“The fabric of democracy is always fragile everywhere because it depends on the will of citizens to protect it, and when they become scared, when it becomes dangerous for them to defend it, it can go very quickly.” – Margaret Atwood, interview, Dec. 2, 2010.
The fabric of American democracy was put to the test and its fragility exposed to the world again last week. And what a week it was! It took six exhausting days for a winner to emerge.
On Monday, Democrat Joe Biden was poised – as the pollsters and just about everyone else agreed – to defeat President Donald Trump handily, perhaps massively, on Tuesday. As the ballots were counted, however, the presumed rout became a stalemate, and Trump took to Twitter to claim victory.
Not so fast. Nothing happens quickly in American elections. In Canada, national elections are federal. They are conducted under the Canada Elections Act, supervised by the Chief Electoral Officer, an independent, non-partisan official who is appointed by and reports to Parliament. The CEO and his staff also administer the rules under which parties and candidates raise money and they enforce the limits on how much they may spend.
To digress for moment, these limits do work. If there were an election this year in Canada (pop. 37 million), each party would face a spending ceiling of approximately $30-million. In this U.S. election, Biden not only outspent Trump, he became the first presidential candidate ever to spend more than $1 billion. And in one state, Kentucky (pop. 4.5 million), one candidate, Mitch McConnell, the powerful Republican leader in the Senate, spent $20-million ($26-million in loonies) to win a seventh term on Tuesday. For that kind of money, a Canadian party could run a respectable national campaign, although it might have to cut back on pizza for the war room.
This may make no sense to Canadians, but in the U.S. system, individual states establish and administer the rules for federal elections, including ballot counting. Some states count mail-in and absentee ballots as they arrive, while other states insist on counting and releasing election-day votes before they start on the others. Some accept mail-in ballots that arrive after election day if they are postmarked before the polls close. Others refuse to accept ballots that are not have not been physically delivered by poll-closing time. Some states release numbers as the counting proceeds; others wait until they darn well feel like it. The system is a recipe for confusion and an invitation to lawsuits.
Anyway, when Americans (and Canadians) went to bed on Tuesday night, Trump was in the lead. By the time they woke up Wednesday morning, the gap had narrowed. By noon, it looked like Biden had moved into the lead in popular vote and was edging ahead in closely contested states. By evening he had a clear lead in popular vote and was moving within striking distance of the required 270 Electoral College votes.
Those EC votes remained frozen in place most of Thursday, although commentators declared that Biden had more than one “clear path” to victory. Staring into the abyss, Trump went ballistic. He went on television from the White House to again challenge the legitimacy of the electoral process – it being the same process that had made him president four years earlier – to denounce “fraud” in the voting, to declare that “honest” ballots had elected him president again, and to fire off a flurry of lawsuits.
The counting continued. On Friday morning, Biden appeared to be at the point of “flipping” both Georgia and his original home state of Pennsylvania. But Georgia ordered a recount and Pennsylvania was still counting. With Pennsylvania, Biden would have the White House.
He got Pennsylvania on Saturday morning and won the country with 75 million votes. Yet 71 million other Americans, many of them angry and alienated, rejected his message of healing and unity and voted for Trump.
While the fragile fabric that Margaret Atwood described 10 years ago survived another trial by election, democracy in polarized America remains endangered. It continues to need protection.
Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, teaches political science at the University of Guelph. His column appears Mondays. He welcomes comments at [email protected].