Election 2020: Where Do We Go From Here?

GW faculty experts discussed the state of the presidential election, potential legal challenges and implications for the COVID-19 pandemic.

White House
The 2020 presidential election remained undecided Wednesday. (Photo by: William Atkins/GW Today)
November 05, 2020

By Tatyana Hopkins

A day after Election Day, former Vice President Joe Biden held a lead in the electoral college over President Donald Trump by “razor-thin” margins while a handful of key battleground states were still counting ballots. Despite leaving lingering uncertainty in the highly contentious race, a panel of George Washington University faculty suggested that the delayed election results were actually a sign that the democratic system is working.

“I think it’s important to be said that at this point, we have over 130 million ballots that have already been counted, and we’re less than 24 hours from polls closing,” said Lara Brown, director of the Graduate School of Political Management. “I think really what that is, is a sign of is how functioning our democracy is.”

Dr. Brown joined a virtual panel of GW faculty experts, including GW Law’s Paul Schiff Berman and Spencer Overton as well as the Milken Institute School of Public Health’s Leana Wen, to discuss the potential legal challenges to the then-undetermined outcome, the role of the electoral college and the election’s implications on the worsening COVID-19 pandemic.

Frank Sesno, School of Media and Public Affairs director of strategic initiatives, moderated.

When the group met Wednesday afternoon, the election had not been determined. However, it seemed as though a number of outstanding states such as Arizona, Pennsylvania and Michigan seemed to be trending toward Mr. Biden while North Carolina seemed to trend toward Mr. Trump and Georgia appeared to be a “surprising” toss-up.

The panel urged voters to remain patient.

“Americans should have faith in the voting process,” Mr. Overton said. “This is all natural. This is typical in of how things are done. We’ve got to count every vote, including those that came in through the mail.”

Despite threats from Mr. Trump’s campaign to challenge legitimate tallying efforts, Mr. Overton said his challenges will likely fall out of the “margin of litigation.”

“The margin of litigation is really only going to be if there's one state that determines it all, like Florida, and then you have a legal claim that can determine the outcome,” he said. “If you've got to make that type of claim in three or four states and go to Wisconsin and ask for [a recount],  and you have these challenges all over the place, I just don't think that's within the margin of litigation.”

Dr. Brown agreed that Mr. Trump’s campaign would like be unsuccessful in any lawsuits regarding counting ballots as she said it has made contradictory claims in different states.

“In Arizona and Nevada, they're basically saying the absentee ballots there need to be counted,” she said. “Yet, they're turning around in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania and saying, ‘We're going to do a recount in Wisconsin, and oh, by the way, what are these extra ballots that are being counted in Pennsylvania,’ when there is no such thing as these sorts of extra ballots. These are all valid votes.”

The president’s campaign filed lawsuits Wednesday in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Georgia to stop vote counting, claiming that late ballots had been mixed with others.

“It’s ironic because historically, when the federal courts have gotten involved in voting cases, it has been specifically because the states are blocking people from voting,” Mr. Berman said. “What’s happening right now is that the Trump campaign and the Republican Party is using litigation to try to take away people’s votes or the ability of those votes to be counted, and that’s really unprecedented.”

In addition to the political implications of a contested election, Dr. Wen said the longer the election drags on, the longer there is likely to be inaction on the growing COVID-19 pandemic, noting that new projections predict that by the end of the winter the country will exceed more than half a million deaths. 

“I think many people were hoping that the announcement would have been a lot quicker, that there would be a new president-elect that would get to work way before January,” she said. “Anything we can do right now is really critical. But the longer the election drags on, the more that looks like that may not be possible for the for a new administration to come in and start doing that work.”

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