In the pre-electronic age, wherever people clustered together and built community buildings (city halls, schools, churches) the most central one usually had a bell tower. Someone would pull the rope and ring the bell as a morning alarm, or as notice that church was about to start, or in celebration. But the most intense, long pealing was used as a warning—Fire! Attack! Flood! It was used to jerk the listener out of their daily routine so they could race to address something momentous that might otherwise blindside them.
Picture me running to the bell tower and hauling on that rope.
I am going to do something a bit unusual and return to my public policy roots for a moment.1 Not to dive into politics, but to share a crucial warning that some folks may not be fully aware of and ask all of us—especially church pastors and other ministry leaders—to think through a very crucial question. (So please forward this to your church pastor if you believe that he or she would want to know this information.)
Many pastors and leaders have shared with their congregation or followers their concern about our country’s extreme discord and division. They say things like, “This is going to be a hard few weeks in the run-up to the election . . . we have a responsibility as followers of Christ to have grace with each other . . . and I will be so grateful once November 3 is behind us!”
We deeply need that call to be light in the darkness, and I hope everyone listens. But most people don’t realize the deepest “darkness” may only be beginning on Election Day. It is very likely that the discord in the weeks following November 3 will be far worse; it is not overstating it to say that we may again see violence in the streets this year.
I hope that chaos is averted—and please hear me when I say that it definitely could be averted. But in the policy-wonk community where I still occasionally live, the probabilities add up to great concern and the alarm bells are sounding among hundreds of election researchers and pollsters. That is why each of us must be thinking ahead now about how to respond then—and how we can lead others to do so.
Some of you will have already heard and thought deeply about these things. But just to get us on the same page, let me put on my policy analyst hat and share three likely events we all need to be aware of. I’ll also share a few big-picture ideas for what to do about it. (I’ll discuss what we can do about it, personally, in a follow-up article.)
On “Election Night,” We Probably Won’t Know Who is Elected
We need to be preparing ourselves and others for the high likelihood that on Election Night we won’t know who the next president is. We’ve gotten so used to news organizations compiling swift local election results and making calls (“CNN can now project that so-and-so will win Ohio”) that we forget those results from thousands of local election offices are not required to be finalized until weeks after Election Day.
And this year, there are several reasons the results probably can’t be finalized on Election Day. Here are two key ones:
- This year, roughly 40% of the population are likely to vote via absentee ballot. Thankfully, some states, like Washington, are well-prepared because they have had mass absentee voting for years. But around the country, thousands of localities are unaccustomed to dealing with such large quantities of paper ballots, and simply don’t have systems to ensure they can be processed accurately and (As just one example, a county in New Jersey recently discovered a bin with more than 1,600 uncounted ballots from their July primaries that had simply been missed in the rush.) And since some swing states allow voters to mail ballots on November 3, it could be days or weeks until those crucial absentee votes are all tallied.
- Unlike previous years, polls show a major partisan difference in absentee balloting, with Democrats far more likely to be voting that way than Republicans.
Why does that matter, you ask?
Likelihood #2: Election Night Could Look Like “Victory” For One Side Or the Other . . . When It Isn’t
It is possible that there will be such a landslide for one side or the other that the Election Night results won’t change due to absentee ballots. But . . . well . . . #2020, right? And a reversal could play out on either side of the aisle. I’ll share the most likely version, first.
Polls consistently show that Biden voters are more likely to stay away from the polls than Trump voters, and vote absentee instead. So, November 3 vote tallies could easily show what appears to be a decisive Trump victory—when in fact a winning number of Biden votes are sitting on millions of paper ballots in election facilities. Days or weeks later, when those are counted, what will Trump voters think when suddenly their perception that “President Trump wins!” is changed to “Wait—what do you mean, Biden wins?”
Will ardent Trump supporters go “Oh, okay then”? Or will they get furious because they simply weren’t aware of or prepared for that possibility? Will it look like voter fraud, even if it is shown to be due to an expected surge in absentee balloting?
Similarly, what happens if (for example) a very high proportion of elderly Republican absentee voters vote absentee due to COVID-19, and election night looks like a victory for Biden, but millions of Trump votes on paper eventually turn the outcome? How are elated Biden-supporting (and, often, Trump-hating) voters going to respond if suddenly Trump secures enough absentee votes to win the election after all?
