The US election shows democracy at its best – and worst

There was record turnout for the US election despite the challenges surrounding the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Meegan M. Reid / Kitsap Sun

Never have so many Americans participated in an election as they have this year. And never has a presidential candidate declared victory before the final results were announced.

This content was published on November 4, 2020

November 3, 2020 was a day of big fears and hopes in America. There were fears that the end of a long and emotional campaign season would lead to unrest and violence around polling stations, chaotic scenes in counting centres and cries of voter fraud.

There were hopes for a less dis-united United States - its immense diversity held together by its democratic freedoms and traditions in place for more than 230 years.

As we look back at election day, even if we still don't have a winner, there is some good news: the fears of a chaotic voting day did not materialise. Across the more than 3,000 electoral counties – from Kalawo in Hawaii with just 86 inhabitants to Los Angeles county with more than ten million people – vote officials reported orderly and peaceful elections.

In other words: the American voters did their job well and perhaps better than at any time in US history. Two-thirds of the almost 240 milllion eligible votersExternal link (US citizens above 18 years old across the world) participated in the 2020 general election. Almost 100 million of them used channels other than the election day polling places to cast their vote. They used a range of channels including email, fax, satellite phone, diplomatic couriers and last but not least – postal voting.

The record-high turnout combined with the different voting channels and the different rules for dealing withExternal link them in each state (and sometimes across counties) had an important consequence on election night.

In states where postal votes were counted first (like Florida and Ohio) Joe Biden, the Democratic candidate, was leading as the votes were initially tallied up. The Republican incumbent, Donald Trump, was up in states where postal votes were counted last like Wisconsin or Michigan.

Many media commentators and the candidates’ supporters had difficulties to get a handle on what this new phenomenon meant for determining the final result. As Covid-19 rages across America many voters, especially those supporting the Democratic candidate, opted to use remote voting channels like postal voting, while registered Republicans tended to vote in person on election day.

The fact that the democratic voting tradition evolved and adapted in a way that resulted in record turnout in the 2020 election is an illustration of democracy at its best. This is even more impressive given it happened at one of the most challenging times in the history of the US and the world with the ongoing pandemic, an economic crisis and growing international tensions.

Calling on the Supreme Court

Despite this show of democratic resilience, the election also offered some of the worst moments. This happened in the early hours of November 4, when both candidates faced the fact that the vote-counting in key states necessary to win the Electoral College wouldn’t be completed for hours and possibly days.

In a speech outside the White House, President Trump falsely declared that he had won the electionExternal link and would ask the Supreme Court to stop the count. Never in modern American history has a candidate declared victory before the results in key states were reported. The major TV networks cut into President Trump’s address and informed the public that the president was peddling falsehoods.

Trump then turned to criticise Fox News for declaring his opponent Biden the winner in Arizona, demanding that all votes be counted.

While most states will conclude their counting this week, some will legally have the right to count all remaining votes until 20 days after the electionExternal link.

Local votes

While most reporting of the US general election is on the biggest prize – the presidency – thousands of other electoral races as well as local and statewide initiatives and referendums were also decided by the almost 160 million participating citizens.

As is the case in many other countries that use direct democracy for citizens to decide on issuesExternal link, many state referendums also took place across the country. In California, the most populated state with more than 20 million voters, 55% voted against Proposition 18External link, which would have given 17 year-olds a right to vote in primary elections.

An initiative in Florida, (Amendment 4External link) which would have made it harder to pass a citizens’ initiative, was also defeated. In total 120 referendums across 32 statesExternal link were on the ballot on November 3, offering US citizens many ways to shape their communities in addition to electing representatives.

Democratic intertwining

Looking at the election from a distance in Switzerland – America’s “Sister Republic”External link – Marc Bühlmann, professor of political science at the University of Bern, characterises the US general election as a democratic success. 

“A democracy in which political decisions are made peacefully and after vigorous debate, is a successful one,” Bühlmann suggests. He adds, that “if the minority in an election or referendums feels like a loser or not depends on the quality of a political system and its institutions”.

The 2020 US election reflects another development that represents both the good and bad of democracy said Bühlmann. “The mediatisation of the election has reached new heights in the US, not least because a former reality TV star is the current president. This has contributed to more political engagement of American society and the record high turnout”.

While we wait for the final results, we can say that the 2020 election shows that the best and worst of American democracy are intertwined.

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