When Chris Wallace asked President Trump on Fox if he would accept the results of the November election, the response was chilling. “I have to see,” said Trump. “I’m not going to just say ‘yes.’ I’m not going to say ‘no.’” As one reason for his reticence, he charged: “I think mail-in voting is going to rig the election. I really do.”
He’s really wrong. The only threat to the integrity of the election is coming from Trump himself and his Republican co-conspirators who are trying desperately — in various courts and state legislatures — to limit voting by groups that tend to support Democrats, especially minorities and young people.
In his more candid moments, Trump even admits that his opposition to mail-in voting is rooted not in principle but in cynical self-interest. As aging white voters die off, Republicans face ever-greater difficulties in winning fair national elections, so their goal is to “rig” the outcome. If voting is made easier, encouraging more people to participate, he has predicted, “it will ... lead to the end of our great Republican Party.”
Joe Biden sounded the alarm on “The Daily Show”: “It’s my greatest concern, my single greatest concern. This president is going to steal the election.” Marc Elias, the Democrats’ top voting expert, explained why in Vanity Fair: “What the president is banking on is that if he can suppress, through multiple channels, suppress the vote of minority and young voters, then that is his best chance to win.”
One of the most critical channels is voting by mail, which is certain to spike as COVID-19 dissuades many Americans from casting ballots in person. House Democrats passed a bill last spring that includes $3.6 billion to help local authorities — of both parties — cope with that explosion of interest, but for now cowardly Republican senators are following Trump’s lead and refusing to consider a similar measure.
Moreover, the U.S. Postal Service, which like many businesses has been clobbered by the pandemic, could run out of money in September, just before it has to handle a huge surge of time-sensitive ballots.
Yet another potential complication: Even states that want to provide extensive polling options on Election Day might have trouble doing so. As Dale Ho, an election expert at the American Civil Liberties Union, told Vanity Fair, this fall could present “the most difficult elections-administration challenge this country has faced since the 1864 presidential election was conducted during the Civil War.”
One problem: massive poll-worker shortages, because many Election Day volunteers are over 60 and afraid of infection. Another: Many polling locations “can no longer be used because they’re closed, like schools and churches (and) senior centers.”
All of this argues for a vast expansion of postal voting, but Republicans in many states are doing exactly the opposite. To take one stunning example: Iowa staged a highly successful primary in June after Secretary of State Paul Pate, a Republican, sent every voter an absentee ballot application. The GOP-dominated legislature then passed a bill barring Pate from doing the same thing in November, a clear and callous attempt to discourage Democratic votes.
The Republican argument, spread by Trump and echoed by others, is that mail-in ballots can be easily corrupted. But there is no evidence — none — to support those claims. The Brennan Center at NYU Law School conducted a “meticulous review of elections that had been investigated for vote fraud” and concluded that cases of misconduct were “extremely rare.”
In fact, some Republicans fear Trump’s attack on mail-in voting could backfire, by discouraging his own voters from using that method of participation at a time when in-person voting could still be very risky. “If the Republicans aren’t playing the same game, if we’re saying we don’t believe in mail-in voting and are not going to advocate it, we could be way behind,” Lee Snover, the Republican chair of Northampton County in Pennsylvania, warned in The New York Times.
Hindering postal procedures is not the only “channel” for Republican mischief. The Republican National Committee has committed more than $20 million to finance legal assaults across the country that aim to frustrate the franchise through a range of tactics, from limiting advance voting days and shuttering polling places to requiring expensive ID documents.
Democrats have responded by organizing their own legal squads, who are meeting secretly and preparing for various “doomsday scenarios,” as one insider told me, including the threat raised by Trump that he would not concede a narrow election defeat.
There’s one way to ensure that crisis never occurs. Beat him badly.
Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University.