruptcies had gone up to 627 (calculated for 12-month periods), according to U.S. Bankruptcy Courts data.
With fallen protective tariffs and competitive advantage, U.S. farmers receive less than 15 cents for every dollar that consumers spend on food. Their futures are at risk; this is apparent from an unprecedented rise in farmer suicides. Joe Biden has attributed this to the Trump administration-led “unmitigated tariff disaster”.
Farmers and ranchers increasingly feel isolated and excluded. Trade deals made in current and previous administrations, according to the CEO of the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, have favored large corporations under the guise of “free trade.” This group identifies itself as conservative, and opposes abortion. But would economic concern overweigh such social issues? In the current climate, some disaffected Republican farmers are starting to jump ship. During Mike Pence’s Iowa visit, the billboard message “Trump’s Policies Cause Farm Bankruptcies,” greeted him. Chris Gibbs, the Ohio soybean grower behind the billboards, founded Rural America 2020 — a group made to comprehensively highlight the rural community’s plight with an aim to convince farmers to vote against Trump, despite the intense social pressure to support him.
Is the Future of American Democracy at stake?
The U.S. has enjoyed its esteemed status as a leader of democracy across the globe. But in recent years, there have been abundant fears and predictions about the fall of democracy and the rise of authoritarianism. History is replete with examples of the decline of democracies into authoritarian regimes, with an increasingly shrinking space to reverse the trajectory if it is not addressed timely.
President Trump has asserted already that if he loses, it must be due to rigging. “There won’t be a transfer…”, he said, answering a question about the peaceful transfer of power. “I don’t think so…” is how he exhibited his view on the established norms of transferring power.
A large number of U.S. commentators believe that Trump’s presidency has been marred by an unprecedented, scandalous trail of misplaced statements, attacking civic liberties and free speech, calling journalism “fake news,” avoiding tough questions. Independent groups have warned about the prospect of democracy weakening within the United States.
Freedom House, a nonprofit human rights watchdog that monitors democracy globally, raised questions in its 2020 annual report about American democracy: “In recent years its democratic institutions have suffered erosion, as reflected in partisan manipulation of the electoral process, bias and dysfunction in the criminal justice system, flawed new policies on immigration and asylum seekers, and growing disparities in wealth, economic opportunity, and political influence.”
The road of democratic decline is not always irreversible. The current elections have witnessed an extraordinary turnout. Many Americans realize that it’s an election that won’t just affect their country, but the world.
This November, America’s democratic future, the prospects of achieving a harmonious society, and that fabled global ‘standing’ are all at stake.
*The author is Director, Park Center for Independent Media. The views expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the positions of the Center, or Ithaca College.