How Donald Trump almost stole the US election using creative timing

Andrew R. Hom

Joe Biden has won the 2020 general election and is now President-Elect of the United States for two important reasons. First, he crushed the incumbent, Donald Trump, winning at least 5M more popular and likely 74 more electoral college votes. Second, Trump’s own efforts to steal the vote using suppression, legal challenges, and the power of timing narrowly failed.

Much has been written about Republican efforts to suppress Democratic and minority votes, from spreading misinformation to requiring additional forms of identification. More recently, however, the GOP turned to creative re-timing measures in its longstanding effort to prevent elections that are free and fair to all eligible voters. Electoral misconduct often falls into one of two types – ‘stealing the cast’ by intimidating or suppressing actual voting, or ‘stealing the count’ by altering or preventing the count of votes cast. In the 2020 US election, Republicans and the Trump administration tried a bit of both, first timing the cast and then working to time the count.

Political timing

By timing, I do not mean mere coincidence or clever action at a ripe moment. Rather, I mean timing in the more comprehensive sense of creatively stitching together relations and processes so that they enable some actors and constrain others, all with the objective of encouraging events to unfold toward one outcome rather than another. I detail all of this in a new book on timing and international politics and an article soon to appear in Renewal’s journal pages, but for our purposes the most important thing to note is a key implication of timing – when we talk or hear about ‘time’ and ‘history’, we are not referring to some metaphysical entity or natural dimension, but rather to some underlying timing effort. In this way, time is not a thing or a force, but a symbol of people doing – for themselves or to each other. When we refer to time as threatening or problematic, this indicates challenges in our own active timing efforts, or problems stemming from others’ efforts to time us. When we refer to time as neutral or less problematic, this symbolizes more passive and institutionalized forms of timing at work. In short, the way we talk about time indicates how our various timing projects are going. We are always timing and being timed, often in multiple ways at once, and these efforts together make up the time of our lives and our politics.

Timing the cast

So, when Republican lawmakers removed polling centres in left-leaning or minority districts, they did so in hopes of making it take so long to cast a ballot that voters would be discouraged from exercising their constitutional right. This established a de facto and temporal ‘poll tax’, and was clearly intended to have the effect of suppressing votes in Biden-friendly precincts. They were putting their fingers on the scales by tinkering with the temporal dynamics of key political processes, trying to slow down Democratic-leaning voting to a crawl so arduous that many voters would simply have to turn away for economic, caring, or other reasons. This was neither as administratively subtle as adding identification requirements, nor as sensational as active voter intimidation, but it did successfully construct passive roadblocks to voting just where they might help the GOP most. Consequently, when reports and images emerged of voters in those districts waiting in line for hours – at turns steadfast and joyously defiant – many recognized that people were performing genuine acts of citizenship simply by biding their time.

Timing the count

Their efforts were all the more heroic in the era of Covid-19, a situation that led to expanded postal ballot options in many states and that Trump hastened to leverage for electoral gain. First, Trump – the frequent postal voter – disparaged mail-in voting for baseless reasons that did have the effect of discouraging Republican voters from casting mail-in ballots. By contrast, Democrats and independents – who were collectively more likely to take the risks of Covid-19 seriously – used postal ballots in record numbers. Second, some Republican state governments prevented those ballots from being counted before election day for fear that they would show a huge Democratic majority (based on party registration). This not only prevented bad news for Trump from emerging before election night but also created an enormous backlog of ballots to be processed. Third, coupled with Republicans voting primarily in-person on the day, this allowed Trump and most news agencies (steeped in the tradition of the ‘horse race’ and ‘momentum’ narrative tropes for describing and analysing elections) to spin a story on election night about his surprisingly strong performance, as he held Florida and ‘took early leads’ in key swing states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.

Fourth, Trump’s lawyers and campaign team moved to stop counting of mail-in ballots by launching vague and equivocating lawsuits alleging fraud and other irregularities but based on ‘inadmissible hearsay within hearsay’. Their legal machinations complemented Trump characterizing mail-in counts as fraudulent on Twitter and in two press appearances that will likely go down in infamy. The gist of his claims was that the mail-in ballots were conspicuously favourable to Biden so must have been doctored. As he put it, ‘I had such a big lead in all of these states late into election night, only to see the leads miraculously disappear as the days went by.’ Pennsylvania on election night was ‘easily won’ for Trump, a type of claim that slipped smoothly into ‘I WON THE ELECTION, GOT 71,000,000 LEGAL VOTES’ as the full scale of Biden’s triumph became apparent as all votes were finally counted.

