Amongst his angry ramblings, campaign messaging and promotion of a New York pizza restaurant, there has been a recurring target of Donald Trump’s tweeting ire in recent months. On multiple occasions he has called into question the security of voting by mail in the November Presidential election. Trump has even gone so far as to call the election “rigged” and outrageously called for the vote to be delayed, sparking widespread rebukes from senior Republicans.
In the early-morning tweet Trump wrote that “2020 will be the most inaccurate and fraudulent election in history” due to the prevalence of “universal mail-in voting.” He has said the election will be a “great embarrassment” to the USA. These hyperbolic claims demonstrate Trump’s continuing willingness to defy Presidential norms and make patently false claims in order to advance his own political interests.
Due to the continuing pandemic, it is expected that there will be a surge in Americans choosing to post their ballot, rather than masking up and dragging themselves to the voting booth. Donald Trump’s apparent concerns over the legitimacy of mail-in ballots seems to not be shared by many Americans, or even justified by his own actions. In a recent Gallup poll, 64% of Americans said that they would favour their state allowing all of its voters to vote by mail. Trump has also voted by mail in the past.
There is little evidence to support the President’s claims. Five states currently conduct all their elections by mail, including the Republican stronghold of Utah, and there has been little evidence of fraudulent activity. Colorado has conducted elections using postal votes since 2014. Their director of elections, Judd Choate, told the NYT that there is “very little evidence that there is more than a handful of fraudulent (vote-by-mail) cases across the country in a given election cycle.”
Whilst there are concerns that some states don’t have the infrastructure to cope with the predicted surge in mail-in voting, there is little evidence to suggest that there will be widespread fraud. Charles Stewart (an academic who studies voting) said that fraud using postal ballots is ‘less rare’ than fraud when voters physically cast their ballot. However, at the same time, he acknowledged that it was still extremely uncommon.
Trump’s attempts to halt this form of voting seem fruitless, with many states, including Republican ones, loosening restrictions on postal ballots in order to make it safer for voters. Indeed, postal voting has been widely increasing over the past few decades with no tangible increase in proven electoral fraud. In the 2016 Presidential election 20.9% of voters voted by mail which equated to around 33 million votes. Only one case of voter fraud was uncovered in relation to postal ballots in during extensive research of this election by the Washington Post, amongst 3 other confirmed incidents that happened through other means.
Trump has suggested that he will challenge legislation expanding vote-by-mail in the courts. In yet another angry tweet he criticised the state of Nevada for passing a bill which ensures that every registered voter will receive a mail-in ballot for the November elections. He wrote that the state’s Democratic governor Steve Sisolak was “using COVID to steal the state” and added “see you in court!” The Trump campaign has since filed a lawsuit against the state.
It is obvious that Trump’s real concern is that increased mail-in voting will lead to a Democratic surge. Democratic voters have a more positive view of mail-in voting. In the same Gallup poll, 83% of Democrats said they would favour greater access to mail-in voting. In contrast, only 40% of Republicans shared the same sentiment, perhaps in part because of Trump’s constant criticisms. The slight increase in voter turnout that mail-in voting generally causes could benefit the Democrats, who tend to profit from higher turnouts.
This apparent fear of Democratic mail-in dominance has also been implied by the President’s promotion of absentee ballots. These ballots are effectively the same as mail-in voting but are generally utilised more by Republicans. Absentee ballots are still postal votes but require voters to have a reason in order to request one – for example being out-of-state on election day. If Trump had a genuine concern about fraud, it seems strange that he would not also be questioning these votes.
The President has praised absentee ballots, stating that they are secure because you need to undertake “a precise process” in order to get them. He has surprisingly endorsed mail-in voting in Florida, claiming that their electoral system has been “cleaned up.” Opponents have suggested that the large number of elderly Republican voters in Florida, who may be apprehensive about in-person voting in the crucial election state, are playing on the President’s mind more than the security of the ballot.
