A growing number of observers and Democratic activists are concerned that the president and the Republican party will engage in voter suppression, delay the fall elections, or refuse to abide by the results. These issues need to be addressed now because critics see voter suppression already taking place, and putting large-scale vote-by-mail operations in place requires months of preparations. Among the major sources of the concern are the pandemic, which already has led to the rescheduling of several elections, and the president’s rhetoric, which includes repeated suggestions that various elections that have taken place, as well as the upcoming 2020 election, are “rigged.”
The concerns raised by the coronavirus have been spelled out by David Cole, an influential progressive law professor at Georgetown: “in the coronavirus pandemic, Republicans may have discovered the ultimate voter suppression tactic. For years they have sought to erect obstacles to voting, imposing strict voter identification requirements, limiting registration opportunities, purging voter rolls, and opposing early voting—all ostensibly in the name of fighting in-person ‘voter fraud,’ even though there is virtually no evidence that anyone unlawfully impersonates a voter at the polls. Many Republicans believe that low voter turnout favors them, because older and wealthier citizens, disproportionately Republican, vote more regularly than younger and poorer citizens, who tend to favor Democrats. But the suppression tactics the party has previously pursued pale in comparison to fear of contracting a deadly disease, which is certain to deter many people from going to the polls. And that’s apparently how some Republicans like it.”
Emily Bazelon, writing for the New York Times, provides an overview of what she sees as Republican voter suppression efforts: “‘I don’t want everybody to vote,’ Paul Weyrich, the conservative activist and co-founder of the Heritage Foundation, said at a meeting in Dallas in 1980. ‘As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.’ In the 2000s, Republicans began passing strict voter-identification laws, which could be justified as a way to prevent fraud—although in-person voting fraud is extremely rare. In 2010, after taking control of most state legislatures, Republicans eliminated early voting and same-day registration where they could. Since the Supreme Court effectively gutted a key provision of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, more than 1,600 polling places have been closed across the country.”
Per historian David W. Blight, in two years, forty-one states introduced 180 new restrictions related to voting and nineteen states, almost all of which were under Republican control, passed twenty-seven similarly limiting laws.
In 2018, a federal court struck down a system requiring the Republican Party to gain court approval prior to engaging in operations against voter fraud. The prohibition—originally put in place in 1982—resulted from “instances of Republicans intimidating or working to exclude minority voters in the name of preventing fraud.” Republicans have set aside $20 million to fund efforts to support lawsuits opposing less restrictive voting provisions, distribute advertisements accusing Democrats of stealing elections, and enlist fifty thousand volunteers across fifteen strategic states to challenge voters and ballots.
The Republican National Committee (RNC) and state GOP committees are reported to be filing and participating in lawsuits to prevent the implementation of new state voting policies, such as allowing absentee voters to return their ballots without a witness signature and permitting more leniency regarding the deadlines for the return of mail-in ballots, accommodations which are designed to make it easier for people to vote amidst the pandemic.
On multiple occasions, Donald Trump has insisted that police should monitor polling places. Such a show of force, critics hold, will instill fear in voters, depressing especially the turnout of voters who are likely to vote Democratic.
Purges of voter-registration rolls tend to disproportionately affect Black and Latino voters. Democrats point to Georgia as a reason for their concerns. During the 2018 gubernatorial election, current Georgia Governor Brian Kemp held the position of secretary of state, and hence was in charge of overseeing his own election. He presided over removing over seven hundred thousand names from the voter-registration rolls. A study later found the purged names included approximately 107,000 eligible voters. Purges of the voter-registration rolls have also taken place in North Carolina and Florida, both of which were under Republican control at the time, and there is currently a legal battle over a purge in Wisconsin. These are all swing states.
Delaying the Election
Several primaries and local elections have been rescheduled because of the coronavirus, which is viewed as a precedent by those who fear that Trump will attempt to delay the November election. When asked about this, Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner once stated, “I’m not sure I can commit one way or another.” Historian and author Jon Meacham wrote in an op-ed published by the New York Times in March about “the possibility that President Trump might take advantage of the unfolding health crisis to delay the November election.” He said, “Alarmist? Not for anyone who’s paid even glancing attention to the president’s will to power and contempt for constitutional convention.” Former Vice President Joe Biden stated, “Mark my words, I think he is going to try to kick back the election somehow, come up with some rationale why it can’t be held.”