What happens if people don’t prepare themselves, their congregations or community, and their friends and family for the idea that overturning the seeming Election Night “victor” is not just a remote possibility but actually likely?
More worrisome—what happens if the final outcome is not viewed as legitimate?
Likelihood #3: Discord and Enmity (and Lawsuits) Will Intensify During Uncertainty
There is immense fear on both sides of the aisle right now. Studies have shown that voters have solidified into their positions with far fewer “swing” voters than usual, and a deep distrust (even a dislike) of people “on the other side.”
In other words, there are far more partisans who are deeply suspicious of not only the opposing candidates but half of their fellow citizens. (See the new David French book for why this is, and what to do about it.) The partisans on each side are sincerely worried (some, even terrified) about what will happen to their family, community and country if “the other side” wins. And there is immense concern that the other side will “steal” the election.
And that is in advance. What will happen to that fear if (see “Likelihood #2”) if it looks like the other side is in the process of stealing the election?
That fear could easily grow to explosive levels—far more intense and larger in volume than the racial protests in May and June. While at the same time, there will likely be lawsuits like we have never seen before, that could delay the results until late in the year—maybe even until January. (See the bonus note at the end of this article for the mandated Constitutional timeline.)
With all of this, how easy would it be for the results to not be seen as legitimate by half the population? There could conceivably be challenges to our trust in the system and our democracy in some profound ways.
Bottom Line: We Need To Be Thinking About How We’re Going To Respond
With this scenario looming, there’s a real need for us to be thinking ahead, both as individuals and as leaders: How will I walk through the potential chaos—in the streets and on social media? How do I want to steer my family and children (or congregation or followers) through this? How do I want to encourage them to interact with the world? What is my responsibility to help them think about all this in advance?
Perhaps my main responsibility is to ensure my friends and family are aware of this season ahead and thinking about it too. But if I am a local, regional or national leader, do I perhaps have a bigger responsibility to help my community accept the legitimacy of the results? (For example, can I pull together or offer to be a part of a nonpartisan, independent commission of other high-profile, local leaders who agree in advance to publicly stand behind whatever my locality certifies are the election results?)
More personally: How do I want to conduct myself during this season? How should I respond in my personal and professional life to the potential for this kind of political and cultural turmoil? We’ll dive into those questions in Part 2.
More Detail on Timing:
How long could the election results and court challenges drag out? When will we know who the President is? Short answer: There are some supposed deadlines (see below), but the only truly firm Constitutional date is that a new President must be sworn in on January 20, 2021.
Long answer: Technically this year, December 8 is the statutory date by which all state recounts and court contests must be concluded. Practically, as we learned in Bush v. Gore in 2000, those deadlines merely transfer the chaos to the U.S. Supreme Court and start the clock there. A more robust deadline is December 14, which is when those “electoral college” votes are supposed to be cast. (Remember, technically, when you step into the voting box you aren’t voting for a Presidential candidate, you’re voting for an elector who is supposed to represent your vote on December 14.) However, because of originally allowing horses and buggies time to deliver those ballots from around the country, the dates those votes are supposed to be received and counted are later: in this case December 23 and January 6.
And any and all of those deadlines are likely to be fraught with intensity and surrounded by court battles and delays.
The only truly firm date is January 20, 2021. On that day, a President will be sworn in. Even if our normal election process falls apart and no candidate gets an Electoral College majority (for whatever reason), the Constitution provides that the newly-elected House of Representatives will choose the President and the new Senate will choose the Vice President.
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1. I grew up in Washington, D.C., worked on Capitol Hill and in the Executive Branch, and have a Master in Public Policy.
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Shaunti Feldhahn loves sharing eye-opening information that helps people thrive in life and relationships. She herself started out with a Harvard graduate degree and Wall Street credentials but no clue about life. After an unexpected shift into relationship research for average people like her, she now is a popular speaker and author of best-selling books about men, women and relationships. (Including For Women Only, For Men Only, and the groundbreaking The Good News About Marriage).
Her latest book, Thriving in Love and Money, uncovers the issues that cause money conflicts and provide couples with truths that are relationship game-changers…Because you need a better relationship, not just a better budget.
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