Yet, despite the limited benefit that increased turnout gives the Democrats, there is little proof that universal mail-in voting gives them any sizeable advantage. A study by a team at Stanford University looked at the implementation of the system in Colorado, Utah and California. They found that whilst voter turnout had slightly increased, there was no clear evidence of either party being disproportionately benefited by an increase in postal votes.
This therefore begs the question as to why Trump is so determined to try and undermine mail-in voting. In a widely publicised interview with Fox News presenter Chris Wallace, Trump was asked whether he would accept the result of the election if Biden were to be triumphant. He defiantly replied saying “I have to see. No I’m not going to just say yes.”
Trump’s shiftiness about whether or not he’ll accept the result is linked to his continual running down of mail-in voting. The President is slumping in the polls; his rival, Joe Biden, is ahead in all of the key states. Whilst a lot can change in four months, the situation for the Trump campaign is certainly dire. However, the President’s attempt to erode public confidence in mail-in voting could lead to a defiant Trump trying to cling to the White House.
Postal ballots take longer to count and the world may be waiting for an unusual amount of time for the election result due to the large number expected. Whilst we will get initial indications on the night, the result may not be confirmed as quickly as previous elections. Trump has already set unreasonable demands around the speed of the result, claiming that he wants it instantly. This gap between voting day and the full result being declared will allow him to further cast doubt over the legitimacy of the result. His interview with Wallace showed his willingness to create a malaise of discontent around the results of an election in which he is struggling to gain ground. His claims about mail-in voting are one prominent prong of his strategy to undermine the results.
Joe Biden has gone on the record as saying that his “single greatest concern” is that “this President is going to try and steal this election.” In an interview on The Daily Show he said “this is a guy who said all mail-in ballots are fraudulent, voting by mail, while he sits behind the desk in the Oval Office and writes his mail-in ballots to vote in the primary”.
When former Vice President Biden spoke of his fear of Trump “stealing the election” he wasn’t only referring to Trump’s views on mail-in voting. He was talking about the voter suppression that Trump isn’t tweeting angrily about. That is the calculated suppression of votes in Republican states – predominantly affecting communities of colour, who tend to heavily vote Democrat. Trump’s fraudulent claims of electoral fraud heavily distract from this issue and eerily call back to many past instances of politicians crying fraud, and then proceeding to introduce cumbersome electoral laws to apparently ‘secure’ the ballot.
For a country which likes to praise itself as ‘the greatest democracy on earth’, there is a certain irony to this state sanctioned suppression. There is clear recognition that the United States is not perfect. The Economist rates the US as a ‘flawed democracy’ in its annual global democracy index. Overall, the US is rated 25th, ahead of Malta, and behind Japan. Freedom House rates the U.S. 53rd on its global freedom index.
Restrictive voter ID laws, removal of legitimate voters from electoral rolls, gerrymandering, cutting polling places, stripping voting rights from released prisoners and literacy tests: all are means through which American states try to stop voters exercising their democratic rights. These methods are most commonly found in Republican states and overwhelmingly affect poor communities of colour.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 banned racial discrimination in voting. However, in 2013, the Supreme Court removed a key clause in the act, thus allowing states to run rampant with new laws designed to suppress the vote.
The case, brought by the authorities in Shelby County, Alabama, effectively barred the US’s Department of Justice from having any ability to scrutinise new electoral laws. Until 2013 certain states were prohibited from introducing new voting laws without approval from the Department of Justice. These states were under these restrictions due to the history of instituting discriminatory voting legislation.
Whilst it is still technically illegal to institute discriminatory voting laws, they can no longer be effectively challenged without new legislation from Congress. There is little sign of that happening. Writing in favour of the decision in 2013 Chief Justice John Roberts stated that Congress’s “failure to act” was the reason for the decision. Liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg called the ruling a “demolition of the Voting Rights Act” in her written dissent.
