Joe Biden supporter Cindy Kalogeropoulos took no chances when her absentee ballot arrived on September 29. The Michigan retiree filled it out, drove seven miles (11km) to the nearest drop box and hung around to make sure election officials picked it up – all within 48 hours of receiving it.
In neighbouring Ohio, Biden backers Eric Bjornard, 42, and his wife Abigail moved quickly, too. The couple hand-delivered their mail ballots to their local elections office last month, five weeks ahead of the November 3 election.
Democratic leaders have been urging Biden supporters to show up in huge numbers and vote early amid concerns that nothing short of a decisive victory will prevent Republican President Donald Trump from contesting the results, potentially opening the way for state legislatures, the courts or Congress to decide the outcome.
Telling voters to have faith in the democratic process while simultaneously acknowledging that a landslide may be the only way to overthrow a defiant incumbent is proving to be a delicate balancing act, more than a dozen Democratic Party officials and Biden campaign advisers told Reuters.
Trump has repeatedly and without evidence declared mail voting to be riddled with fraud and the election “rigged” in favour of Democrats, all the while refusing to commit to ceding power peacefully if he loses. The Democratic operatives said they are concerned that amplifying Trump’s claims could backfire and suppress turnout by making Biden voters believe their ballots will not count.
What has emerged is an approach that aims to emphasise the power voters hold to send Trump packing if they act early. In Ohio, for example, David Pepper, head of the state Democratic Party, said his team is using Trump’s attacks on voting to motivate Biden supporters to return their mail ballots immediately or to vote early in person.
“We are telling people: ‘You hear what he is saying, so go and vote, you can stop him’,” Pepper said. “We are flipping the narrative.”
Ohio election officials were overwhelmed with vote-by-mail requests for the state’s April presidential nomination contest, when in-person voting was sharply curtailed there due to the coronavirus pandemic. Ballots for some voters arrived too late.
Election officials say they are better prepared this time. Still, Democratic phone banks, text messages, mailings, social media and TV and radio advertisements are exhorting Ohio voters to act now to “Make It Count”. Polls show the race tied in a state that Trump won by eight points four years ago.
In Ohio, more than 2.4 million mail-in ballots have been requested, double the 1.2 million requested at the same time in 2016, according to the Ohio Secretary of State.
Nationally, 17.1 million people have already cast ballots by mail or through in-person voting, which is more than 10 times the number of votes at the same point four years ago, according to the United States Elections Project, a site run by University of Florida political scientist Michael McDonald that compiles early voting data.
Democrats appear to be driving much of that surge. In states that report party affiliation data, nearly twice as many registered Democrats have requested ballots than Republicans have, the data show. For example, more than 960,000 registered Democrats in battleground Florida have already mailed back their ballots, compared with 564,000 Republicans.
While early turnout is encouraging for Democrats, the Biden camp is preparing for the worst.
Democrats say their turnout campaign is especially critical this year as Republicans seek to restrict mail-in voting despite the pandemic, and both parties fight over how votes are tallied in key states. Dozens of lawsuits have been filed in multiple states, many focused on mail-in voting.
The Biden campaign said it has built the largest election protection program in the Democratic Party’s history, including thousands of lawyers and volunteers around the country.
The Trump campaign has also assembled a large legal team to prepare for a contested result and to monitor the voting process.
Then there are the post-election preparations. Biden’s national legal team is examining a series of scenarios, including those in which Trump casts doubt on the integrity of a close contest, campaign advisers said. Among them is the possibility that a lengthy or disputed count of mail ballots could result in Republican-controlled legislatures in key states intervening to award their Electoral College vote to Trump. The US presidency is clinched by winning a majority of the 538 votes apportioned to the 50 states and Washington DC in the Electoral College.
Typically, governors certify the results in their respective states and share the information with Congress. But it is possible for “duelling” slates of electors to emerge, in which the governor and the legislature in a closely contested state could submit two different election results.
The risk of this happening is heightened in states where the legislature is controlled by a different party than the governor. Several battleground states, including Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, have Democratic governors and Republican-controlled legislatures.
According to legal experts, it is unclear in this scenario whether Congress should accept the governor’s electoral slate or not count the state’s electoral votes at all.
The law governing Congress’s role in such a dispute – the Electoral Count Act of 1887 – is unclear and “untested,” said Lawrence Douglas, a legal and elections scholar at Amherst College. “We’d be in unchartered territory,” he said.
Those scenarios are far less likely, the Democratic advisers said, if enough Americans make sure to vote early in November’s election.
Jennifer Holdsworth, a lawyer and Democratic strategist, said if Democrats run up the score with the vote count, “our legal job becomes easier”.
“If it’s a tight election, that goes to Trump’s favour,” she said. “For Democrats to avoid a potential stolen election … we need to make sure the vote is as overwhelming as possible.”
Biden and his running mate, US Senator Kamala Harris, have repeatedly urged people to vote early. During their recent debates with Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, respectively, both steered clear of talking about Trump’s unfounded claims of a rigged election.
“Vote, vote, vote!,” Biden told Americans during his September 29 debate with Trump, when the moderator asked the candidates to reassure Americans about the integrity of the election. “If we get the votes, it’s going to be all over. He’s going to go. He can’t stay in power.”
Several national opinion polls show Biden has opened up a double-digit lead since the chaotic September debate in which Trump repeatedly interrupted his rival, then was hospitalised with COVID-19 a few days later. Most Americans reject Trump’s handling of the pandemic that has killed more than 216,000 people in the country.
In an October 9-13 Reuters/Ipsos poll, 53 percent of American adults said they disapprove of Trump’s virus response, while 41 percent approve of his handling of the pandemic.
But the race remains competitive in key states such as Florida, Arizona and North Carolina that are crucial to winning the Electoral College. Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic nominee, won the national popular vote by nearly three million votes but lost the Electoral College, and thus the presidency.
Judy Daubenmier, chair of the Livingston County Democratic Party in Michigan – another state that Trump won by less than a percentage point – said she is telling voters not to believe Biden’s encouraging poll numbers.
“People are scarred from 2016,” Daubenmier said. “Nobody assumes Biden is going to win. We are working like we are two points behind. Anything can happen.”