The 2020 US presidential election: nine lessons

As reported in the latest issue of Monitor, the US presidential election raised even more constitutional issues and questions about the US system of elections than many anticipated. Colin Provost and Nadia Hilliard of the UCL Centre for US Politics discuss how the election was administered, and the roles of the judiciary, Electoral College and social media in the process.

The US presidential election of 2020 has been perceived by many observers as one of the most important elections in American history. A highly polarised electorate turned out in record numbers in the middle of a pandemic and for the first time, the incumbent president refused to concede after a clear result, while pushing a steady, yet unsubstantiated series of claims about voter fraud and voting irregularities. Given the highly unusual set of circumstances surrounding this election, it is worth considering how well US institutions performed with respect to the conduct of a free and fair election, and what lessons should be learned for future electoral cycles.

1. States can run elections smoothly.

Although federal laws that are harmonised across the states might seem to make more sense for national elections, the US Constitution allows each state to set its own election laws, as long as they are in compliance with the 1965 Voting Rights Act and other relevant, federal legislation. Keeping that in mind, it is important not to understate the fact that, on average, the states performed well in terms of administration of this election. Despite the pandemic, millions of people were able to vote and perhaps more importantly, a large subset of those people were able to vote by mail, so that they would not have to put their health in jeopardy by waiting in long – and often cramped – queues. Ultimately, those votes were all counted, even if a victor could not be declared until 7 November —five days after election day.

2. US electoral institutions are resilient.

The institutions of election administration proved to be resilient in the face of baseless allegations of voter fraud and voting irregularities: those allegations were many, and continue to be made. In a normal election year, post-election lawsuits are practically non-existent, but in 2020, the Trump campaign filed dozens of lawsuits across several states, nearly all of which have been found to be lacking in merit, while tweeting inaccurate information about the election and its results. Georgia senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler suggested that Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger – the state official in charge of overseeing elections and certifying the results – should resign after not finding evidence of electoral fraud in that state. Additionally, President Trump invited the leadership of the Michigan legislature to the White House, apparently with the goal of getting them to nominate different electors to the Electoral College that formally votes in the new president than those selected by the Michigan Democratic Party. The only legal basis for this occurring is if one believed that Joe Biden did not clearly or lawfully win the state, even though his margin of victory was in excess of 150,000 votes. Finally, a large number of Trump allies in Congress, the media and elsewhere supported these actions, implicitly or explicitly. Despite all these challenges, the votes were counted and certified by all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

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The Trump administration is likely to run into major obstacles in policy implementation

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In a recent post on this blog Nigel Bowles argued that Donald Trump will largely be able to carry out his policy agenda when he becomes US president in January. In this post Colin Provost joins the debate, concluding that in the areas of trade, health care, financial regulation and climate change Trump is likely to run into major obstacles. This is because many of Trump’s campaign pledges involve large, complex governing systems and he will have limited control over these systems in their entirety.

Nigel Bowles recently wrote on this blog that President-Elect Trump will be able to push through key parts of his policy agenda in the coming four years, because of the powers afforded to him by the US Constitution and because collective action problems within Congress will prevent meaningful attempts to block his agenda. Many of Dr Bowles’ points are correct and some scholars may argue he does not go far enough in articulating the strengths of the administrative presidency. However, President-Elect Trump has made numerous grandiose promises which potentially affect large policy making networks. The more groups he touches, the more resistance he possibly engenders, thereby making policy making a grinding and tortuous battle. In this post I look at Trump’s proposals for trade, health care, financial regulation and climate change and conclude that his administration is likely to run into major obstacles in each of these areas.

As Dr Bowles has articulated, Donald Trump benefits from collective action problems in Congress and a broad range of constitutional, as well as unilateral, powers. Since the Nixon administration, every president has presided over what Richard Nathan referred to as the ‘administrative presidency’. The president ideologically steers dozens of federal agencies through appointments, s/he can also impose new substantive and procedural requirements on agencies through the use of executive orders, and s/he can employ ‘signing statements’ which enable the president to specify which parts of the law by which s/he would abide. Perhaps most importantly, Terry Moe and William Howell have argued that the Constitution’s language that the president ‘shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed’ builds ambiguities and discretion into the formal power structure that the president can shrewdly exploit.

Moreover, Trump will have Republican majorities in Congress, as well as a conservative Supreme Court after Trump likely pushes aside Merrick Garland in favour of a more conservative nominee. However, many scholars have noted in recent decades how we no longer study ‘government’, but ‘governance’. Implicit in this concept is the idea that governing is performed by a very large coalition of actors involved not only in a national government, but in subnational governments, in foreign governments, in markets, in non-governmental organisations, in the media, in think tanks and so on. These actors do not all represent veto players of equal power, but taken together, creative means of resisting policies can often be formulated and applied. When we look at some of the President-Elect’s proposals closely, we can envision how his proposals may not be implemented to the extent he would prefer.

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