I Voted! It’s a badge issued after voting in a United States election and in 2020, Americans are acquiring them in historic numbers. Never in the USA has voting been so fraught with tension, apprehension, frustration and even fear. Yet never before have so many Americans been this determined to have their voices heard.
By the time you are reading this, the polls will be just hours from closing. The nation will have chosen its next president, but we may or may not know the outcome for days or even weeks.
For the past four years, Americans have battled with the divisions that have permeated lives, communities and nation, exacerbated by the inflammatory rhetoric of a President who never had a majority of popular support and who never tried to acquire it. This political polarisation is tearing at the very fabric of American democracy and yet has brought normally apathetic voters out of their homes, in the middle of an out-of-control pandemic, to participate in a tipping-point election that will determine the future of the world’s most powerful nation.
The red-hot tension is deeply concerning and the potential for violence is real. We’ve already seen intimidatory tactics involving trucks, bridge blockades and a shooting, incredibly in response to an alleged attempt to steal Trump signs from a front yard.
Some governors ordered their states' National Guard to be at the ready in case of civil unrest. Federal authorities installed a “non-scalable” fence surrounding the entire perimeter of the White House that I worked in decades ago for Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. Big stores and small shop owners in Washington DC and in hotspots such as Portland, Oregon, have shut their doors and boarded up windows in anticipation of angry demonstrations.
This is an election day in America unlike any I’ve witnessed. And I worry, from my home in Sydney, that it won’t be the last day of civil strife.
The pandemic raging in this presidential campaign season has exposed dangerous weaknesses in American culture and political life. Long-term economic inequity and political division leaves millions of Americans now without jobs and food. Without sufficient government stimulus, hungry hordes line huge car parks for free handouts. At overburdened hospitals, the underfunded health care system struggles. More than 1000 front-line medical professionals have died trying to save lives as COVID-19 enters a dark winter.
There is another virus, equally insidious, infecting America and weakening its democracy. For decades, disinformation and blatant propaganda have polluted the minds of too many people. It is not only foreign actors who attack with disinformation, utilizing the murky maze of the internet. Americans also must navigate through falsehoods and conspiracy theories spewed by their politicians and media outlets and on social media. The most stunning assault on the truth has come from the President of the United States himself, Donald Trump, assailing the American people with more than 22,000 lies, as recorded by The Washington Post’s fact-checkers, often averaging more than 50 a day.
The bewildering variations between the state voting systems is another weakness of America’s democracy, one that confuses voters and discourages participation. Voter suppression tactics turn a democratic right into a cynical exercise when registration is onerous, access to mail-in ballots is limited, ballot drop-boxes are removed, and the numbers of in-person polling booths are slashed. Claims of voter fraud become possible when voting becomes such a tricky exercise with double envelopes needed for ballots, witness signatures required for absentee ballots and ballots rejected because signature matches don’t pass the test.
Ultimately, the most damaging stresses on the voting system have been caused by the President himself. For months Trump has railed against the validity of mail-in ballots, demanded that tabulating votes end on election night and suggested that the contest is rigged if he doesn’t win. Despite this disinformation and attempts to manipulate the system, the President has only a narrow path to victory in the electoral college, another anachronism in the American electoral system that preferences minority rule.
Even before the votes are tallied Trump has indicated he might not agree to a peaceful transfer of power and may yet seek to hold the White House by litigating all the way to a Supreme Court that has an overwhelming conservative imbalance.
No American president has so brazenly flouted the fundamental rules of democracy, attacked the institutions that govern the nation, discredited expertise and weakened America’s international standing. This is why so many people like me, whether they worked for Republicans as I did or Democrats, have concluded that the Trump presidency is unsustainable.
After uniting the Democrats at a critical hour, Joe Biden offers Americans the best choice to begin healing and attempt to unite a bruised and broken nation. Australia and other US allies would welcome a re-engaged American leader who understands the interconnectedness of nations, especially during a pandemic, and the critical importance of a multilateral approach to unprecedented global challenges.
Can US democracy prevail? After my time on the presidential campaign trail and in the White House, I reflect on the wisdom of Ronald Reagan, when asked if he was nervous about the outcome of the American election. He replied, with a smile: “No, the people usually get it right.”