Contested elections and People Power: Five Things To Know

by Vanessa Butterworth

October 30, 2020

On how the will of the people will always prevail.

More people than ever before will be voting by mail in the 2020 presidential election — and it could significantly impact the 2020 election results.

In the 2016 US Presidential election, approximately 33 million ballots were cast by mail and made up about a quarter of all total ballots. As of today, 65 million people (!!) have already mailed in their ballots out of the 101 million votes that have already been cast for the 2020 election.

This means that unless one candidate wins by a landslide, it’s going to take longer than usual to count all the votes and verify a winner because mail-in ballots take longer to collect and count. It also means that the longer it takes to declare a winner, the likelihood of a contested election goes up. And with Trump in the picture, we have to be as vigilant as we can to make sure every vote is counted.

Here are 5 things to know for November 3rd:

1. Mail-in ballots are going to be front and center in this election — and WILL take longer to count.

First off, mail-in ballots take longer to count because there are needed security measures to go through to verify their accuracy. Some states can’t even start counting absentee ballots until after polls have closed on election night just as a general rule. This is a good thing. We want to be able to say that all the ballots that were counted were accurate and valid (even though voter fraud is virtually non-existent).

It’s also particularly important to make sure mail-in ballot counting is done correctly because there have been cases where one candidate appeared to have won their election based on election day counts, but as mail-in ballots were added, the other candidate slowly caught up to officially win. We want the real winner to win!

In fact, during Senator Kamala Harris’s first California Attorney General race, her opponent had to rescind his election night victory speech because as all the votes were “certified”, Kamala slowly crept ahead of his lead to win. It took 30 days to certify all the votes.

So, needless to say, the outcome of the 2020 presidential election will likely be a slog because of the sheer number of people dropping their votes in their mailbox. And, with current polls showing Biden and Trump neck and neck in some key swing states, mail-in ballots could very well decide the 2020 election.

Freedom Fighter Philomena Wankenge holds her hand in the air during a rally on Capitol Hill.

Presidential elections require an extensive process before, during, and after election day — and 2020 may be the first election in a long time where it’s going to be really messy… as in “every state election could be contested” messy…. And that’s a good thing. It means that democracy is working and that the will of the people is being put first. But it also means that patience is going to be a virtue this time around.

2. If the margins are really close, there might be a contested election and there are important rules and dates to follow.

A contested election is what happens when a candidate challenges the legality or validity of a result, and there are important rules to follow.

In presidential races, contested elections typically occur when the outcome is too close to call or if there’s a substantiated allegation of election fraud — and the rules are typically pretty clear: states determine how recounts work, the amount of time for recounts and legal challenges may be limited, and any specific legal challenge could potentially reach and be settled by the Supreme Court (depending on whether they want to hear the case). There’s even a procedure called a “contingent election” where Congress is tasked to decide the result in the unlikely scenario that neither candidate reaches 270 electoral votes. The last time this was used was in 1824.

Here are some key dates to keep an eye on as the post-election outcome play out:

  • Between November 3rd and December 14th: Popular vote plays out and certificates of ascertainments are filed
  • December 8: This is the Safe Harbor Date Deadline. It’s when the state governor certifies the electors in the Electoral College who then can’t be challenged by the Congress after this date. If states miss the Safe Harbor Deadline, the newly elected Congress gains the ability to determine the state’s winner when lawmakers meet to count electoral votes on Jan. 6.
  • January 6th: The joint Congress meets to count electors and declare an election winner.

3. Biden is running to defeat Trump. Trump is running to defeat democracy. 

Being such a weak candidate with a limited base of support, Trump knows he can’t win by himself, so he may try and take advantage of the potentially lengthier vote-by-mail timeline.

In fact, there’s a fear that the initial election night tallies will show Trump leading based solely on voters who cast their ballots in person, and that he’ll use the media and every legal mechanism in his power to pick and choose how votes will be counted at every step of the process. Hypothetically, Trump could contest the election in every state and the media could make his misinformation campaign worse.

For example, if Trump’s ahead in counted ballots as of November 3 in a state, he could try to contest ANY close contest or even try to use the courts to prevent state officials from counting all of the ballots — even though he has no legal recourse to do so since elections are run by state and local authorities. If Trump is behind, he could cast as much doubt on the result as possible, spread disinformation through the media, and use the confusion to his advantage later. If there’s a lengthy, disputed, or unfinished count because of narrow margins, Republican-controlled legislatures in key states could intervene after a period of time and choose a slate of electors that will vote for Trump in the Electoral College despite the will of the people.

Most scenarios outlined here and by experts are typically unlikely and would be difficult to pursue legally but again, it’s 2020 and with Trump in the picture, we have to be as vigilant as we can to make sure every vote is counted and that the media gets it right.

That’s why we need everyone to vote — and for everyone who has already voted to make sure all their friends and family vote. The only way to make sure Trump doesn’t get the chance to contest anything is to make sure he loses by a landslide. Find early voting locations or drop off boxes here.

People wait in line for more than two hours for early voting at the Fairfax County Government Center in Fairfax, Virginia September 28, 2020.

4. People power will win but we need to protect the results!

If Trump declares victory before all the votes are counted, makes unfounded claims that the election was “stolen,” or further acts to use intimidation, distraction, and disinformation to prevent the legitimate counting of votes, Greenpeace will help activate nationwide peaceful mobilizations to #ProtectTheResults and demand that all the votes are counted to ensure a peaceful transition of power.

If necessary, our volunteers, supporters, and allies will be ready to join the movement and take lawful action to protect the results — be it from their homes, organizing or attending a #ProtectTheResults event near you — after Election Day to prevent Trump from unlawfully seizing power.

Only we, the people, have the power to ensure that every vote is counted. No one institution, party, or leader alone can ensure the legitimacy of this election. Through showing up and bringing our friends, family, and neighbors into this fight, we can make sure the next president of the U.S. is democratically chosen by the people of this country and that public officials do everything in their power to ensure a fair outcome.

Find a #ProtectTheResults event now.

5. There’s no one institution on election night that can determine the election outcome.

The people will decide the outcome of this election and it will reflect the will of the people.

No one in the media or in either party has the authority to make any announcements about who has won the election until all the votes have been counted, even if that takes a week or longer to complete. We need the media to prioritize coverage that informs the public, supports local news, combats misinformation, and protects the integrity of the election.

On the 100th Day of the Trump Administration, we are in the streets of Washington D.C.

Every eligible voter should have their voice heard and their vote counted. It’s going to take longer to count the votes and verify a winner in this year’s election — and that’s okay. When election officials take the time to count and verify every ballot, that’s a sign that our democracy is working.

We need to be patient and confident in our election processes so election officials can take the time to make sure every eligible vote is counted accurately and we need to take action if anything threatens that.

Democracy wins when “We, the People” decide.

Originally published October 30, 2020. Last updated November 3, 2020.

Vanessa Butterworth

By Vanessa Butterworth

Vanessa currently works as the Senior Digital Strategist at Greenpeace and sits on the Rising Tide North America organizing team. Outside of paid work, she organizes with frontline groups against police brutality, gentrification, and environmental racism. Over the past ten years, she's worked on campaign, mobilization, direct action, and movement strategy across the US and Canada. She's originally from Mississauga of the New Credit Territory as known as Caledon, Ontario, but now lives in Oakland, California on Ohlone Territory.

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