Democrats expecting a comfortable victory in the presidential election found themselves in a nail-biter instead, as the race remained in limbo past midnight Tuesday.
By early Wednesday, Joe Biden led with 236 electoral votes to 213 for President Trump, both well short of the 270 necessary to win the presidency. Biden also had a narrow edge in the popular vote.
On the eve of the election, Biden led in virtually every national poll and in most battleground states. But Trump appeared to gain ground in several states in the final week of the campaign, during which he crisscrossed the country, concentrating on Florida and the Midwest, holding multiple rallies nearly every day.
Biden addressed supporters in Wilmington, Del., shortly after midnight, saying, “We feel good about where we are. We really do. I’m here to tell you tonight we believe we’re on track to win this election.”
At 2:20 a.m., President Trump spoke to a crowd in the White House, running down the list of states where he was ahead or in a position to take the lead. “We had such a big night,” he boasted. “They knew they couldn’t win, so they said, ‘Let’s go to court.’
“Frankly, we did win this election. We will be going to the U.S. Supreme Court. We want all voting to stop.”
Trump’s remarks met with criticism from some unexpected sources, including Rick Santorum, a former Republican senator, who said on CNN, “I was very distressed by what I just heard the president say.”
Bolstered by unexpected strength among Hispanic voters, Trump won comfortably in Florida and Texas, states that Democrats had hoped to flip to their side. Biden won Arizona, and although he was behind in the count in Georgia, he had a shot at winning that Republican state as well, after a burst water pipe delayed the counting of votes in the heavily Democratic suburbs of Atlanta.
But the election appeared to be coming down to the same three states — the traditionally Democratic “blue wall” of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania — that decided the 2016 contest for Trump.
Trump held a lead in early returns in those states, reflecting the expected Republican advantage in same-day voting, which got counted first. Democrats were hoping to make up the difference with mail-in ballots. The coronavirus pandemic led many states to expand early-voting options, and a record number of ballots, more than 100 million, were cast either in person or by mail before Election Day.
Most states allowed mail ballots to be opened weeks ahead of Election Day so they could be counted quickly, but in the three key states, Republican-controlled legislatures refused to allow election clerks to open mail ballots in advance.
Trump, who had for months been attacking the use of mail ballots on the grounds that they could be used fraudulently, insisted that the vote counting should stop on election night. Republicans brought lawsuits in state and federal courts seeking to prevent election officials in various states from counting late-arriving mail-in votes. Most of those efforts failed, although appeals were planned or still in progress in some cases.
“If people wanted to get their ballots in, they should have gotten their ballots in long before [Election Day], a long time,” Trump told reporters Sunday, adding: “We’re going in the night of — as soon as the election is over — we’re going in with our lawyers.”
Groups that included Trump’s own former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and former Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, launched $6 million in TV ads this week trying to educate the public that Trump cannot stop the counting of legitimate ballots.
Trump has also said he does not want mail ballots in Pennsylvania to be counted if they arrive after Election Day, but the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled they can be counted up until this Friday, Nov. 6, as long as they were postmarked by 8 p.m. on Election Day, or if they had no postmark or an unclear postmark.
The Republican Party took that issue to the U.S. Supreme Court, which deadlocked 4-4 two weeks ago on this issue, which meant the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision stood. But Trump has signaled that the GOP will go to court quickly to try to stop that, hoping that the newly confirmed conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Amy Coney Barrett, might cast a tie-breaking vote in their favor.
Most mail ballots in Pennsylvania — at least 2.5 million out of 3 million requested — arrived before or on Election Day, so they must be counted no matter what. But if Republicans are able to stop even a few hundred thousand mail ballots from being counted, that could have a significant impact on the results there, and possibly for the presidency.
Republicans have also filed a lawsuit to throw out mail ballots that were received after elections officials in some counties contacted voters to alert them to problems with their ballot, in a process known as “curing.”
Last week, a federal appeals court ruled that Minnesota ballots received after Election Day wouldn’t be counted, even though the instructions said they could be received up to seven days after Tuesday, as long as they were postmarked on or before Nov. 3. Pennsylvania — which has a Democratic governor, secretary of state and attorney general — has announced it will separate ballots that arrive after Election Day from the ones that came earlier, so that a court ruling invalidating late-arriving votes can be obeyed without having to throw out all mail ballots.
Democrats have been sounding the alarm for months that Trump might contest election results or declare victory based on early returns, which were expected to favor him. A premature victory proclamation would have no legal standing. States have until Dec. 8 to finish ballot counting and appoint their representatives to the Electoral College, which meets on Dec. 14.
Cover thumbnail photo: Brynn Anderson/AP, Andrew Harnik/AP
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