New York Times reporter Katie Glueck dismissed this concern. “Mr. Trump has not moved to delay the election, and Mr. Biden, who once taught constitutional law, most likely knows as well as the voting experts do that it would be exceedingly difficult to postpone the election and that the president does not have the authority to unilaterally take such action,” she reported. The timing of federal elections is set by law (one that was passed in 1845), which means that Congress would have to pass a new law to move the election.
Not Accepting the Election Results
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi stated that the Democrats must win “big” in order “to inoculate against” the potential that Trump might challenge the results of the election. Trump often claims that this or that election is rigged or corrupted—even when he won.
In 2016, Trump talked about fraud in the months leading up to the election, going so far as to repeatedly repudiate efforts to get him to commit to honoring the results of the election before they took place. After he won, he nevertheless challenged the results, repeatedly claiming—without any evidence—that voter fraud was the only reason he did not win the popular vote. He asserted that his popular vote loss was due to the unlawful votes of three to five million noncitizens. As University College London Assistant Professor Brian Klaas wrote in an op-ed published the Washington Post, “If Trump claimed that an election he won was rigged, what will he do with an election he loses?” Recently, Trump wrote that an election conducted by “Mail In Ballots . . . will be the greatest Rigged Election in history” and called it a “Scam.” As Bazelon writes, “A candidate who warns now about fraud and chaos, as Trump is ceaselessly doing, is sowing the seeds for his supporters to distrust the results if he loses.”
Actually, fraud in voting is very rare. In Colorado, 95 percent of people voting in the 2018 election cast absentee ballots. Jena Griswold, the secretary of state, explained, “When we think there is the possibility of double voting, we send every case to the attorney general. Our number for 2018 was 0.0027 percent.” An expert on elections, Kenneth Mayer, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, stated, “This has been shown over and over. The continued insistence that there are material levels of intentional voter fraud is itself a form of fraud.” Nevertheless, Trump has kept up his assault on vote-by-mail, threatening states with a loss of federal funds if they moved forward with efforts to increase voting by mail.
The fact is that Trump has shown little respect for democratic norms and several laws. For instance, he called the constitutional requirements on emoluments “phony,” refused to supply Congress with documents and to allow his staff to testify, and otherwise engaged in many norm-violations—and some potentially illegal use of executive power, adds to the concerns of Democrats and others. They wonder what would happen if the matter ends up in the Supreme Court, which has become ever more conservative since it granted the contested 2000 election to Bush over Gore.
What Can Be Done
The Democratic National Committee is involved in several lawsuits seeking to facilitate mail-in voting and ease in-person voting. Also, “[t]he Democratic National Committee and black voter mobilization groups have launched broad educational programs to encourage mail balloting and help African Americans navigate the requirements,” according to Reuters.
Over two hundred public-interest groups have formed a coalition to urge Congress to provide $3.6 billion for the election as part of the next coronavirus relief package. They are also calling on “states to offer online and same-day voter registration and to extend in-person early voting to avoid crowding on Election Day.”
Democrats are trying to allocate additional federal funding to cover the costs associated with holding an election amidst a pandemic. This includes providing the funds necessary to maintain the operations of the Postal Service, an essential part of mail-in voting that is in danger of exhausting its operating funds by the end of September.
A group dedicated to election reforms suggests that all states eliminate the requirement that voters must provide an excuse to participate in absentee voting. Furthermore, election officials should promote mail-in ballots to help people who fear voting in person, resulting from the pandemic.
For those who prefer to vote in person, “states should begin immediately identifying polling places that will be large enough to accommodate voters in November without requiring them to stand in close proximity for long periods of time. And states need to recruit more poll workers who are a lower risk for infection.” Ultimately, this comes down to money— “the federal government and the states must provide additional funding . . . to ensure ‘smooth’ voting.”