Three Weeks Out: What’s Still At Play Before Election Day


Election Day is only three weeks from today. But with early voting already in progress in several states, the election has very much begun. In fact, The Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday that 8.2 million Americans have already voted by mail and another 835,000 have already voted in-person. As the final stretch emerges, candidates have a few remaining hurdles before November 3rd. Here’s what’s still at play in the final weeks of this historic election.

Voting in Progress

Thirty-five states, plus the District of Columbia, have made some form of absentee voting available to all citizens. Since March, when the coronavirus pandemic began in earnest, election officials have been working to enable voter participation. And despite President Trump’s regular diatribes against mail-in voting, a record number of voters have already returned ballots.

In Pennsylvania, Virginia and Kentucky, election officials have already received more mail-in ballots then they did in the entire 2016 election. Meanwhile, in the perennial election-deciding state of Florida, over 1.6 million voters had already cast absentee ballots. That’s more than 60% of all mail-in votes in the 2016 election.

What does this all mean for the final stretch of the election? An old election politics maxim says you can always raise more money and you can always knock on another door, but you can’t get back a lost day. And each day that passes reduces the chance that an October surprise could suddenly change the campaign’s course. While it’s likely that there are some undecided voters, a record number of Americans have already committed. And the days are passing for the rest.

Fate of the Debates

Those who have not yet decided on a presidential candidate to support may be waiting for another live debate between President Trump and Joe Biden. But in 2020, even that tradition is up in the air.

While the presidential nominees agreed to three in-person debates, Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis threw the debate calendar into disarray. Following Trump’s health scare, the non-partisan Commission on Presidential Debates announced the October 15th townhall style debate would go virtual. But the Trump campaign wouldn’t have it, with the President himself calling a digital townhall a “waste of time.” As a result, the Commission canceled the debate.

Still, the final one-on-one matchup between the candidates remains on the docket for October 22nd in Nashville. But with only 12 days between that debate and Election Day, and with so much early voting already in progress, it looks less and less likely that the event will prove consequential. And only one candidate really needs such an outcome.

That’s because President Trump spent the majority of the first debate interrupting, berating, and bullying his opponent. It did little to help his deficit in the polls. For Trump to have any chance of reversing his fortunes before Election Day, he will need to reset his messaging and image. He might be able to do at another debate. The Biden campaign, meanwhile, continues to lead in both national and swing-state polling. Hence, the effect, if any, a final debate will have on the electorate will have no sway on the millions who have already cast their votes.

Supreme Court Hearings

On Monday, the Senate Judiciary Committee began hearings to discuss the appointment of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. While almost all Democrats and at least two Republican senators called for proceedings to wait until after the election, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has made the hearings his top priority, even waylaying COVID relief negotiations to allow for the hearings. The Republican Leader’s insistence on confirming Judge Barrett before the election might point to anxieties within his ranks that the GOP could lose control of the Senate in November. Thus, this brief, pre-election window could be their last chance to cement a conservative majority on the high court.

For their part, Democrats have focused their resistance less on the appointee herself, and more on the stakes for everyday Americans. Chief among them is a case brought by the Trump Administration that could gut the Affordable Care Act only a week after Election Day. Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono got personal on Monday, discussing her own cancer diagnosis, and the looming threat that millions could lose their health insurance if the Court sides with the Administration. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, meanwhile, showed several photographs of Americans who have benefited from the ACA. All of whom could face immense difficulty affording coverage if the Court overturns the law.

All of this is part of a larger effort to convince the American public to vote. Republicans hope that pushing a conservative judge through the confirmation process could energize and mobilize their base. While Democrats hope that the outrage over the real-life stakes of such an appointment will move voters to reject Republicans at the ballot box.

Contested Election?

Then there’s the question of a contested election. If Trump chooses to challenge the outcome, the Supreme Court could play an outsize role in determining the result. Just as it did in the 2000 case of Bush v. Gore. At the Monday hearing, Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut called upon Barrett to recuse herself from any such case, suggesting that she could have a conflict of interest in Trump’s favor.

“Your participation,” Blumenthal addressed Barrett, “in any case involving Donald Trump’s election, would immediately do explosive, enduring harm to the court’s legitimacy and to your own credibility.”