As paths to victory for Democratic candidate Joe Biden widened a day after the polls closed in the US election, President Donald Trump’s campaign appeared poised to dig in with legal challenges in multiple states in what has been a tense and tighter-than-expected election.
The former vice-president has seen over 70 million votes cast in his favour, a record in a presidential race, and lined up a significant lead in the Electoral College, with the election coming down to a handful of battleground states where votes continued to be counted into Thursday in the United States.
With critical victories for Biden in the Midwest posing a steep challenge to re-election for Trump, the president, who prematurely asserted early on Wednesday morning that he had already won during an election night address, built on campaign trail rhetoric to threaten that the election could be decided by the US Supreme Court.
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Hanging in the balance as votes continue to be counted is not only who takes the majority in the outstanding states – where historical levels of mail-in ballots due to the pandemic have slowed counting – but whether all of those votes will ultimately be allowed to be counted.
The Trump campaign on Wednesday filed lawsuits in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Georgia, laying the groundwork to contest results in these states, Associated Press reported, even as Pennsylvania and Georgia had yet to be called for a candidate.
His campaign also announced that it would ask for a recount in Wisconsin, which networks had called for Biden.
In response, Biden’s campaign shifted into defence mode, mobilising teams of lawyers in Nevada, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan, and issuing requests to supporters for donations via text messages and other channels to combat Trump’s lawsuits.
In comments on Wednesday afternoon, Biden predicted he would claim victory in the hard-fought election – while stopping short of declaring a win.
“I am not here to declare we won. But it’s clear when it’s finished, we will be the winners,” he said.
If Biden keeps Arizona, he would need only one of four battleground states still counting votes – Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Georgia or Nevada – to seize the presidency, with each hanging on a tight margin as ballot counters continued their work.
The results are closer than pollsters expected to end a bitter election cycle that came down to issues of race, the economy, and how to handle the Covid-19 pandemic, as infections surge around the country, with new daily cases in the US topping 100,000 by some counts on Wednesday.
The elections have been avidly watched around the world and in China, where some media outlets and commentators have looked to use the uncertainty around the elections as an example of an inept political system at work.
On China’s Twitter-like Weibo, commenters joked they had mistaken maps showing US coronavirus cases for the election map and suggesting that Biden and Trump could share the presidency.
One headline from the Chinese tabloid Global Times read: “Deep-seated divisions in US contradict democratic values”.
Another from Xinmin Evening News described the situation as “chaos” in a story titled: “The US election: after one night, the wrangling has only just begun”.
But in the US, state officials took to the airwaves to stress that the election day process had been a relatively smooth one, even as the number of postal ballots had extended the ballot-counting timeline.
Concerns about unrest breaking out in the US on election day were also unfounded, though largely peaceful demonstrations did spring up in several areas on Wednesday.
In major cities, including Minneapolis, Chicago, Philadelphia, Portland and Los Angeles, protesters took to the streets, with some calling for racial justice or supporting a full count of the vote.
The demonstrations followed Trump’s claims on Twitter that results coming in that were chipping away at his lead in swing states were somehow fraudulent.
“Last night I was leading, often solidly, in many key States, in almost all instances Democrat run & controlled. Then, one by one, they started to magically disappear as surprise ballot dumps were counted,” Trump wrote on Wednesday morning, in a post that was flagged by Twitter as potentially misleading.
Trump supporters were also involved in protests on Monday. Crowds surrounded ballot-counting offices in Detroit, Michigan and Phoenix, Arizona.
In Michigan, the pro-Trump protesters called for an end to counting in the state that flipped to Biden after early projections showed it going for Trump. Those in Arizona urged officials to continue to count votes in a state where Trump trails, but new releases have shaved down the Biden lead.
While Trump has railed against the delayed vote counting in the election, this is not the first time that the results were not clear right after election day.
The infamous election between former president George W. Bush and former vice-president Al Gore in 2000 dragged on for more than a month. Legal battles over the close contest in Florida were eventually settled in a controversial Supreme Court ruling to stop the vote count process, handing Bush the Florida electoral votes and the presidency.
The Trump campaign’s legal challenges include a bid to take part in a case that has landed at the Supreme Court contesting a Pennsylvania ruling that deals with whether ballots received up to three days after the election can be counted, according to Trump’s deputy campaign manager Justin Clark as quoted by Associated Press. However, it was not clear if the case would be heard by the courts.
The other lawsuits filed on Wednesday in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Georgia demand better access for campaign observers in locations where ballots are being processed and counted, and raise absentee ballot concerns, the campaign said.
But experts have raised questions about the validity of the Trump campaign’s lawsuits, with Benjamin Ginsberg, a Republican lawyer who was national counsel to Republican Senator Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2012, calling any such legal moves “Hail Marys” that revealed a campaign facing “the grim reality of not winning an election”.
Speaking to CNN, Ginsberg said Trump’s threats to dispute the election would fail if the margin of victory for Biden was not marginal and carried across multiple states.
“These are long-shot lawsuits that don’t go to the heart of the matter,” he said.
The outlook for the Trump campaign changed after a dramatic turn of events in the early hours of Wednesday, which saw Wisconsin and then Michigan flip to Biden after trending towards Trump in early counting. Network commentators suggested a similar phenomenon could happen in Pennsylvania, where Trump leads, as postal ballots that are expected to trend towards Biden continue to be counted.
Some 763,000 such ballots remained to be counted in the state, Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor, John Fetterman told CNN on Thursday morning, adding the vote count in the commonwealth could be concluded on Thursday.
North Carolina election officials will not finalise their count until November 12, as about 116,000 outstanding postal ballots have yet to been received with no further tallies expected. As it stands, Trump leads with 50.1 per cent of the vote compared to 48.7 per cent for Biden, with 95 per cent reported.
In Arizona, the next results in the crucial Maricopa County are “not expected until Thursday night”, The New York Times reported, with Trump eating gradually into Biden’s lead in the state which was called early by Associated Press and Fox News. Other media declined to declare for Biden. As it stands, Biden leads with 50.5 per cent of the vote compared to the president’s 48.1 per cent, with 86 per cent of votes reported.
Additional reporting by Robert Delaney, Finbarr Bermingham, Chad Bray, Sarah Zheng
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