"The only way we're going to lose this election is if the election is rigged."
President Donald Trump's astonishing remark last month -- and his escalating efforts to sow doubts about the integrity of November's vote -- have highlighted a growing concern: can the United States, one of the world's oldest democracies, assure a free and fair election in 2020?
The American voting system may be facing its most serious threat in decades -- fueled by baseless presidential rhetoric, record mail-in voting due to the coronavirus pandemic, worry about ageing machines, and accusations of voter suppression.
Complicating matters, the foreign interference that marred 2016 is being repeated in 2020, made clear by Thursday's US Treasury sanctions against an "active Russian agent" for stoking conspiracy theories advanced by the White House.
- 1 The Trump I once wrote to
- 2 In Senate deal, Trump impeachment trial put off until early February
- 3 Top Iran leader posts Trump-like golfer image, vows revenge
- 4 Why citizen Trump faces uncertain legal future
But while the 50 US states are on guard against intrusions from Moscow and elsewhere, the most prominent threats may be coming from within.
"The conduct of these elections will be the most challenging in recent decades," said the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which has monitored elections for decades in countries from Afghanistan to the United States.
Covid-19 measures could "have an impact on the level of trust" and integrity of election administration and "ultimately cast doubt in the outcome," the OSCE said in a July report.
The nonpartisan Carter Center, founded by former president Jimmy Carter, has monitored elections in 39 countries since 1989 and is turning its attention to the US for the first time.
"Why? Americans are losing faith in the US electoral process," the center's Jason Carter wrote in late August.
"The country is deeply polarized, and people on both the right and left are concerned about threats to the security of the election and the credibility of the process."
Protections in place?
Several signs of potential peril have emerged.
Since 2016 more than 1,100 polling stations have been shuttered in Texas, Arizona, Louisiana and elsewhere, according to the Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights.
Disputes over funding the US Postal Service have swelled, even as the agency warns it will struggle to process a record number of mail-in ballots.
Exceedingly long lines during primary elections this year raised concerns about the ability to adequately process voters.
Scores of legal challenges could make it more difficult to count votes on time and train volunteers, and easier to reject ballots as fraudulent.
With election workers often elderly volunteers, many are expected to stay home due to coronavirus concerns, meaning states are scrambling to train enough poll workers.
Georgia launched an investigation Tuesday after some 1,000 episodes of double voting were detected in June's primary and an August run-off.
The scenario appeared to mirror one that Trump himself promoted this month in North Carolina, where he urged his supporters to vote first by mail, then again at the polling station to "make sure it counted."
Despite such developments, "there are protections in place in many places to prevent voter fraud," said John Hudak, a senior governance fellow at the Brookings Institution.
He stressed that while the pandemic is prompting surges in mail-in voting, the potential delays in certifying state results are not a cause for alarm, as Trump has warned.
"It's actually a signal that the election system is working," he said.
Americans have been worried about election integrity for years.
A 2018 Pew Research study found that the public "is not highly confident that election systems in the US are secure from hacking and other technological threats."
Just 45 percent of respondents said they were at least somewhat confident that election systems are secure, Pew said.
Voters are mindful of the Florida disaster in 2000, when a chaotic recount of the state's razor-thin vote was halted by the US Supreme Court, handing the presidency to George W. Bush.
Florida could emerge as a flashpoint again, as Democrats accuse Republicans of voter suppression efforts.
Still, Harvard professor of government Stephen Ansolabehere is not particularly worried about the lawsuits, polling station closures or other irregularities that have marked 2020.
"A lot of that is the nature of the American system," which can be "adversarial," said Ansolabehere, who has studied US elections closely since 2000.
With each state responsible for running its vote, the federal government takes a hands-off approach to election operations.
That decentralized system is a double-edged sword. "It can make it harder to resolve things, but also prevents federal meddling" and allows technological innovations, he said.
Overall, Ansolabehere expressed "pretty high" confidence in the election's integrity, despite the president's rhetoric.
"Trump calling all this out means everyone is watching," the professor said.
"When everyone is watching, it's hard to do bad things."