Potentially disruptive, and possibly violent, protests are likely in multiple US cities amid the presidential election slated for Nov. 3 regardless of the outcome. Due to the complexity of the electoral system and the consequences of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, it is highly likely that the winner of the election will not be legally recognized on election night. Violent protests and clashes between activists with opposing views have occurred increasingly frequently in recent months, and tensions are soaring as the election date approaches, even more so following the death of Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The decrease in trust in traditional centers of governmental and social power increases the possibility that groups of people may look for non-institutional solutions to their grievances, especially if political leaders do not help reduce tensions. While it is highly likely that a winner will eventually be legally recognized, it is likely that major protests by activists supportive of both major parties will occur for an indeterminate period, with the possibility of clashes, arson, looting, and other violence, reaching unprecedented levels.
System Complexity and Delays in The Vote Count
Over the past three decades, presidential elections in the US have been highly competitive, with mostly small differences in the results between the candidates of the two major parties (Republican and Democratic), including two times in which the candidate who obtained the most popular votes did not become the president. Polls conducted in recent weeks forecast a similarly close result in the November election, with no candidate likely to obtain a commanding difference over the other. This is already a scenario prone to tensions and protests following the announcement of the result or a drawn-out delay. Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic is transforming the electoral process in 2020. Tens of millions of people are planning to vote by mail, increasing the likelihood that a high number of votes may be rejected due to bureaucratic mistakes, or because they arrive too late to be counted. A close election and delays in counting make it highly unlikely that a clear result will be known on election night, extending the uncertainty for hours, days, and beyond. Furthermore, the candidate who may appear to be winning on the night of Nov. 3 may end up losing, fueling fears of manipulation, claims of conspiracies, and doubts about the legitimacy of the process.
Violence between Opposing Party Supporters on The Rise
The 2000 election, which was decided more than a month after the election day, did not lead to major disruptions or violence. However, amid the current political environment, a peaceful waiting period between election day and the day the results are confirmed, seems unlikely. In late August, a 17-year-old shot and killed two men in Kenosha, Wisconsin, who were protesting alleged abuses by local police. Days later, an activist alleging similar abuse in Portland, Oregon, shot and killed an opposing demonstrator. These incidents follow years of increasing tensions during demonstrations where left- and right-wing activists clash. Among the most notable incidents were the vehicular homicide of a left-leaning activist in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 by a far-right sympathizer; the attempted killing of Republican members of Congress in Alexandria, Virginia also in 2017; and mail bombs sent to media organizations and prominent figures within the Democratic Party the following year. A study conducted by the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group in 2019 found that 16 percent of respondents would justify using violence to advance their political goals, while 21 percent of respondents would justify the use of violence if the opposing party wins the 2020 presidential election. Furthermore, 2020 has seen a significant increase in politically motivated demonstrations. Between May 24 and Aug. 22 alone, the US Crisis Project registered politically motivated demonstrations in 2,440 locations throughout the US; while most ended peacefully, there was violence in at least 220 locations.
Lack of Trust in Government and Other Major Institutions
Officials in all 50 states and the District of Columbia will validate the electoral process at a time when, according to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center, less than 40 percent of US citizens trust elected officials. Complicating the matter is the difference in trust based on party affiliation: while almost 70 percent of Democratic Party supporters trust mass media organizations, only around 15 percent of Republican Party supporters share that trust, according to Gallup. A study by the Pew Research Organization shows the US Supreme Court, whose decision in 2000 ended the electoral uncertainty, maintains a relatively high trust among US citizens at 62 percent. However, the approval rating is only 49 percent among Democrats, a number likely to decrease following the death of Justice Bader Ginsburg in light of the intention of the Republican majority in the Senate and President Donald J. Trump to replace her before the presidential election. This move could theoretically tip the court in favor of the incumbent if the Supreme Court is once again called upon to determine the election's outcome.
Leaders and Institutions Must Reduce Tensions to Avoid Widespread Violence
There is a high probability of widespread protests and clashes around the country following an election without clear results. If thousands of mobilized citizens do not believe the result is legitimate, and they do not see viable institutional paths to contest such results, violence is almost inevitable. The scale of the violence will depend on the leaders of both political parties, especially President Trump and Democratic Party nominee Joseph R. Biden, government institutions, and the media to set expectations on the logical timeline of results amid the COVID-19 pandemic and to ensure the electoral process is as transparent, efficient, and precise as possible.
With all these factors in place, a close result in the election will likely lead to sustained mass protests by supporters of Trump and Biden. Protests are especially likely to occur in major cities, such as Washington, DC, New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, as well as in state capitals and other major cities of the so-called battleground states, where the fate of the election will be decided, including Tallahassee, Jacksonville, and Miami in Florida; Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia in Pennsylvania; Madison and Milwaukee in Wisconsin; Lansing and Detroit in Michigan; Atlanta in Georgia; Columbus in Ohio, and Phoenix in Arizona. Once the result of the election becomes official, the scale and scope of related protests will begin to take shape. Influential figures from the losing side will have to make clear public statements confirming their defeat. Recent disputed elections for other political offices have also been very contentious, such as those for governor in Florida, Georgia, and Kentucky, and for Senate seats in Arizona and Florida, but violence did not overshadow the result. The presidential election always involves much higher stakes, but none more so recently than in 2020. However, ultimately, the resulting turmoil is unlikely to threaten the enshrined Constitutional process. The president-elect will likely be inaugurated in January 2021 as mandated by the Constitution, but he will likely lead a country witnessing continuous partisan demonstrations, growing tensions, and frequent acts of politically motivated violence.
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