Since the decision, various states have implemented draconian laws designed to suppress voters. In 2014 Alabama was finally able to introduce a voter ID law which had been blocked since 2011. This meant that in order to vote citizens had to present one of seven types of photo ID. However, the IDs which were permitted were predominantly held by wealthier, white citizens. Government issued IDs that are more common in poorer, black and Hispanic communities, such as public housing ID, were not accepted.
From October this year voters in Alabama will require a so-called “Real ID” in order to vote. These are commonly obtained in DMV offices. Yet, the former Governor of Alabama, Robert Bentley closed 31 DMV centres during his time in office, the majority in black communities. Opening hours were also restricted. Perhaps it is unsurprising that Alabama is also rated as the worst state in the country for allowing access to mail-in voting..
Alabama’s junior senator, Democrat Doug Jones was elected in a surprise victory in 2017, primarily due to a huge voter drive. Jones has said that he had to run the race in ‘defensive mode… in order to make sure that people have the ability to cast their vote.’ The state’s Democrats have continued these efforts in order to ensure voters are ready for the November election. However, Ben Harris, a senior member of Alabaman Democratic Party in Mobile County has dismally noted that “if I could multiply by 1000 percent the resources we have to get the vote out I would. And it still wouldn’t be enough.”
Alabama is not alone. Earlier this year a voter ID law in North Carolina was blocked by a district judge who ruled that it was likely that the measure was crafted with discrimination in mind. This came two years after a similar law had been struck down. The state’s Republican controlled legislature was seemingly unhappy at record levels of black turnout in the 2008 and 2012 elections. This higher rate of African-American voter registration meant officials could collect data on which IDs they predominantly held. The list of permissible IDs could then be tailored to those more likely to be used by white voters. The court which struck down the law said it was disproportionately designed to impact African-Americans with “almost surgical precision.”
The ruling came too late to help counter the six percent drop in black turnout in 2016, though this may also be partly down to the lack of enthusiasm for Trump and his then-rival Hillary Clinton. It is worth noting that the number of black citizens registered to vote declined nationwide between 2012 and 2016, pointing to barriers getting younger people registered. Trump’s contrived concerns about mail-in voting, set against his complete silence on these issues demonstrate that political rather than moral obligations motivate his words on these issues.
The academic Carol Anderson has noted that these laws are often introduced due to the menacing idea of “the bogeyman of voter fraud” being propagated by senior politicians. Indeed, Pat McCrory, the former Governor of North Carolina, cited voting fraud as one reason for the voter ID law, with shockingly little evidence. The President may take this one step further, using mail-in voting to both ignore genuine concerns about voter’s access to the polls and inventing stories of fraud to deny an unfavourable election result.
Voter ID laws are far from the only way in which the vote is suppressed. Georgia’s primary elections in June were disastrous. Coronavirus restrictions led to a reduced number of polling locations and inexperienced poll workers replacing those who preferred to stay indoors. Even more worrying were widespread reports that the state’s new electronic election system was not working.
This resulted in hours-long lines for many Georgian voters, with many polling stations processing their last voters long after they were originally scheduled to close. Research by the Atlanta newspaper AJC found that while 80% of majority white precincts closed on time, just 61% of majority black precincts finished as scheduled. What happens in November when turnout will be even higher? Many can’t afford to spend their day waiting in line.
An investigation into what went wrong in Georgia has resulted in a political blame game – with the Republican Secretary of State blaming the worst affected counties for poor management. These Democratic counties have hit back, accusing the Secretary of voter suppression. Whilst primaries are contests within parties, if black communities are once again adversely affected in November, there will be serious questions to answer.
Whilst there are huge efforts from campaign groups to get voters registered, signed up for mail-in ballots or supported when waiting in tedious lines at the polls, many worries remain, not least the possibility that Donald Trump will not accept the election result. If this possibly becomes a terrifying reality, there is no doubt that Trump’s deliberate spreading of misinformation about mail-in voting will make undermining the result all the easier. However, the real scandal of this election will not be mail-in voting, but widespread voter suppression in the self-titled Land of the Free.