Still smarting from the lacklustre turnout for his first post-pandemic rally on Saturday, President Donald Trump on Monday renewed his assaults on a familiar bugbear that has been on his mind for months – the prospect of widespread mail-in voting in November’s general election.
Without offering any evidence, the president asserted that the election will be “the most RIGGED in our nations history” if many states move forward, as planned, with allowing citizens to vote by mail if they are still worried about the coronavirus pandemic when November 3 rolls around.
RIGGED 2020 ELECTION: MILLIONS OF MAIL-IN BALLOTS WILL BE PRINTED BY FOREIGN COUNTRIES, AND OTHERS. IT WILL BE THE SCANDAL OF OUR TIMES!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 22, 2020
The consensus among many political scientists and election lawyers in the US is that Trump, in questioning the electoral process before it even begins, is setting the stage for widespread legal challenges to the outcome of the vote if he ends up losing the election.
“Trump is trying to establish the basis for challenging votes that don’t go his way,” said Lawrence Douglas, a professor of law at Amherst College who has written a book titled Will He Go? Trump and the Looming Electoral Meltdown in 2020.
“He hasn’t simply hinted. He has telegraphed that he will not accept an electoral defeat as anything other than as a sign of a fraudulent election. That is an incredibly dangerous situation,” Douglas told Al Jazeera.
The sentiment was echoed by New York’s Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo.
“I think this a setup, I think they’re going to lose the election, I think they are going to claim fraud and they’re going to go back to these states with mail-in voting and they’re going to use that as an argument,” Cuomo said in an appearance on CNN on Monday.
“I just hope they don’t do that,” he added. “We need a definitive result in November. We cannot have a situation where one side says ‘Well, I didn’t really lose,’ and I think this is a setup for that.”
If you think that a foreign power could simply mail in millions of ballots to influence the election, I regret to inform you that our voting system is a bit more complex than when you voted for class president in fifth grade. https://t.co/nYkaBYi4V8
— Philip Bump (@pbump) June 22, 2020
Expanded mail-in voting
California, Maryland, Michigan, Nevada, Georgia, Nebraska and West Virginia are among a number of US states already taking steps to expand voting by mail. At the national level, Democrats are pushing for federal funding to help states buy machines and train volunteers needed to count significant numbers of mailed ballots.
“We are in the middle of a pandemic and voters need to have access to the ballot box in the way that is safest and healthiest for them to do so,” said Myrna Perez, director of voting rights at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.
“It is indisputable that for many Americans vote-by-mail is the most sensible option for them,” Perez told Al Jazeera.
Trump has been railing against the prospects of mail-in ballots for weeks. A May 26 Twitter tirade on the topic led Twitter to take the unusual step of labelling the accusations “potentially misleading” and adding a link to a topics page debunking his tweets.
There is NO WAY (ZERO!) that Mail-In Ballots will be anything less than substantially fraudulent. Mail boxes will be robbed, ballots will be forged & even illegally printed out & fraudulently signed. The Governor of California is sending Ballots to millions of people, anyone…..
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 26, 2020
In response, Trump accused the social media platform of meddling in the US election and stifling free speech.
The fact-check links posted by Twitter led to media reports citing voting experts who insist there is little, if any, evidence of widespread fraud using mail-in ballots in recent US elections.
“Voter fraud in the United States tends to be quite rare,” said Richard Hasen, a political science professor and election law expert at the University of California – Irvine.
Because of methods like signature matching and ballot tracking, “most of the kinds of fraud people try, tends to get caught”, Hasen told Al Jazeera.
Trump is “trying to delegitimise the election or he tends to believe in conspiracy theories”, Hasen said.
Mounting legal challenges
Trump’s cohorts in the Republican Party have already begun lodging legal complaints over mail-in ballots. In California, the largest US state, Republican Party lawyers sued the governor for a plan to send mail-in ballots for all 20 million California voters.
Judicial Watch filed a motion for a preliminary injunction to bar the enforcement of CA Gov. Newsom’s exec order mandating that unrequested/unneeded mail-in ballots be sent to all of the state’s registered voters for the 11/3/2020, election. Read: https://t.co/5AQjNwebeC
— Judicial Watch ⚖️ (@JudicialWatch) June 21, 2020
The suit accuses California Governor Gavin Newsom of a “brazen power grab” that would “violate eligible citizen’s right to vote”.
“Make no mistake, Democrats are trying to use this pandemic to redesign our entire election system for political gain, and we will not let their brazen attempts go unchallenged,” Republican National Committee (RNC) chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said on Twitter.
The RNC argues that broad distribution of mail-in ballots results in ballots being sent to inactive voters and exposes the system to “ballot harvesting”, a practice in which activists collect ballots from groups of people before mailing them.
Democrats reject the claims. “Expanding vote-by-mail during a pandemic is not a partisan issue – it’s a moral imperative to protect voting rights and public safety,” California Secretary of State Alex Padilla said on Twitter in response to the lawsuit.
More states are following California, the first in the nation to temporarily switch to all-mail balloting because of the virus. The Republican suit in federal court may become the key test case for the president’s bid to prevent a nationwide rollout of voting by mail.
Last month, Trump threatened to withhold federal funds from Michigan and Nevada, two battleground states that could turn the election, if they move ahead with plans to let voters cast ballots by mail.
Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, the state official responsible for managing the voting process, sent mail-in ballot applications to the all of the state’s voters.
“This was done illegally and without authorization by a rogue Secretary of State. I will ask to hold up funding to Michigan if they want to go down the Voter Fraud path!” Trump said in a tweet.
Benson immediately pushed back on Trump’s claims.
“Trump can call me a ‘Rogue Secretary of State’ but I won’t let lies slide,” Benson wrote in an Op-Ed in Newsweek magazine.
“These efforts – foreign, domestic, partisan or simply malicious – are designed to foster mistrust in our elections process, depress turnout and erode confidence in the election results and the sanctity of our democracy,” Benson wrote.