Just as important as Election Day is what almost always happens on Election Night: The loser bravely congratulates the winner and accepts the people’s will, the winner congratulates the loser on a hard-fought campaign, and the rest of us turn off the TV, go to bed and continue going about our lives.
You should prepare for the likelihood that none of that will happen this time.
Instead, we won’t know who won on Election Night, or for days or possibly weeks afterwards. We’ll have to wait as states count absentee ballots, and then the loser likely will challenge the overall results in court.
In Arkansas, Gov. Asa Hutchinson issued an executive order allowing county clerks to start counting ballots 15 days before Election Day, rather than on that day. Some states must wait until Election Day, or even after the polls close, to count votes.
That includes Florida, where 18,000 mail-in ballots weren’t counted for one reason or another after March’s primaries. If the general election is close, Democrats and Republicans won’t let that sort of thing slide.
Remember 2000, when vote counters inspected individual ballots one by one for "hanging chads"? That’s what happens when an election is decided by 537 votes. It took 36 days and a 5-4 Supreme Court decision before Al Gore finally conceded Dec. 13. Even then, the results have been disputed. A review sponsored by USA Today and other newspapers found that if only ballots with fully removed chads had been counted, Gore would have won Florida by three votes and become president of the United States.
None of this will stop one side or the other from declaring victory Election Night, even if it’s premature. A Monmouth University poll found 72 percent of Democrats versus only 22 percent of Republicans said they would vote by mail. Democrats are warning of a "red mirage" where President Trump appears to be leading before mail-in ballots are counted and declares victory, but then Biden wins later. If that happens, Trump will proclaim mail-in ballots as fraudulent, as he has been saying for months.
And if Biden is leading that night? He’ll declare at least partial victory, while Trump will cast doubt on the entire "rigged" process. And who knows? Maybe Trump will win the absentee vote in the states that matter, and it will be Biden’s Election Night "victory" that turns out to be a mirage.
It’s hard to see Trump ever humbly conceding defeat, though he will leave office if he loses. Biden is more conventional and will concede if the numbers clearly aren’t in his favor, but some of his supporters won’t.
This is not the America of 2000. It’s a much more divided, distrustful place whose citizens have lost faith in its institutions and where some of us don’t like the rest of us. No matter who wins, there will be pockets of resistance and potentially acts of violence, just as we’re seeing now. The uncertainty will be another headwind for an economy already facing a lot of them.
What can you and I do?
First, vote. A higher turnout better reflects the people’s will and adds legitimacy to the results. In a country of more than 300 million people, only 63 million – one in five – actually voted for Trump in 2016, while about the same percentage voted for Hillary Clinton and the rest either voted for someone else, didn’t vote or couldn’t.
Second, obey the Ninth Commandment: "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor." The internet allows us to share whatever conspiracy theory pops into our mind. Let’s rise above that.
Third, have faith in our institutions. This is not Russia. Our elections are ugly and messy, but we count votes well. The candidate who wins the race, based on the rules we have, will be sworn into office Jan. 20.
Fourth, don’t be a baby. If your candidate loses, deal with it.
Fifth, be merciful to those who vote for someone else, even if you can’t imagine why they would do that.
Sixth, be patient. We’re in a pandemic.
Finally, go to bed at a decent hour on Election Night. We won’t know the winner in the presidential race that evening, and few Arkansas races will be nail-biters.
So get some sleep. You’re probably going to need it.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist in Arkansas. Email him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.