In the first presidential debate, President Trump was asked if he would pledge not to declare victory until the election was independently certified. He notably didn’t say yes and instead made baseless claims about voter fraud. On November 4, unsurprisingly, Trump prematurely claimed that he had won. On November 5, he called for states to stop counting votes, even though he was behind Biden in enough states to give Biden an Electoral College victory.
It’s not clear how far Trump will go to keep undermining the full counting of votes. But coalitions around the country have spent the last months preparing for the worst—a president who refuses to concede and tries to steal an election. “We had been paying attention to what Trump has been saying,” says Zack Malick, one of the authors of The Count, a document that lays out how the election could be manipulated. “And he’s been saying for months that he’s going to do exactly what he’s doing right now, which is declare victory falsely, and then call into question the integrity of the election and try and stop the count. We chose to believe him and decided to do a deep dive into the mechanics of the Electoral College and the ballot count to try and understand what the worst-case scenarios would look like.”
Some of the potential hurdles are already being overcome. Trump’s campaign has filed lawsuits in Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, and Pennsylvania to try to stop ballot counts, though he’s not expected to succeed (judges in Georgia and Michigan have already thrown out the cases). Trump supporters showed up to protest vote counting at some sites, but election officials have continued to work, and counterprotesters have shown up to affirm the basic necessity of counting votes in a democracy.
When Trump declared victory before winning, he wasn’t taken seriously. “We were really pleased to see the way social media outlets, the national media, and various actors responded to that,” says Aditi Juneja, who works with the National Task Force on Election Crises, which has spent months preparing to protect the 2020 election. “We were glad to see Chris Wallace on Fox immediately say, ‘He has not won yet.’ You saw Rick Santorum and others also make that clear. And so I think it was really important that there wasn’t kind of credence given to that false message.” In Wisconsin, Trump has said that he wants a recount, and he may call for the same in other states, though as votes are being carefully counted, it’s unlikely to change the results. (A recount of the 2016 Wisconsin race altered just 131 votes; Trump is losing by roughly 20,000).
Other activists are working to fight Trump’s constant flow of misinformation. “We’re holding tech companies accountable, asking them to not allow Trump to have a free platform to expound misinformation about what’s actually happening,” says Arisha Hatch, executive director of the Color of Change PAC, which has been working to engage Black voters across the country and make sure their votes are counted. Along with other groups, they’ve been in a year-long conversation with Twitter and Facebook that helped lead to labels flagging some posts as inaccurate, though now they think the platforms should go farther. “We’re now calling for both Facebook and Twitter to temporarily suspend him, given the misinformation that he continues to spout on their platform.”
There’s still a risk that Trump could convince Republican legislators to go even further—appointing fraudulent Trump electors to the Electoral College, pushing the fight for the election to Congress. “The Democratic governors in the Midwestern states are sort of a key firewall against Trump’s stealing the election,” Malick explains, saying that they need to be prepared to send a competing slate of Biden electors if needed. Still, that scenario is probably unlikely.
While some far-right personalities have floated the idea on Twitter, Republican legislators have not expressed any interest in appointing fraudulent electors, says Juneja. “Trump is only one person,” she says. “Our elections are conducted at the state and local level. Trump cannot steal an election by himself. It requires a broad, vast conspiracy of different actors at all levels of government. And we are not seeing that. And we’re thankful, because we live in a democracy, and we believe we should have a free and fair election.”