13th Apr 2021

EU holds breath as US votes in feverish election

  • Florida result shortly after 1AM Central European Time to be closely watched (Photo: Mando Gomez)

Europe's principal security and trade ally - the US - goes to the polls on Tuesday (3 November), in an election that could help normalise transatlantic relations, or, in the worst case scenario, see the world's only democratic superpower paralysed by domestic violence.

Ahead in nationwide polls by over 8 points, the Democratic Party candidate, Joe Biden, sees eye-to-eye with EU leaders on the importance of Nato, free trade, climate change, and European integration.

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  • US president Donald Trump has been a nightmare for the EU (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

Beyond policy, he also espouses the same liberal values inscribed in the EU treaties, which have underpinned the transatlantic alliance for the past 70 years.

His contender, Republican Party president Donald Trump, has been a nightmare for the EU for the past four years.

He has threatened to abandon Europe to face her enemies, such as Russia, alone by leaving Nato.

He has started trade wars, given US firms free rein to belch out CO2, and urged other EU states to follow the UK out of Europe.

His overt racism and misogyny, and his attacks on the press and scientific community, often voiced in vulgar, incoherent rants or tweets, have also fuelled popular anti-Americanism in Europe.

But if Biden's 8-point lead gives ground for optimism, the nature of the US electoral system blunts that.

The outcome is not decided by who wins the most votes overall, but by who wins in those states which have high numbers of votes in America's so-called Electoral College.

The winner needs at least 270 out of the 538 Electoral College votes.

Many states are a forgone conclusion - California, for instance, has not voted Republican since 1988, while West Virginia has not voted Democrat since 1992.

But in some swing states with large numbers of Electoral College votes, such as Florida, Pennsylvania, or North Carolina, Biden's lead is just 2 to 5 points.

The fact 90 million out of the 230 million or so eligible Americans voters have already done so by mail or drop-in boxes designed to mitigate contagion in the pandemic also gives ground for optimism.

A high turnout is seen as favouring Biden in general.

And mail-voters are more likely to be pro-Biden because Democrats take coronavirus more seriously.

But mass-scale early voting could also cause uncertainty.

Most states, by law, are not allowed to start opening ballots until the nationwide election ends, meaning that Biden or Trump could appear to win based on exit-polls or vote-day counts, but then lose a few days later when the mail-vote count is finished.

The messy situation does not mean it is not worth staying up late on Wednesday night for those Europeans who want to know how things are going, however.

Four key swing states - Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania - are on the east coast, where voting ends between 1AM and 2AM in Central European Time, with exit polls out shortly afterward.

Florida and North Carolina laws also let them start scanning mail votes weeks ago, making initial counts more reliable.

And that means, given Biden's nation-wide lead, that if he wins big here, it will be all-but certain he will win overall.

But on the other hand, if Trump takes the east-coast swing states, he will still need to win those further west - Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Texas, and Wisconsin - to secure victory.

On top of this, if the margins of victory in one state or another end up being razor thin - less than 1 percent - then Biden or Trump might launch legal challenges to force recounts before they concede, delaying the final outcome by extra days or even weeks.

And if the final result is a tie - 269 Electoral College votes each - then the next president will be decided not by the election itself, but by a vote in the House of Representatives.

Democratic Party candidate Joe Biden (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

Bad dream

Meanwhile, if four more years of Trump seem like four more years of a bad dream for Europe, the real nightmare could begin if Trump calls fraud and refuses to concede, while urging on his supporters to come out on the streets to keep him in the White House.

The election is taking place in a feverish atmosphere in which both sides have demonised each other and in the wake of violent clashes between left and right in the Black Lives Matter protests.

Many Trump supporters no longer believe what is written on the front pages of newspapers or said on TV after four years of his tirades against "mainstream media" and "fake news".

Many also have low education and do not understand the difference between the popular vote and the Electoral College.

American society is split by extremes of poverty and wealth, as well as politics.

It was already heavily armed and, according to reports, it is more so now than ever, after many retailers sold out of guns and ammunition in the run-up to the vote in anticipation of unrest.

That is why many shops in cities such as Los Angeles, New York, and Washington DC have begun boarding up their storefronts.

And that is the scenario that America's enemies, Russia and Iran, have tried to engineer in their 2020 disinformation campaigns and cyber-attacks.

Trolls and bot armies linked by investigators to those foreign powers have been tweeting and posting extreme-left and extreme-right messages for months.

Cyber-attacks on voting infrastructure have been executed in such a way as to get caught out, in order to harm public trust in the validity of the outcome, rather than to back one side or other.

Security experts say there is a high possibility of random violence, organised by small groups of hardliners or lone vigilantes and accompanied by looting.

In Michigan, for instance, people are allowed to openly carry guns when they go to vote, in a sign of how different the US is to Europe and of how easily things could turn nasty.

Vote counting could drag out for days (Photo: Harry Metcalfe)

Southern army

And if the worst case scenario - of mass-scale, nation-wide disorder - comes to pass, then the US military cannot be counted on to keep the peace.

"The combat units, if not the generals, would probably side with the far-right," Robert Baer, a former CIA officer who is now a security writer for Time magazine, told EUobserver on Tuesday.

"I've been talking to people on military bases in recent weeks and many of them are strongly evangelical," he said.

"Officers have been unable to get the rank-and-file to wear masks, because soldiers think coronavirus is a hoax or they are too tough to catch it," Baer added, in echoes of Trump's attitude to the pandemic.

"We very much have a southern army," he said, referring to Trump's heartland in geographical terms.

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