Mail-in votes almost uniformly helped Biden seem to ‘catch up’ in those same states and – more surprisingly – to eventually flip the traditionally conservative state of Georgia. Of course, there was no catching up to do, for the votes that purportedly closed the gap between Biden and Trump had been cast earlier than the votes informing Trump’s election night lead, they just hadn’t been counted due to the strenuous efforts of Republican strategists and state governments. All of Trump’s claims about fraud and ongoing efforts to litigate the election depend upon the idea that ‘late’-arriving votes that so consistently favour his opponent must be fishy, but those votes only seemed to arrive ‘late’ or ‘after’ the election due to his campaign’s ingenious timing effort to determine how specific sets of likely voters would cast their ballots, and then when those ballots could be tabulated. His ally, Tommy Tuberville, the newly elected Republican Senator from Alabama and former college football coach, similarly charged that ‘The election results are out of control. It’s like the whistle has blown, the game is over, and the players have gone home, but the referees are suddenly adding touchdowns to the other team’s side of the scoreboard.’

Non-partisan observers saw through these narrative gymnastics. Hamza Shaban, the business reporter for the Washington Post, eviscerated Tuberville’s sporting simile: ‘If Biden has more votes in Trump than Pennsylvania, Trump was never “ahead,” Biden didn’t “catch up.” Biden is & was always the winner and Trump is/was always the loser. Counting ballots isn’t a baseball game. The time a ballot is counted doesn’t give it some different valence.’ And as Susan Hennessey wrote,  ‘The manner of vote counting is really warping perception of what is happening. Biden has spectacularly won the popular vote and is on track to win the Electoral College by a large margin. Biden isn’t squeaking by here. Trump is getting shellacked. Draw your lessons accordingly.’ She continued ‘It’s not taking a long time because it is so super close. It is taking a long time because we are in the middle of a pandemic and people voted by mail and Republicans used that to ensure it would take a long time SO THAT they could claim it was close.’

Indeed, a legally cast ballot’s valence should not change based on when it was cast, nor should how long the count takes be confused with fraud. Yet thanks to the timing of it all – how he first encouraged his supporters to vote in person, then prevented counting of masses of ballots likely to be more supportive of Biden, then railed against how ‘miraculous’ it was that Biden was catching up in every important state – Trump engineered a specific sequence of events that has allowed him to question what were by all accounts legitimate electoral results.

But time moves on’

His stratagem will resonate with many of the 71M who did vote for him, but as it foundered nationally against remarkably transparent and often Republican-controlled state election authorities (whose own audits have so-far increased Biden’s lead in key states) or non-activist judges who actually ‘called balls and strikes’, Trump became more and more unhinged in his usual ways. He called for more and less ballot counting, almost simultaneously. He ‘claimed’ several swing states on social media, as if Tweeting could make it so. He wrote in all caps, accused the ‘Lamestream media of call[ing] who our next president will be’, and got many of his tweets marked by Twitter as ‘disputed’. He delivered a set of remarks designed to undermine popular confidence in the election. He refused to concede. He played more and more golf.

So, it was fitting that — as network after network, the Associated Press, and a number of Republican politicians, acknowledged the electoral result — commentators turned to symbols of time and timing to reflect on Biden’s victory and Trump’s ineffectual spiral. On MSNBC, the anchors noted that ‘Donald Trump will not concede the race, that’s the word that we’re receiving now. But time moves on. History rolls on. And Joe Biden, regardless of what Donald Trump does, or does not, do, is going to be sworn in as POTUS on January 20, 2021.’ And Mike Memoli, a reporter who has covered Joe Biden for many years, invoked one of the President-elect’s favourite poems, by Seamus Heaney: ‘History says, don’t hope on this side of the grave, but then, once in a lifetime, the longed-for tidal wave of justice rises up and make hope and history rhyme. The delay from yesterday (6 Nov) to today (7 Nov) means that, 48 years to the day that Joe Biden won his very first election to the United States Senate, an upset victory over a popular incumbent Republican, he is now the P-elect of the United States.’

As it stands, the truest markers of Trump’s failed bid to time the cast and the count of the 2020 election in a way that would allow him to either steal the result, or at least undermine it, were references to the onward flow and telling symmetry of time itself – just the sort of remarks that indicate that existing timing regimes remain viable and effective. What remains to be seen is how much long-term damage Trump’s timing scheme did to electoral processes and politics, and subsequently whether 2024 will mark a familiar time of ‘renewal’, ‘rebirth’, or affirmation of ‘fundamental truths’ about ‘the American experiment’; or a more Trumpian year of engineered crisis, deliberate uncertainty, and new attempts to steal the vote through crafty electoral timing.

Andrew Hom is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Edinburgh.