Workers preparing and counting ballots at the Milwaukee Count Center, November 3, 2020. Chang W. Lee, The New York Times.
The unresolved presidential election entered a new phase on Wednesday, when former Vice President Joe Biden was declared the winner in the key state of Wisconsin. The Trump campaign, which is running in several key states that came too close to being called, said it will seek a recount in Wisconsin and has filed a lawsuit to stop counting votes in Michigan, which could result in further delays when the winner can be announced.
Trump's call for a recount in Wisconsin - President Donald Trump, who won by a small margin four years ago - came as his path to the 270 votes needed to win re-election narrowed. By Wednesday afternoon, Biden had few leads in several key states that, if sustained, could push him to the critical threshold of the Electoral College and the presidency.
The prolonged uncertainty of the 2020 campaign was perhaps not surprising in an election with record voter turnout, with most votes cast before Election Day, but many could not be counted until after the presidency was left on Wednesday morning and the hopes of former Biden and Trump remained in a handful of key states.
Trump's chances of winning a second term depended on his ability to bring in more outstanding states, including several of the Great Lakes states he won in 2016, where Biden is showing signs of strength and maintaining leadership.
With millions of votes still to be counted in several key states - there is a reason why news organizations and other normally impatient players waited for the winners to be announced - Biden has also kept close tabs on Arizona, Nevada and Michigan.
If Biden could have all of these states, the former vice president could win the election even without Pennsylvania, which had long been considered a mandatory battleground state.
"We feel good where we are," Biden told his frightened supporters early Wednesday. "I'm here to tell you tonight that we believe we're on track to win this election. I'm optimistic about this result.
Even before the Wisconsin race was called by a candidate, Trump said it would require a recount. According to Wisconsin state law, a recount can be requested if the difference between the two leading candidates is less than 1%. Anyone requesting a recount must pay for it, except if the difference is less than one-quarter of one percent.
Bill Stepin, Trump's campaign manager, said in a statement that "the President is within the threshold to request a recount, and we will do so immediately.
Stepin claimed that the Trump campaign had not been given "significant access" to several count sites in Michigan, and that he had filed a lawsuit in Michigan to stop the count until he was given access. He stated that Trump is "committed to ensuring that all legal votes are counted in Michigan and elsewhere," wording that suggests the campaign may question the legality of some votes.
The source of Biden's resistance is the nature of the uncounted votes. Many of them are mail ballots that favor him, as the Democratic Party spent months promoting the idea of early voting, while Trump called on his voters to come out on Election Day.
In some states, such as Michigan and Pennsylvania, many of the uncounted votes came from densely populated urban and suburban areas, which tend to vote overwhelmingly for the Democrats.
Even in Pennsylvania, where Trump gained an alarming 10 percentage point lead starting Wednesday morning, Biden had a good chance to catch up. Pennsylvania's secretary of state said that more than 1.4 million postal votes had yet to be counted and the votes were expected to favor Biden significantly.
Trump showed signs of strength with state leaders, including North Carolina and Georgia, and his campaign expressed hope that its first leader in Pennsylvania would be able to withstand the influx of mail ballots for Biden. So, if Trump could regain leadership in Arizona or frame Nevada, which became a democracy in the last election, he would have a path to a second presidential term.
After a long election night full of dramatic twists and turns, Trump and Biden struggled in an almost dead heat on the ballots, each of the 270 shy men had to take over the presidency.
Trump announced the victory prematurely and said he would appeal to the Supreme Court to stop counting the votes. Biden asked his supporters - and therefore Trump - to be patient and let the process run its course.
His duel after the midnight show captured a stormy battle that many feared would jump off the campaign trail into court.
The President's statement at the White House was a reckless attack on the democratic process at a time of deep anxiety and division in the country. Biden, speaking from a marked scene in Wilmington, Delaware, called for calm and tried to reassure supporters.
"This is not my place or Donald Trump's to announce who won this election," Biden told the chorus of car horns at the rally. "This is the decision of the American people.
Trump, however, ridiculed the vote count as "a great misrepresentation of our nation. We want the law to be used correctly," he said. "We will go to the Supreme Court of the United States. We want the entire vote stopped.
Biden's team says he is "on the road to victory.
The Biden and Trump campaigns offered a double-takeover of the election aftermath on early Wednesday. The former vice president's team expressed confidence in victory, which seemed within reach, while Donald Trump's team suggested he would exceed expectations one last time, once all the "legal votes" had been counted.
"Joe Biden is on track to win this election and will be the next president of the United States," Jennifer O'Malley Dillon, Biden's campaign manager, said during a briefing with reporters Wednesday morning, although the two candidates remain stuck in the low 200s in terms of vote counts.
O'Malley Dillon said Biden was going to speak at home later that day, but did not reveal what he planned to say.
