CNN  — 

The 2020 election doomsday scenarios are endless: Dozens of lawsuits challenging state results. Claims of voter fraud and a “rigged” election. Millions of ballots arriving late due to delays in the mail. Ballot counting stretching on for weeks after Election Day. A refusal to concede as Inauguration Day approaches.

Those are just some of the many unprecedented possibilities being contemplated by both the Trump and Biden campaigns in the run up to an election that’s already shaping up as the greatest test of the US system in decades. Both campaigns have set aside millions of dollars and created massive legal teams now deep in contingency planning for what’s expected to be a prolonged and potentially contested post-vote period while states tabulate a flood of mail-in ballots, anticipating legal challenges across numerous states.

The US Postal Service announced Tuesday that it will hold off on planned service changes that could impact the delivery of election mail, but the furor over the ability of the USPS to handle the surge of mail-in ballots laid bare the risks of reorienting the system away from in-person voting amid the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

Millions of ballots are unlikely to be the hands of election officials when the polls close November 3, making it difficult – if not impossible – to quickly call the battleground states that will decide whether President Donald Trump or former Vice President Joe Biden occupies the White House in January 2021. While muddying up everything else about the election season, the pandemic and its expected effect on mail-in voting are making one thing clear: Election Day will almost certainly turn into Election Week or even Election Month.

Election officials are already asking for patience, reminding the public that a wait for results doesn’t mean anything is wrong. But even if a delay in calling the race is widely anticipated, it opens to door to potential chaos in the hours and days following the election, not to mention potentially lengthy and politically fraught challenges to the election – and after years of rising concern over foreign meddling, room for doubts to grow about the integrity of American democracy itself.

“If we don’t have a winner within 24 hours, there is a very real potential for a national freak-out and for conspiracy theories to thrive, which can never be undone,” said Amanda Carpenter, a CNN contributor and former adviser to Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz.

The pandemic election

That it is all playing out against the backdrop of the worst public health crisis in a century, when millions of voters will be mailing in ballots for the first time, has only amplified the sense that this year’s contest is more at risk for error and a disputed outcome.

A new CNN poll released Tuesday shows that almost two-thirds of Americans – 64% – say they’re at least somewhat concerned that changes to the rules regarding voting meant to make it safer to cast a ballot during the pandemic won’t go far enough, while 59% are concerned the changes will make it too easy for people to cast fraudulent ballots. A sizable minority, 36%, say their confidence in the vote will be diminished if a winner cannot be determined on Election Night because it is taking longer than usual to count.

Already, Trump has deemed this year’s contest the “most rigged” on record and preemptively suggested a prolonged wait for results would be unacceptable, even though returns on election night are always unofficial and often change as the final ballots are tallied.

Biden and his supporters have accused the President of purposely attempting to suppress the vote as polls show him badly trailing, in some cases by double digits, while his campaign has amassed a team of 600 lawyers across the country to help monitor voting issues. A senior Biden aide told CNN the campaign has created “the largest voter protection operation that’s ever been run in a presidential cycle.”

“If we’ve learned one thing from the pandemic,” the aide said, it’s that “having one contingency plan isn’t enough. We have layers and layers and layers of contingency plans. Our programs are built with flexibility in mind to deal with any situation.”

And Democrats have begun gaming out, at least in theory, what it might look like if Trump loses and refuses to leave office.

Recent deployments of federal law enforcement officers to American cities have raised additional concerns at how far Trump and his administration, led by Attorney General Bill Barr, might go in preventing or intimidating voters from casting ballots – an idea viewed as outlandish by many Trump allies but serious enough that at least one election integrity group has run exercises that include the scenario.

“What we’re preparing for is if Donald Trump refuses to concede, and if he tries to steal this election,” said Sean Eldridge, president of Stand Up America, a liberal advocacy group preparing to mobilize people around the election results. “We are concerned about not only making sure that millions of Americans can vote safely this year, we’re concerned about what will happen on Election Day and in the days thereafter.”

‘The courts better be ready’

The President has refused so far to explicitly state that he will accept the results of the election, saying it would be foolish to affirm in advance an outcome he’s already begun to question. “I have to see,” Trump said in an interview last month when asked if he would accept the election results. “No, I’m not going to just say yes. I’m not going to say no, and I didn’t last time either.”

