A montage of pictures shows US president Donald Trump and his opponent Joe Biden giving speeches.

American Democracy on the Ballot: What's at Stake in the 2020 Election

On November 3rd, Americans will go to the polls in the most consequential election since Abraham Lincoln was re-elected in the midst of the Civil War in 1864. While that might appear hyperbolic at first glance, the reality is that both then and now, the future of the US Republic is at stake. Anthony Silberfeld of the Bertelsmann Foundation in Washington, DC explains why.

After nearly four years in power, Donald Trump has redefined the United States. The shining city on a hill has gone dark, shrouded in a cloud of mismanagement, corruption and demagoguery. From the inept response to the COVID-19 outbreak, which has left more than 225,000 Americans dead, to co-mingling of White House business with personal business generating $1.9 billion for the Trump organization in the first three years of his presidency, the 45th president has orchestrated the steady erosion of democratic institutions and norms at home, and of its credibility abroad.  

All Eyes on the Oval

The race at the top of everyone's mind is the one between the Republican president Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger Joe Biden. In years past, Americans were typically offered a choice between a center-left candidate and a center-right candidate with plenty of gray area for voters to gravitate one way or the other on Election Day.

The offering in 2020, however, is either black or white. In style and substance, the two candidates couldn't be more distinct. Trump is betting on the strength of his pre-COVID economic record, and the appointment of conservative judges at every tier of the judiciary to carry him across the line.  Biden, for his part, has crafted his campaign around character, hoping that voters will be attracted to competence, decency, and a candidate intent on unifying a deeply divided country.

While this race offers clear choices, the combination of a global pandemic and electoral shenanigans have muddied the water. As in 2016, the Democratic candidate is comfortably ahead in national polling and in key swing states like Florida, Michigan and Wisconsin. Polls also show Biden leading, or in a statistical dead heat, in the former-Republican strongholds of Arizona, Georgia and even Texas. 

Why 2020 Is Different From 2016

This year, however, is different in three ways. First, voters in 2020 will rely heavily on voting-by-mail to avoid long lines and potential exposure to coronavirus on Election Day.

Second, the President, Republican officials and campaign operatives have activated a multi-pronged strategy to suppress voter turnout. From reducing the number of voting centers to removing ballot drop-off boxes and initiating legal proceedings to restrict who can vote and when, to Trump himself labeling the whole process "rigged" before a single vote has been counted, have undermined Americans’ confidence in the process and perhaps the final result.

Third, this is the first time in US history that a sitting president refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power. In aggregate, these factors have left voters uneasy about the state of their democracy and what will transpire on Election Day and beyond.

Is a Constitutional Crisis Looming?

In the waning days of this campaign, Biden and his allies will leverage their vast financial advantage over the Trump campaign by bombarding swing states with a mix of ads that will offer a return to normalcy, and bludgeon the president for every personal and professional misstep. Trump will rely almost exclusively on holding a series of rallies intended to energize the faithful and to give the impression that there remains widespread support for the man and his policies.

As we move toward Election Day, Americans will be eager to get the results quickly, but they will be disappointed. The deluge of mail-in ballots will take time to count, and in most states, those tallies won't begin until polls close on November 3rd. That means it could be days or weeks before we know who will next occupy the Oval Office, and that uncertainty opens the door for mischief.

Analysts predict that Democrats are more likely to vote by mail, and Republicans will have an advantage in in-person voting. So the first results are expected to show Donald Trump with a lead.  Will he declare victory prematurely, throwing the country into a constitutional crisis, or will he wait until the results are final whenever that may be? The conventional wisdom in Washington at the moment is that only a landslide victory by Biden would pre-empt rhetorical and legal challenges by the Trump campaign which could draw out the process for months.

Checks and Balances

Shifting our gaze east along Pennsylvania Avenue, we find the US Capitol building and its two chambers bracing for disruption. In the Senate, Republicans currently hold a 53-47 majority which has allowed them to confirm judges, control the fate of any bill on a path to becoming law, and dictate the terms of executive branch oversight (including whether to convict or acquit an impeached president). The 2020 maps, however, are favorable to Democrats as many of the seats up for grabs in this cycle are in states where Donald Trump's popularity is waning. The key Senate races to watch will be in Arizona, Iowa, Michigan, Alaska, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas. If Democrats can win four of those races, it will re-take the majority in the Senate, and all of the powers that come with it. 

Across Capitol Hill, there is less drama in this election, but Democratic members anxiously await the new configuration in the Senate, following a Congressional session in which nearly 400 bills past by Democrats in the House were blocked by Republicans in the Senate and never became law. Though all 435 seats in the House will be contested in this election, partisan gerrymandering has left only about competitive 10 competitive races this time around. Democrats are expected to maintain control of the chamber, and possibly expand their majority by a handful of seats. A sweep of the legislative branch and the White House will afford the opportunity for Democrats to advance their agenda, leaving Republicans with few levers to pull.

The Road Ahead

With mail-in and early voting underway, nearly 70 million Americans have already cast their ballots.  Republican and Democratic faithful are both highly motivated to vote in this election, so turnout is expected to reach an all-time high. In the 2016 election, 100 million eligible voters didn't vote. With partisans so deeply entrenched in 2020, it will be the voters that don’t typically participate who will play a decisive role in this race.

Despite of what we Americans have historically told ourselves, our democracy has never been perfect, but the aspiration to promote and preserve our core principles was rarely in doubt. Today, this administration has made a mockery of those principles by demonizing the free press, abusing power to satisfy political ends, stifling opposition, and undermining the public trust in our institutions. On November 3rd, voters will decide if the next chapter in the American experiment is a story of redemption, or if we will begin writing an entirely different book.

Update (November 3rd, 2020): Since the publication of this article, the number of COVID-19 deaths in the United States has risen to more than 231,000, the number of mail-in and early voters to almost 100 million.