On Wednesday afternoon, outside the convention center in Philadelphia’s Center City, Samantha Rise, a thirty-two-year-old community organizer, led a crowd of protesters in a chant: “No Trump! No K.K.K.! No fascist U.S.A.!” Inside, election officials were counting hundreds of thousands of mail-in ballots from voters in Philadelphia. Donald Trump was still ahead in the state’s tally, but the remaining votes, which came mostly from Philadelphia and the surrounding areas, looked likely to be overwhelmingly for Joe Biden. The Trump campaign had just announced that it was filing an emergency injunction in an attempt to stop Pennsylvania from counting the remaining ballots. Protesters feared that the President would succeed in muddying the results and halting the counting process. “Donald Trump is stealing the election!” one called into a microphone plugged into a portable amplifier. Another yelled, “A fascist President is declaring victory! We voted with our ballots and now it’s time to come out into the street and vote with our feet!”
The mood was tense. Off to the side, a young counter-protester wearing a MAGA hat spoke to a European reporter. Rise, who was wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with the word “DECOLONIZE,” pressed their way into the conversation and shouted, “Interrupt bigotry!” (Rise self-identifies as gender nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns.) The young man told Rise that they weren’t being civil. “Politeness doesn’t equate justice!” Rise snapped back. A group of police officers with bicycles moved in and broke up the argument. “We knew for weeks that Trump would manipulate whatever happens,” Rise told me. “The reality is, this is so close. There are searing wounds in this country. But four more years of Trump would put people in harm’s way.”
Pennsylvania has long been a battleground state, and in the lead-up to this year’s contest it appeared as if it might decide the election. On Election Night, however, Trump took a significant lead, and it looked as if the election might be decided elsewhere—in Nevada, say, or Arizona. But, in the coming days, Pennsylvania underwent what has come to be known as a “blue shift.” Democrats had requested more mail-in ballots than Republicans had by a margin of two to one. The state’s Republican legislature had prevented county commissioners from sorting or counting these ballots ahead of time, a process called pre-canvassing. This meant that in-person results, which tended to favor Republicans, were announced first. But, as mail-in votes were painstakingly counted, Biden gained steadily. (A similar story played out in Georgia, Michigan, and Wisconsin, where mail-in ballots added to Biden’s tally in the days after the election.) Experts had predicted this phenomenon, but, as you watched Pennsylvania turn red, it was difficult to trust that it would turn back. “Our last poll said that seventy-eight per cent of mail-in ballots were Biden ballots, and if you did the math it was on his side,” Chris Borick, a political analyst at Muhlenberg College, told me. “I could give people all the empirical evidence I had, but the experiences of 2016 were so traumatic, it was really hard for them to believe.” But by Wednesday evening it appeared that Biden could win Pennsylvania, and that, if he did, he would win the Presidency.
To prevent this from happening, the Trump campaign urged officials around the country to stop tallying mail-in ballots, claiming, baselessly, that they were fraudulent. In a speech on Thursday evening, Trump said that he was being cheated out of an election victory. “If you count the legal votes I easily win,” he said. “If you count the illegal votes, they can try to steal the election from us.” Right-wing protesters gathered outside county offices in Detroit and chanted “Stop the count!” (In Phoenix, where Trump was gaining ground, they chanted “Count the vote!”) On Wednesday, Eric Trump and Rudy Giuliani held a rally near the Philadelphia airport, where they announced the lawsuit against the state, apparently for its lack of “transparency.” Giuliani cited the “Democrat crooked machine of Philadelphia” and claimed that there was no way to know if ballots had been cast legally. “They could be from Mars,” he said. “Joe Biden could have voted fifty times, as far as we know, or five thousand times.” Eric Trump added claims that polling places in Pennsylvania had been covered in Biden campaign posters, and that ballots had been discovered in drainage ditches, for which he provided no proof. Still, based on these claims, the Trump campaign was seeking an emergency injunction to stop the count.