In office, Trump routinely referred to his 2016 victory as rigged because he lost the popular vote, and he created a panel – ultimately disbanded – to investigate baseless claims of widespread voter fraud in that race. Now, the Trump campaign is reviving that cause, recruiting poll watchers in what officials say is an effort to ensure Democrats aren’t changing voting rules to open the door to vote fraud in November.

“Democrats are working to shred election integrity measures one state at a time, and there’s no question they’ll continue their shenanigans from now to November and beyond,” said Matthew Morgan, the Trump campaign general counsel. “The Trump campaign is fighting to ensure every valid ballot across America counts – once.”

There are already numerous legal fights across the country being waged between the parties over voting, in response to states making changes to their vote-by-mail rules, to when a ballot can be postmarked or delivered and even how states use drop boxes to collect ballots. Democrats accuse Trump and the Republican National Committee of trying to suppress the vote by limiting access in order to help Trump win reelection.

The lawsuits over voting access may just a be prelude to the potential legal challenges after Election Day on November 3, particularly if any swing states turn into a nail biter.

“The courts better be ready because they’re going to be packed after the election in November,” predicted former Republican National Committee official Mike Shields. “I think that both sides are going to have lawyers at the ready to challenge results that don’t go their way.”

At a congressional hearing last month, Barr suggested that a full vote-by-mail election “substantially increases the risk of fraud,” though he failed to provide evidence when pressed about how foreign governments might produce counterfeit ballots, an allegation both he and the President have leveled.

“No I don’t, but I have common sense,” Barr said when asked if he had evidence.

Counting ballots after Election Day

Trump and his Republican allies have targeted mail-in voting, particularly in states that have adopted universal vote-by-mail rules sending ballots to all registered voters. There’s no evidence of widespread voter fraud in multiple states, red and blue, that have conducted most of their elections through the mail under this system for years, including Utah, Oregon and Colorado.

But states are anticipating exponentially more voters will use absentee ballots this year due to the pandemic, including some sending ballots or absentee applications to all registered voters for the first time. Many states accept ballots postmarked on Election Day that arrive later, and some don’t begin counting their mailed votes until the polls close. It all adds up to potential delays certifying the results that have already popped up during the primaries – it took more than a week for winners to be declared in recent congressional primary contests in New York and Kentucky.

“In states that have a history of a lot of mail ballots, they’re going to be able to process these ballots very quickly and will have results fairly quickly,” said David Becker, founder of the nonpartisan Center for Election Innovation and Research. “But in states that are not used to counting a lot of mail ballots, states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin perhaps, it may take some time to process all of those ballots properly and make sure the election results are final.”

The recent cuts made to Postal Service operations by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy – a major Trump donor – have fueled additional concerns that mailed ballots will be delayed for days, or that ballots sent well in advance won’t make it in time in states where they must be received by Election Day. DeJoy has been rapidly called in to testify in the coming days before both House and Senate committees, while a group of state attorneys general sued in federal court Tuesday to challenge the recent USPS operational changes.

DeJoy said in a statement Tuesday that he was suspending the changes until after the election “to avoid even the appearance of any impact on election mail.”

If the election results remain up in the air for days after Election Day, it creates a potential recipe for chaos. Democrats are particularly fearful that Trump will declare victory, particularly if he’s leading when the sun comes up on Wednesday, November 4, before millions of mail-in votes have been tallied. In CNN’s poll, a majority of Biden voters said they prefer to vote by mail, while roughly two-thirds of Trump supporters said they prefer to vote in person on Election Day.

In addition to Trump’s recent spate of false claims that mail-in voting is rife with fraud and will result in a “rigged” election, he’s cast doubt on mail in balloting counted after Election Day. In Florida’s 2018 Senate race, he said the state “must go with Election Night” results when then-Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson narrowed the gap against his challenge, Republican Rick Scott, who ultimately prevailed. And he tweeted “call for a new election?” when Democrat Kyrsten Sinema pulled ahead of Republican Martha McSally in Arizona after McSally was leading on Election Night.

Becker said that a delayed election result should not be viewed as a sign of fraud or problems – but rather as one that shows the system is working.

“Be patient, it might take extra time this year. That doesn’t mean anything is wrong, it actually means the opposite – it means election officials are taking care to get this right,” he said. “It’s more important to get it accurate than to get it fast.”