The US presidential campaign entered its final day yesterday with a last-minute scramble for votes by Donald Trump and Joe Biden, drawing to a close an extraordinary race that has put a pandemic-stricken country on edge.
But while campaigning will halt and voters will have their say today, many questions remain over how soon a result will be known due to a flood of mail-in ballots and possible legal challenges.
Those factors, along with an unprecedented convergence of social justice protests, coronavirus precautions and President Trump’s fear-mongering campaign, have led to apprehension over whether unrest could erupt.
Taking no chances, businesses in some cities have boarded up windows, while across the country the harsh political climate has led to fierce debate, in some cases even dividing families.
The Republican Trump trails Biden in national opinion polls ahead of today’s Election Day. But the race in swing states is seen as close enough that Trump could still piece together the 270 votes needed to prevail in the state-by-state Electoral College that determines the winner.
Trump, aiming to avoid becoming the first incumbent president to lose re-election since fellow Republican George HW Bush in 1992, were to hold five rallies yesterday in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan.
He won those states in 2016 against Democrat Hillary Clinton, but polls show Biden is threatening to recapture all four for Democrats.
In a year that has seen much of American life upended by the coronavirus pandemic, early voting has surged to levels never before seen in US elections. A record-setting 94 million early votes have been cast either in-person or by mail, according to the US Elections Project, representing about 40% of all Americans who are legally eligible to vote.
“The future of our country is at risk,” said 66-year-old Carmen Gomez, who wore a mask as she arrived on the last day of early voting in Florida on Sunday.
Trump will wrap up his campaign in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the same place he concluded his 2016 presidential run with a post-midnight rally on Election Day.
Biden, running mate Kamala Harris and their spouses will spend most of the day in Pennsylvania, splitting up to hit all four corners of a state that has become vital to the former vice president’s hopes.
Biden will rally union members and African-American voters in the Pittsburgh area before being joined for an evening drive-in rally in Pittsburgh by singer Lady Gaga.
He also will make a detour to bordering Ohio, spending time on his final campaign day in a state that was once considered a lock for Trump, who won it in 2016, but where polls now show a close contest.
Former President Barack Obama, whom Biden served as vice president for eight years, will hold a get-out-the-vote rally in Atlanta before closing out the campaign in the evening with a rally in Miami.
Biden has wrapped up the campaign on the offensive, traveling almost exclusively to states that Trump won in 2016 and criticizing the president’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, which has dominated the race.
Biden accuses Trump of giving up on fighting the pandemic, which has killed more than 230,000 Americans and cost millions of jobs. Polls show Americans trust Biden more than Trump to fight the virus.
During a frantic five-state swing on Sunday, Trump – who was impeached by the Democratic-led House of Representatives last December and acquitted by the Republican-controlled Senate in February – claimed he had momentum.
He promised an economic revival and imminent delivery of a vaccine to fight the pandemic.
Nationally, polls have consistently put Biden well ahead, and a RealClearPolitics average of surveys had him up 7.2 percentage points Sunday. But there have been repeated warnings from both camps that the polls could be wrong — like in 2016.
Trump again questioned the integrity of the US election, saying a vote count that stretched past Election Day would be a “terrible thing” and suggesting his lawyers might get involved.
The Axios news site reported Sunday that Trump has told confidants he would declare victory on election night if it looks like he’s ahead.
Trump called it a “false report” but repeated his argument that “I don’t think it’s fair that we have to wait for a long period of time after the election.” Some states, including battlegrounds Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, do not start processing mail-in votes until Election Day, slowing the process.
Americans have already cast nearly 60 million mail-in ballots that could take days or weeks to be counted in some states – meaning a winner might not be declared in the hours after polls close on election night.
Asked about the report, Biden said: “The president is not going to steal this election.”
Trump has repeatedly said without evidence that mail-in votes are prone to fraud, although election experts say that is rare in US elections. Mail voting is a long-standing feature of American elections, and about one in four ballots was cast that way in 2016.
Democrats have pushed mail-in voting as a safe way to cast a ballot in the coronavirus pandemic, while Trump and Republicans are counting on a big Election Day in-person turnout.
Both campaigns have created armies of lawyers in preparation for post-election litigation battles.
“We’re going in the night of – as soon as the election is over – we’re going in with our lawyers,” Trump told reporters without offering further explanation.
The attorneys general of Michigan and Pennsylvania, both Democrats, challenged Trump’s rhetoric on Twitter.
“The election ends when all the votes are counted. Not when the polls close,” Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel wrote.
To help ensure mail-in ballots are delivered in a timely fashion, a US judge on Sunday ordered the US Postal Service to remind senior managers they must follow its “extraordinary measures” policy and use its Express Mail Network to expedite ballots.
A federal judge in Texas was scheduled to consider a Republican request to throw out about 127,000 votes already cast at drive-through voting sites in the Democratic-leaning Houston area.