Trump’s trashing of norms has been harmful but decentralization, turnout, transparency, the courts and the media played a key roleIt is not clear yet whether US democracy “survived” the 2020 presidential election unscathed.If Donald Trump’s playbook of seeking to undermine a legitimate election becomes standard Republican practice for future elections – refuse to concede, make false claims of fraud, fan the flames of conspiracy, sue everywhere and refuse to certify any win by the other side – then American democracy might already have sustained a fatal wound.But Trump has not succeeded in stealing the 2020 election, despite his historic attempt to do so, in what analysts call the most dangerous frontal assault on US democracy since the civil war era. The two states upon which Trump’s plot most hinged, Pennsylvania and Michigan, certified their results in Joe Biden’s favor earlier this week. The presidential transition is at last under way.But while the election exposed key areas where American democracy is failing, it also highlighted structural features that make national elections in the United States hard to steal, no matter how determined the would-be despot or how complicit his party colleagues.Here is a select list of those features: 1 DecentralizationNo central authority oversees US elections. National elections are broken down by 50 states and the District of Columbia. Elections within each state are run in turn by counties and by precincts within counties. People vote locally, in thousands of jurisdictions; ballots are tallied locally; and the results are reported locally, and then added up in the public eye. The sheer number of people involved defies both coordination and conspiracy.On election night, the tributaries of local results become streams, and then flow together to form rivers, and then become a flood. No president or any other figure has the power to stop the result. While every national election is stained by voter suppression measures and strained by human error and voting irregularities, the totality of the vote, and the transparency of its accumulation, constitutes an overwhelming force. 2 TurnoutA persistent symptom of weakness in US democracy has been low voter turnout. Less voter participation means less representative government. But turnout was a bright spot in 2020. Before this November’s election, no presidential ticket had ever notched 70m votes – Barack Obama got 69.5m in 2008. In 2020, Trump’s tally was building toward 74m – while Biden had surpassed the incredible total of 80m, with many ballots from the majority-Democrat New York state yet to be reported.The previous benchmark for total votes cast for the two major parties in a presidential election was about 130m. Astoundingly, the 2020 election is on track to record almost 20% more votes than that for the Republican and Democratic tickets. As a uniquely polarizing and inescapable figure in politics, Trump appears to have been a huge driver of turnout, both for and against. 3 Integrity and transparencyDespite Trump’s false assertions, US presidential elections are not subject to widespread fraud, miscounts or other significant irregularities. This is in part thanks to the tireless work of activists and no thanks to routine attempts at voter suppression.No significant instances of fraud emerged from the 2020 election, conducted over more than a month with an unprecedented number of mail-in ballots cast amid a pandemic. No Trump lawyer dared impute election fraud in court, despite the lies filling Trump’s Twitter feed.A hand recount of about 5m ballots in Georgia inconsequentially moved the overall result by about 1,200 votes – a typically small recount result. A recount is also under way in Wisconsin, which Biden won by more than 20,000 votes. State officials reported no significant changes in the overall tally after a fourth day of recounting. 4 The courtsFrom melting hair dye to Four Seasons Total Landscaping, Trump’s legal team has been much-derided. But in key states, the campaign also hired top-flight lawyers from firms such as Jones Day and Porter Wright Morris & Arthur. On the whole these lawyers have fared miserably, winning only one minor case out of 43 in six states, while losing 35 cases so far, according to a running tally maintained by the Democratic lawyer Marc Elias.The judges who threw out Trump campaign cases include Trump appointees. Judge Steven Grimberg in the northern district of Georgia booted a complaint by a Trump elector seeking to block certification of the state’s vote. “I didn’t hear any justification for why the plaintiff delayed bringing this claim until two weeks after this election and on the cusp of these election results being certified,” Grimberg wrote.Before the election, another Trump appointee, Judge J Nicholas Ranjan, threw out a Trump complaint in Pennsylvania challenging mail-in ballots. And district judge Matthew Brann of Pennsylvania, a former Republican party official and Federalist Society member, sternly jettisoned a separate Trump campaign challenge filed after the election.“This Court has been presented with strained legal arguments without merit and speculative accusations, unpled in the operative complaint and unsupported by evidence,” Brann wrote. “In the United States of America, this cannot justify the disenfranchisement of a single voter, let alone all the voters of its sixth most populated state. Our people, laws, and institutions demand more.” 5 The mediaApart from Congress, the media is one of the least-loved institutions in the United States, abused with glee from the White House on down. And the American media has been terribly crippled by the loss over the last decade of countless local outlets that offered irreplaceable, knowledgable coverage of local events. Pseudo-media propaganda services such as Breitbart, One America News, Newsmax and Parler, financed by conservative billionaires, represent ominous new entries on the media landscape given invaluable support by Trump.But strong and independent media, afforded powerful protections by the first amendment, remain a vital feature of US democracy. With no central authority over US elections, it falls to the media to project a winner. Where the intimidation of voters or poll workers is reported, it falls to the media to shine a light. Where false accusations about election fraud are spread by the president, it falls to the media to investigate and explain what is true and what is false.Trump grew enraged when Fox News called the state of Arizona for Biden early on Wednesday after the election. But in doing so, the network – in its election-calling operations, at least – demonstrated its independence and investment in the truth. The Associated Press worked for years to maintain and upgrade its elections operations while committing to unprecedented transparency in 2020 in explaining how its elections reporting worked. Other media outlets demonstrated similar will and resolve in waiting to call states until the result was plain but then calling them definitively when it was.