WASHINGTON – The ominous danger lurking behind Donald Trump’s mindless, factless fear-mongering about by-mail voting is that his real aim is not to banish this method of voting in 2020, but to legitimize in advance his rationale for rejecting the results of the 2020 presidential election if he loses, a prospect that now seems to panic him.
Trump is about winning, above all. He has shown little respect for constitutional norms. He uses them or abuses them to suit his personal advantage. When it suits him, he equates mail voting with vote fraud, without evidence and even when Republican governors and secretaries of state reject his false accusations. And when mail voting works to his benefit, he pockets the gains and applauds.
Last month, Trump had several tweet tantrums about plans for mail voting in California, Michigan, and Nevada, three states he fears losing. But he had nothing negative to say about the heavy mail-in vote that helped Republican candidates win special congressional elections in California and Wisconsin.
Imagine for a moment what Trump will say or do next fall if we have a repeat of the cliffhanger election of 2000, with Florida’s hanging chads, or an electoral vote, as in 2016, where the margin of victory was less than 80,000 votes spread across three pivotal states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
In those scenarios, Trump’s current rants against voting-from-home-to-avoid-COVID-19 are a political insurance policy. They are a tool for his real objective: seeding public mistrust of mail voting so that in the crunch of November, he can mobilize mass support for challenging the legitimacy of a Joe Biden victory in any battleground state. That would allow Trump to declare a rigged election that leaves him in possession of the White House.
Trump’s tweets are a rehearsal for November
In his tweets, Trump is rehearsing his lines for November: “The United States cannot have all Mail In Ballots. It will be the greatest Rigged Election in history. People grab them from mailboxes, print thousands of forgeries and “force” people to sign. Also, forge names. Some absentee OK, when necessary. Trying to use Covid for this Scam!”
If that sounds too far-fetched to be taken seriously, do the impossible for a moment and put yourself in Donald Trump’s shoes. The latest major polls, even those from Fox News, show Trump running 7-11 points behind Joe Biden among registered voters nationwide and even lagging Biden in such must-win states as Michigan and Florida.
Savvy political analysts know it’s a mistake to take poll numbers literally, five months ahead of the election. But if you are Donald Trump, with a hyper-fragile ego and manic obsession for constant public adulation, those numbers are menacing enough to set you off into reckless rants.
You’re driven to fake imaginings of an anti-Trump conspiracy by former president Barack Obama or gratuitously fabricating a murder fantasy about former Republican Congressman Joe Scarborough in an aide’s death 20 years ago, or making dictatorial threats to use the U.S. military against civilian protesters as the Chinese communist leaders did against student demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 1989. In short, Trump’s toxic tantrums over mail voting, like these other wag-the-dog distractions, signal the desperation of a president who senses he’s lost his grip.
Even in GOP States, vote-by-mail is trending
In their rational moments, Trump’s advisers and Republican strategists must know that his frenzy over mail voting stands little chance of reversing the major shift toward mail balloting in the Year of Corona, let alone ripping mail voting out of the 2020 elections, root and branch.
In fact, the trend this year is in the opposite direction, in states with Republican as well as Democratic governors and secretaries of state. Half of the 50 states are embarked on efforts to expand mail voting this year – 13 are conducting primary elections entirely by mail; six are are sending applications for absentee ballots to all registered voters; and another six states have added the coronavirus as an acceptable “excuse” for requesting absentee ballots.
Even before the coronavirus, mail voting was well embedded in American elections. Thirty million Americans voted by mail in 2016, including millions of ballots for Trump, which he was happy to count. Our armed forces from the Philippines and Korea to Afghanistan, Iraq, the Indian Ocean and Europe vote by mail. The State Department estimates 9 million American civilians live overseas, and they have to vote by mail.
Desperate to try to reverse this year’s trend toward much more mail voting, the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee have launched a barrage of lawsuits to try to curb mail balloting, to impose new restrictions on who receives absentee ballots. They are also attempting to tighten rules on certifying the signatures on absentee ballots, and other measures designed to make mail voting harder, as Congressional Democrats try to fund the resources to make the system more reliable and trustworthy, as well as easier.
GOP fear: Could Trump attack on mail voting backfire?
Already some Republican strategists in states like Iowa and Pennsylvania are worried that Trump’s smearing of voting by mail could backfire against the GOP in November by turning off affluent and senior Republican voters who have habitually cast absentee ballots to avoid the crowds and crunch on Election Day.
In years past, absentee voting has been particularly popular, political strategists and political scientists report, with affluent voters and seniors, like Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and their wives, who all use absentee ballot. This is a generation of reliable voters in every election who have generally been steadfastly Republican.
The pivotal swing state of Florida, with its huge retirement communities in its south, including Miami Beach, as well as around St. Petersburg and Tampa, is acutely vulnerable to such a fall-off in the Republican vote, says conservative Republican strategist John Pudner. As Pudner put it to the New York Times: “Just looking at the senior vote in many states, if there’s a falloff in that, if he loses a chunk of that and he loses Florida, he’s in big trouble.”
But evidently, that’s a risk Trump is prepared to run in order to arm himself with an argument for contesting and potentially overturning an entire election, if he wants. And with his attacks on mail voting, he is lining up powerful allies – the staunchly partisan Republican legislatures in six key battleground states – Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, to whom the U.S. Constitution assigns oversight powers for awarding each state’s electoral votes.
Hedrick Smith is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former New York Times reporter and Emmy award-winning documentary producer for PBS and PBS FRONTLINE. He also conceived and is the principal writer and architect of the website www.reclaimtheamericandream.org, where this essay originally appeared.