He said campaign officials believe they "have already won" in Wisconsin and hope to take Nevada, Michigan and Pennsylvania. He admitted that North Carolina was "very dense" and leaned toward President Donald Trump, but said the outcome might not be determined for a few days.
He also said the election campaign was keeping a close eye on Georgia.
"We think this is a predetermined conclusion," he said of the overall situation.
In a conversation with reporters, Trump's team offered a different picture of the race - relying, as it turned out, on a careful vote count, despite the President's repeated attempts to discredit the process.
Trump's campaign manager, Bill Stepin, said the goal of the campaign was to solicit a recount in Wisconsin. He also predicted that Arizona, which leans toward Biden, where about 14 percent of the votes had not yet been counted, would end up in Trump's column once all the votes had been counted.
Wisconsin law states that a recount can be requested if the difference between the two leading candidates is less than 1 percent. Whoever requests a recount will have to pay for it if the difference is less than one-quarter of 1%. Biden's current advantage is less than 1%.
"If we count all the legal votes, the president wins," said Stepin, who predicted the razor's subtle victories in Nevada and Pennsylvania, his words suggest that they hope to challenge the legitimacy of some inconclusive votes.
He did not ask any questions or propose a definition of "legitimate votes.
Despite Stepin's firm stance, officials privately gave up the road to victory to Capricorn, which seemed narrow on Wednesday and depended on Arizona keeping it in play.
Trump, for his part, looked with disdain at the vote count and early voting - which by early Wednesday had turned Wisconsin and Michigan into Biden's favor - and had long sought to undermine the legitimacy of a process that had been conducted and controlled by officials from both parties for years.
Bob Bauer, a former White House aide to President Barack Obama who is helping to run Biden's campaign, warned that Democrats are ready to take on any legal challenges the Republicans may push in states where Biden is unlikely to advance.
"Wherever you go and whatever you do, we have lawyers ready, papers ready, within an hour of hearing any of your steps," he told reporters Wednesday.
Kozyr's campaign to challenge votes in key states
Republican lawyers and Trump activists on Wednesday devised an extensive legal strategy to challenge the Democratic vote results in key states, telegraphing the post-election campaign to claim victory over Joe Biden through the courts.
But in press briefings and interviews, they justified their legal arguments by simply trying to ensure that the votes would not be counted, which they should not, rather than repeating the president's own statements that the vote count should have stopped on Election Day, when early and incomplete results gave him an advantage in some of the states where the fight occurred, helping to resolve the issue of the Electoral College winner.
If we count all the legal votes, the president will win," Trump campaign manager Bill Stepin said during a morning conference call with reporters.
The announcement was in line with the campaign's legal strategy to challenge the votes, which she said should not have been counted under state election laws, some of which are already complex.
This morning, Trump appeared to watch the White House say again, "Let's go to the U.S. Supreme Court. We want the whole vote stopped," was a harsh statement of her campaign's legal position, which made no legal sense and caused bipartisan criticism.
At the beginning of Election Day, Trump's campaign representatives gave no indication that they were pursuing a case that could go to the Supreme Court, although Democratic lawyers said they expected it.
But by Tuesday night, the election campaigns were already meeting at the Pennsylvania Courthouse, where Republicans were filing double claims of invalidation of preliminary and corrected ballots by Pennsylvania residents, who were told before the polls closed that they had been rejected by election officials because of problems with ballot distribution.
Trump's campaign representatives also said they plan to request a recount in Wisconsin, where results showed that Trump is less than 1 percent behind. And they said they are also considering a search in Nevada, where the president is even less behind and is already filing a lawsuit to protest the vote-counting process in the state's largest district.
Campaign officials said they were prepared for contingencies and legal documents about any challenges the president and his allies might face. "We are ready for any Republican effort in any of these states," said Bob Bauer, Biden's senior campaign advisor.
He described Biden's legal position as more than an attack, referring to the ever-changing fairy tales that showed Biden with leads in Wisconsin, Michigan and Arizona at the time, and that if they did, they would have brought Biden to the White House.
"As for our own plans, we won the election," Bauer said.
That made a key difference from the last time the country was in a similar competitive situation, in Florida in 2000. In that case, Al Gore, a Democrat, delayed in his return, was portrayed by the Republicans as wanting to snatch victory from George W. Bush, a position that kept Gore at a disadvantage throughout the legal struggle that followed.
With the recount incomplete and continuing across the country, the momentum could change at any moment. But starting early Wednesday, Trump's campaign was able to challenge the potentially losing outcome.
Trump's campaign showed that it was prepared for a long war of legal exhaustion of funds in the fundraising appeal it sent to supporters after the polls closed, asking for money to "steal" the "RIGHT STEP" against the Democrats, for whom the campaign unreasonably claimed it was trying to "steal" the election results.