Democratic officials in key swing states lashed out at Donald Trump after he pledged to mount a legal challenge before all the votes are counted as the US prepared for a chaotic election.
Democrats fear Mr Trump is trying to boost his re-election chances by making baseless claims about voter fraud, in an effort to undermine the result if he loses. Mail-in and early votes, which may take days to tally in key Midwest swing states, have been cast more by Democrats in most regions, meaning an early cut-off of the count could disadvantage Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
Dana Nessel, Michigan’s attorney-general, on Monday warned that any attempt to prevent the state from counting more than 3m absentee ballots that are expected to be cast would be tantamount to a “coup”.
“The election ends when all the votes are counted. Not when the polls close,” Ms Nessel said. “The voters get to determine the winner — not the candidates.”
On the eve of the election, Mr Biden leads nationally by 7.5 points, according to an FT analysis of polling data compiled by RealClearPolitics. He also has the edge in every swing state, except Ohio, Iowa and North Carolina. But his lead in some is within the margin of error, which has raised concern among some Democrats that Mr Trump could repeat the surprise win he pulled off in 2016 when polls in some swing states missed his late surge.
The potential for legal battles has risen because of the large number of votes that have been cast in early voting or via mail-in ballots, with Americans voting in record numbers ahead of election day because of the coronavirus pandemic. According to the US Election Project, which tracks voting, more than 95m Americans — 69 per cent of the total number cast in 2016 — have already voted.
On Sunday, Mr Trump said it was a “terrible thing” that ballots could be counted after election day in Pennsylvania. “The night of — as soon as that election is over — we are going in with our lawyers,” he said.
Pennsylvania, a key battleground for Mr Trump, will accept mail-in ballots that are postmarked by election day and arrive within three days of the election. The Supreme Court recently rejected a request from Republicans to block that measure, but did not rule out revisiting the issue.
Josh Shapiro, Pennsylvania’s attorney-general, pushed back against Mr Trump. “Our elections are over when all the votes are counted. But if your lawyers want to try us, we’d be happy to defeat you in court one more time,” he said as he urged voters to “drown out the noise and the lies”.
Jen O’Malley Dillon, Joe Biden’s campaign manager, said: “Under no scenario will Donald Trump be declared the victor on election night.”
As the country prepared for election day, stores and buildings in Washington DC and other big cities across the US were being boarded up as a precaution against possible unrest following the results.
Mark Warner, the Virginia Senator who serves as the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, warned that US intelligence agencies have determined the period surrounding election day would be “uniquely volatile”, and urged Americans to remain patient.
“It may take awhile for the results to come in,” Mr Warner said on Monday. “That period of time is especially vulnerable to attack by foreign countries seeking to spread disinformation and undermine the legitimacy of our electoral process.”
In the final days of the campaign, Mr Trump has held big rallies, including four events in Pennsylvania on Saturday, where he has repeatedly played down the impact of Covid-19, which has killed 231,000 Americans.
At a rally in Georgia on Sunday, Mr Trump suggested he might fire Anthony Fauci, the top US infectious disease expert and member of the White House coronavirus task force, after the crowd chanted “Fire Fauci”.
“Don’t tell anybody, but let me wait until a little bit after the election,” Trump said.
Mr Biden, whose campaign has focused on criticising the way Mr Trump has handled the pandemic, on Monday hit back at the president over the threat to fire Dr Fauci. “I got a better idea. Elect me, and I’m going to hire Dr Fauci, and we’re going to fire Donald Trump,” Mr Biden said at a drive-in rally in Cleveland, Ohio, on Monday.
Additional reporting by Patti Waldmeir in Chicago
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter