Trump’s rhetoric on election integrity unfolds in courtrooms, tweets

And it’s sowing the ground for a contested election

[Editor’s note: This is the final installment in a series of special reports that Policy Watch has featured this week looking at voters’ concerns and voting issues in the 2020 election.]

See you in court!

It is a threat President Donald Trump and his re-election campaign have lobbed — sometimes verbatim — at states across the country this year. Last week, the campaign threatened litigation in Pennsylvania if it wasn’t allowed to observe activity inside satellite election offices — access election lawyers say would be unprecedented, even for certified poll watchers. If the campaign follows through with such a lawsuit, it would be the latest in a string of election lawsuits in which the president and his re-election campaign are involved.

That there is a staggering volume of election lawsuits this year is not surprising. States have been forced due to the coronavirus pandemic to adjust their election processes, providing a goldmine of material for conflicts and legal challenges from two political parties who even in non-pandemic times routinely argue over what levels of voter access are acceptable and what constitutes voter suppression.

But this year’s spate of election lawsuits have also laid a foundation on which Trump has spewed increasingly outlandish and false claims about voter fraud. His attacks on election integrity have included repeatedly suggesting that he may not accept the outcome of the upcoming general election, which both his political opponents and independent observers are interpreting as a sign the country will face a contested election.

During the first presidential debate on Sept. 29, Trump suggested the upcoming election could be “rigged” or “fraudulent” because of mass voter fraud tied to the increased use of mail ballots, something independent election experts have found time and time again to be virtually nonexistent.

“This is going to be a fraud like you’ve never seen,” said the president, who is trailing Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in pollsnationally and in key battleground states.

When asked by debate moderator Chris Wallace if he would pledge to urge his supporters to “stay calm … not engage in any civil unrest” and to “not declare victory until the election has been independently certified,” Trump refused. He said instead: “I hope it’s going to be a fair election. If it’s a fair election, I am 100 percent on board. But if I see tens of thousands of ballots being manipulated, I can’t go along with that.”

A week before those comments, during a White House press briefing, Trump similarly refused to commit to “a peaceful transfer of power” should he lose.

“Well, we’re going to have to see what happens,” he said. “You know that I’ve been complaining very strongly about the ballots. And the ballots are a disaster.”

The lawsuits

The Healthy Elections Project by Stanford-MIT has identified more than 300 pandemic-inspired election law cases across more than 44 states.

The Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice is tracking nearly 200 cases. Eliza Sweren-Becker, counsel in the program, said the majority of the litigation they are tracking has been filed by groups and individuals who want to expand or protect the right to vote. The lawsuits include efforts to require prepaid postage on mail-in ballots, expand availability of ballot dropoff boxes, change notary or witness requirements for absentee ballots, lengthen the ballot receipt deadline, or change the curing process undertaken when ballots have technical issues such as missing or mismatched signatures.

The Trump reelection campaign has filed or intervened in more than a dozen of these lawsuits, many of which could affect turnout and results in swing states. The GOP argues that they want to protect the integrity of the election system.

North Carolina is home to many of those cases, including competing suits brought both to enforce and block a requirement that voters display a photo ID at the ballot and multiple suits regarding the the procedures that will be used to process ballots cast by mail. Thus far, for instance, it remains unclear whether a recent settlement between the State Board of Elections and voting rights advocates concerning the right of voters to cure errors on their mailed ballots would stand or be enjoined by a federal judge at the behest of the Trump campaign and Republican legislative leaders. Read more