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Donald Trump supporters yell at Joe Biden supporters waiting in their cars for a campaign event in Bethlehem, Pa., on Nov. 2, 2020.

Mark Makela/Getty Images

On Sunday, Donald Trump warned he is already preparing legal challenges for Tuesday’s U.S. election.

“I don’t think it’s fair that we have to wait for a long period of time after the election,” Donald Trump told journalists in North Carolina. “As soon as the election is over, we’re going in with our lawyers.”

This President has indicated several times that he may not concede defeat. He has reportedly told aides he’s prepared to declare victory Tuesday night even if millions of votes are still to be counted.

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If this is not laying the groundwork for an electoral debacle, it’s hard to imagine what is. Unless there is a decisive verdict Tuesday, the election is a disaster waiting to happen.

Mr. Trump, the shatterer of so many prized American traditions, does not appear to be finished yet. He may not go without a crowning outrage, without sabotaging something as sacrosanct as the transition of power, without vandalizing the once great citadel of democracy.

As chance would have it, election mayhem is made all the more possible by the order in which the voting tallies from individual states are announced. More states providing early returns are in the Trump column than the Democrat one.

Results from Pennsylvania and Michigan, two critical battleground states in which Joe Biden has a polling lead, may not be known until Friday. Mail ballots, which heavily favour the Democrats, will not all be counted until then.

Because of such delays, election night results from these states and others are likely to show Mr. Trump leading. If he wins Florida, which will be one of the first big states to report, and a couple other battleground states, the nightmare scenario could well unfold.

To wit: Mr. Trump declares or all but declares victory even though outstanding votes that could put Mr. Biden over the top are yet to be counted. Tribal supporters of Mr. Trump are wild with excitement. He has conditioned them through months of baseless declarations to believe mail-in voting is a fraud-filled practice.

He sends in his lawyers, as he has threatened, to contest the votes that are still waiting to be counted. When the final tallies give Mr. Biden victories in states such as Pennsylvania and Michigan and enough to win the Electoral College, all hell breaks loose. The streets in an America more polarized than anyone can remember become a combat zone. Court challenges ensue, and the verdict is fought over for weeks as the stability of the country teeters.

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Mr. Trump’s bark has oftentimes been worse than his bite, and none of this may happen. Mr. Biden’s lead in the polls is strong, and should he win Florida and North Carolina within a couple of hours of the polls closing, the die would be cast. The Democrats would be well on their way to a blowout, one that negates all claims of the vote being rigged. Mr. Trump would then, one hopes, concede in the wee hours of Wednesday morning.

But there’s so much that could go wrong. Votes in some key states may be too close to call or compromised by any number of malfunctions. Republicans want the vote suppressed. It plays to their advantage. Thousands of ballots could be rejected for reasons such as mismatched signatures. There could be intimidation at polling stations, innumerable legal challenges, violence.

In Wisconsin, where results won’t likely be known until Wednesday morning, Democrats are feeling cheated. They’ve been warring in the courts with Republicans who have been trying to set up roadblocks that make it more difficult to recognize mail-in votes. Last week, the Supreme Court, led by its conservative Justices, ruled that no mail-in ballots that arrive after Election Day can be counted, even if they were postmarked in time.

Recent weeks have seen protesters from left and right clash in Wisconsin, Oregon and Kentucky. Mr. Trump’s incendiary tweets and comments, such as his urging the Proud Boys, a white supremacist group, to “stand back and stand by” have served to legitimize violence.

Historians go all the way back 1876 to find conditions so venomous. In that election, both candidates, Samuel Tilden and Rutherford Hayes, declared victory. Rage and fury over the outcome dragged on for months, with tensions so high civil war was feared. Finally with only two days before the inauguration, Hayes was declared the winner by an electoral commission appointed by Congress.

This week, with Mr. Trump courting bedlam, the integrity of American democracy faces its most dire test since that time.

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