As own goals go, President Donald Trump’s continued fixation on and bad-mouthing of mail-in voting ahead of the United States’ November general election may end up being one of the factors that cost him – along with many other players on the Republican team – the match.
In a town hall meeting aired on Fox News Thursday night, Trump said an audience member’s query about the topic was “the most important question I’ll be asked”.
Repeating a trope he has hammered away at for weeks now, Trump attacked state officials in California and elsewhere who are, he claimed, mailing out “millions and millions” of ballots that could be counted fraudulently, going so far as to claim that a country like China could “print millions of ballots using the exact same paper” in an attempt to interfere in the election.
In an interview with NPR, Attorney General Barr defended his claim, without providing any evidence, that foreign countries could potentially counterfeit "millions" of mail ballots in November.
Election officials say that's "preposterous" and "false."https://t.co/jU1GeNxxqg
— NPR (@NPR) June 26, 2020
The allegation – echoed by Trump’s Attorney General, William Barr in an interview with National Public Radio on Thursday – was widely ridiculed as preposterous by people who actually know about such things. Safeguards such as bar codes and signature checks, not to mention the fact that ballots in each voting jurisdiction in the US often look dramatically different from locale to locale, would make such an undertaking all but impossible to carry out.
Regardless, Trump persists. The president, in what has been seen as an attempt to call into question the outcome of the vote in case he loses, is clearly dead set against the prospect of states making it easier for their citizens to vote because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Mail-in voting is a “scam,” he’s tweeted. It’s “dangerous”. It’s “crazy”. It’s “fraudulent”. The Democrats are “trying to steal another election”, he wrote.
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!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 24, 2020
If another of Trump’s intentions is to convince his own voters not to participate in November if they are still worried about COVID-19, anecdotal evidence has emerged that he is doing a pretty good job.
In the battleground state of Pennsylvania, which passed a law last year allowing anyone to vote by mail for any reason, about 1.9 million people requested mail-in ballots for the primaries this year. In 2016, the number was 107,000. And 71 percent of them have been Democrats, according to an analysis by the Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper.
In Northhampton County, Pennsylvania – one of three counties in the state won twice by former President Barack Obama before flipping red and siding with Trump in 2016 – the chairwoman of the local Republican Party, Lee Snover, said they are not pushing people to vote by mail.
“Our county kind of is a Trump county. We’re kind of listening to Trump on this,” Snover told the Inquirer. “He’s spoken about it. He’s tweeted about it. He doesn’t want us to do it.”
“More than one person”, she added, has told her that “Trump doesn’t want us mailing in, [so] I’m not mailing it in”.
In Florida, Democratic Party officials crowed this week about the avalanche of requests for mail-in ballots there. Since the March primary in that state, they said in a statement, Democrats have convinced 350,000 voters to sign up to the programme, compared to the 160,000 voters signed up by Republicans.
The trend, the party said, “should be cause for alarm at the Florida GOP headquarters”.
Robert Stein, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston, Texas, has been surveying voters’ attitudes toward mail-in voting there since shortly after the pandemic erupted. Generally speaking, he found, Democrats prefer mail-in voting and Republicans favour doing so in person.
Interestingly, Stein reports, only one day after Trump started tweeting against mail-in voting, the pollsters noticed a drop in the percentage of Republicans who said they were in favour of remote voting – from 41 percent to 34 percent. Initially, Stein was puzzled because so many Republicans there have voted by mail in past presidential elections.
But, he said, “Republican voters follow the lead of their party and president.”
The thing is, voters are not following the lead of their party. They are following the lead of the president. Outside of Trump’s West Wing/Capitol Hill echo chamber, Republican officials across the country are almost uniformly in favour of mail-in voting.
Despite the reticence from local GOP leaders in Northampton County and elsewhere, the state Republican party in Pennsylvania has gone all out to promote voting by mail, calling it both safe and smart.
“Democrats will use the new mail-in ballot to greatly increase their turnout,” the party correctly predicted on its website earlier this year. “Republicans would be smart to do the same so that we have the advantage.”
Trump’s incessant drumbeat against the messaging of his own party would be remarkable were it not so predictable. Through words and actions throughout the campaign, the president has made it clear that the election is not about the Republican Party’s prospects. It’s about Trump’s prospects.
US Senators, members of Congress and other down-ballot Republicans be damned.