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Election workers count ballots on Nov. 03, 2020 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Two heavy questions, one familiar and one heretofore unthinkable, were raised by the 2020 U.S. election:

Would Americans re-elect President Donald Trump?

And if they did not, would Mr. Trump accept the result?

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It is no exaggeration to say that what is at stake is the future of American democracy.

The best antidote to an outbreak of postelection denialism from Mr. Trump – not to mention the biggest roadblock to his re-election – would have been a big win for Democratic challenger Joe Biden in the key swing state of Florida, which counts its votes early and quickly. The math was incontrovertible: A loss there for Mr. Trump would make it almost impossible for him to win the national election. So, too, would upsets by Mr. Biden in previously safe Republican states North Carolina, Georgia or Texas.

Victories there would have rendered moot any attempts by Mr. Trump to delegitimize the entirely legal late counting of mail-in ballots in some swing states – ballots likely to favour the Democrats. However, late on Tuesday night, Mr. Trump had a strong lead in Florida, and appeared to be on track to win Georgia and Texas.

The results open the door to two possibilities, neither of them ideal.

The first is that Mr. Trump is on the verge of re-election. The second is that the decision as to who has won could come down to mail-in ballots in states such as Michigan and Pennsylvania – ballots which are likely to lean to the Democratic Party, and which in these states are not legally counted until after election day.

That gives Mr. Trump every incentive to try to delegitimize the entirely legitimate counting of those ballots. He began a campaign to do so months ago.

This was not a normal election. The pandemic spurred tens of millions of Americans to vote in advance or by mail. But what makes this election truly different, and dangerous, is the uniquely deleterious character of the current President.

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This election was a referendum on what sort of country America wants to be: the world’s leading democracy, which however flawed and imperfect is a beacon to people around the world; or a failing democracy, and a budding failed state, led by a man who questions and undermines all that is best in America.

In Canada, a perennial end-of-election standard is the concession speech. Regardless of party, it almost always includes a moment where the losing candidate says, with regret but without reservation, that the people have spoken. His supporters groan, but he presses on, reciting the mantra that in a democracy, the voters get the final word. It normally sounds perfunctory and pointless, since going along with the result of a vote is a foundational democratic value and the bare democratic minimum.

It remains to be seen whether, in the event Mr. Trump is losing, he is capable of living up to democracy’s bare minimum, or if he will use the end of an election as an opportunity to encourage mayhem and block vote-counting. The signs have not been promising.

He has for weeks been saying that voting by mail is somehow fraudulent (because Democratic voters are more likely to have voted this way); that states such as Pennsylvania, which have long counted mail-in ballots after election day, are breaking the law (a law existing solely in Mr. Trump’s imagination); that the Supreme Court decision to allow those Pennsylvania ballots to be counted “will allow rampant and unchecked cheating” and “induce violence in the streets”; and that if he’s losing, it’s because the other side fixed the result.

How is this election supposed to end? With all outstanding ballots counted over the coming days, according to the law; the candidate whose vote totals translate into the greatest number of electoral college votes declared the winner; the loser accepting the result; and a president sworn into office on Jan. 20.

The re-election of Mr. Trump would be bad for America, and the world. But an election result contested by Mr. Trump and the Republican Party, in ways that spark violence or question democracy and legality, might be worse. On Tuesday night, both unhappy outcomes were very much in play.

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Even if Mr. Biden wins, this has not been America’s finest hour.

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