Here in the birthplace of American democracy, election officials are scrambling to prepare for a presidential vote they fear could plunge the nation into a historic political crisis.
Philadelphia’s Board of Elections plans to move its counting operations to a 125,000-square foot space in the city’s convention centre. Dozens of staffers, feeding expensive new machines to open envelopes and process mail-in ballots, will spend days tallying hundreds of thousands of votes - under intense scrutiny from partisan observers. The workers likely will discard thousands of ballots that are not properly completed or do not arrive in a special “secrecy envelope.” Outside, police officers redeployed from their neighbourhood districts will conduct round-the-clock patrols to guard against violence among protesters, a police source told Reuters.
President Donald Trump last month called on supporters to monitor the city’s election apparatus because “bad things happen in Philadelphia” - one of his many unsubstantiated claims that Democrats are engineering a massive voter fraud.
Such comments prompted Philadelphia’s District Attorney Larry Krasner, a Democrat, to study the laws governing militias, in case gun-toting extremists show up at the polls to intimidate voters. If that happens, Krasner warned: “We’ve got a jail cell for you.”
In Pennsylvania and across America, retailers are reinforcing glass, hiring guards or retaining on-call teams that barricade and board up buildings. Citizens of all political stripes are snapping up guns and ammunition in record numbers.
These preparations underscore the fragile state of the election system in a nation long known as the global standard-bearer for democracy.
Trump is the first US president to make attacking the integrity of the nation’s elections a central campaign theme. Those attacks - along with sudden shifts in state voting rules to deal with the coronavirus pandemic - have ignited a partisan ground war in swing states over the election process. The fight pits Republican allegations of fraud - accompanied by a Republican effort to toss out votes - against Democratic counter-charges of voter suppression, coupled with a Democratic effort to ensure votes are counted.
The conflicts are compounding the difficulty of conducting an election during a pandemic that has killed more than 220,000 Americans. The strains are acute in the crucial battleground state of Pennsylvania, whose 20 Electoral College votes are key to victory for both Trump and his Democratic opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden.
“It’s clear that the bullseye is scoping in on Philadelphia as the epicentre of the 2020 general election,” said Al Schmidt, a Republican election commissioner in the city. “We have to be prepared.”
If neither candidate by election night secures the majority of the 538 Electoral College votes needed to win, the presidency could hinge on delayed results from Pennsylvania - a state Trump won in 2016 by less than 1.0 per cent of the vote - or other battleground states that could take days to count mail ballots.
Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh did not respond to detailed questions on the campaign’s plans for election-monitoring or handling disputed results. Two senior Trump campaign officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters that the campaign plans to field thousands of volunteers across Pennsylvania between now and Election Day on Nov. 3 to monitor ballot drop boxes, precincts and mobile voting centres. The unprecedented effort, they said, is necessitated by the sudden popularity of the new mail-in voting system and its potential to enable fraud.
The Biden campaign says it will deploy the party’s biggest-ever “voter protection” team to counter the Republican effort. This includes having voter-protection directors in 28 states, thousands of volunteers and 15 “voter hotlines” in key states.
Dana Remus, the Biden campaign’s general counsel, said it will field enough observers nationwide “to ensure that the work that we think needs to be done is done, and to make sure voters feel comfortable and protected.”
All the fighting over voting and counting rules could end on Election Day if one candidate wins in a national landslide, which would make fighting over the precise results or fraud allegations in individual states irrelevant to the outcome. A clear victory is a possibility for Biden, who has led national polls for months, but state polls show a close contest in many of the battleground states that will decide the election.
An unclear or disputed tally in Pennsylvania or other battleground states, election experts say, could trigger chaotic scenarios in which the result is determined by some combination of state courts, the US Supreme Court, Congress, and state legislatures or governors.
The Supreme Court, for instance, could be asked to step in to stop a state recount - as it did in Florida, causing Democrat Al Gore to concede the 2000 election to Republican George W Bush. The high court could also weigh in on state lawsuits over voting policies.
It is Congress, however, that renders the final verdict of the presidential election under the US Constitution. That has almost always been a formality - with members of the House of Representatives and the Senate meeting in a joint session to sign off on electors’ votes that reflect popular vote tallies in each state. But the scenarios for how Congress might decide a contested election are fraught with legal uncertainties that could ignite a crisis, election experts say.
Some academics have outlined a scenario in which Trump, using fraud as the justification, calls on Republican-held legislatures in battleground states to appoint their own electors to compete with the electors typically certified by governors. Normally, a state sends to Congress a slate of electors nominated by the party that wins the popular vote in that state. Pennsylvania and three other battleground states - Michigan, Wisconsin and North Carolina - all have Democratic governors and Republican-controlled legislatures, raising the possibility of “dueling” slates of electors being submitted to Congress.
In that case, both the House and the Senate would weigh in on which electors are valid. But it remains far from clear what happens if they disagree, election scholars say, because of a lack of clarity in the 1887 law that outlines the process.
“We would be in uncharted territory,” said Lawrence Douglas, an election scholar at Amherst College in Massachusetts.
Dueling electors caused a crisis in the 1876 election, and Hawaii submitted two slates of electors in 1960. The Florida legislature was on the verge of submitting electors to support Bush before the high court shut down the state’s recount.
The two senior Trump campaign officials said the campaign had discussed getting Republican state legislators to submit electors, but only in a last-resort scenario the official said could likely be avoided. They said the campaign would more likely dispute results in court, if needed. Republican leaders of the Pennsylvania legislature said state law gives them no role to play in the choosing electors.
In another scenario, the House alone would pick the president and the Senate would choose the vice president. That process kicks in when no candidate gets a majority of the electoral vote - as in the case of a 269-269 tie. It could also result from one or several states’ electoral votes being challenged and excluded by Congress, according to a Congressional Research Service analysis.
In that case, Trump could have an advantage. Although Democrats have more members, Republicans control more state delegations - and each delegation would get only one vote.
Trump needled Democrats over the prospect of a House vote at a Sept. 26 rally in Middletown, Pennsylvania. “We actually have the advantage,” he said. “Oh, they’re going to be thrilled to hear that.”
All the contested-election scenarios would play out under the pressure of immovable deadlines requiring states to submit electors to Congress on Dec. 14 and a new president to be seated on Jan. 20.
Charles Wells, a retired Florida Supreme Court Justice who presided over the Bush-Gore recount case in 2000, wrote to friends in September warning that the 2020 election posed a grave risk to American democracy. In the email, seen by Reuters, he wrote: “A fundamental lesson I learned is that the law in respect to ‘contested’ elections is very confusing, outdated and fragile.”