President Trump and his allies are already working to cast doubt on the fairness and integrity of the election as early voting begins in some states and the president trails Democratic nominee Joe Biden in the polls. Across the country and especially in battleground states, the Republican Party has worked to restrict access to the ballot as political operatives seize on irregularities arising from a hasty pandemic-era transition toward mail-in voting in order to bolster Trump’s false claims about widespread voter fraud.
Trump has consistently refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses to Biden, and the president said over the weekend that the election is “obviously” rigged against him, a strategy of preemptively casting doubt on unfavorable election results that experts argue amounts to electoral sabotage. During the first presidential debate on Tuesday — and after Biden said he would accept the results of the election, regardless of who wins — Trump said, without any evidence, that mail-in ballots are a “fraud” and a “shame.” Biden noted that Trump votes by mail himself.
“We are observing a president sabotaging an election in real time,” said Susan Stokes, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, during a recent webinar on election manipulation.
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Legal battles between the GOP and voting rights advocates over voting rules and mail-in ballots have erupted in courtrooms nationwide, delaying efforts to expand access to the ballot during the pandemic.
At least 262 lawsuits over voting during a pandemic have been filed across the country, according to the Election Law Blog edited by Richard L. Hasen, a law professor at University of California, Irvine, and author of Election Meltdown: Dirty Tricks, Distrust, and the Threat to American Democracy. Trump and some Republicans have indicated they believe that high turnout hurts their electoral chances.
A review of 90 federal voting cases by The Washington Post found that judges have broadly rejected Republican claims that voter fraud poses a significant risk to the election, siding instead with voting rights groups and experts who say fraud is rare and the electoral system remains resilient with some room for improvement. Federal judges have ruled in favor of voting rights advocates seeking to expand access to mail-in and early voting in a number of cases and issued split decisions in others. Dozens of cases have yet to be decided.
There is mounting evidence that Trump and his allies are eager to suppress turnout as part of a broader anti-democratic electoral strategy. On Tuesday, an investigation by the British television network Channel 4 revealed that the Trump campaign in 2016 used a massive trove of personal data gleaned online to identify millions of Black voters as individuals who could be actively discouraged from voting with targeted ads. While Black voters were targeted disproportionately by the campaign in a number of states, the Channel 4 investigation takes a close look at Black voters targeted in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where voter turnout in majority-Black neighborhoods dropped in 2016. After the election, pollsters said low turnout in traditionally Democratic strongholds of key swing states was one reason that Hillary Clinton lost to Trump, although Clinton’s campaign also failed to inspire voters to go to the polls.
Hasen and other experts say some problems and irregularities will likely arise during the current election. Voters will submit absentee ballots by mail in unprecedented numbers, and election officials are closing polling places due to shortages of poll workers and COVID-19 concerns.
Republicans in Congress have refused to provide extra pandemic funding for elections as lawmakers bicker over COVID-19 relief, and local election administrators are struggling to meet the cost of holding an election during an unprecedented pandemic.
Right-wing political operatives and the Trump administration itself are already seizing on isolated irregularities in early voting and blowing them out of proportion in an effort to bolster Trump’s claims about fraud.
“The sloppier the election, the more opportunities to try to manufacture claims of election fraud from bureaucratic incompetence and election snafus,” Hasen said in an email to Truthout.
In a recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, Hasen pointed to a recent incident in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, where a poll worker was fired after mishandling nine ballots. In an unusual news release that raised serious ethics concerns and was later rescinded, the Justice Department announced it would investigate the incident, noting that ballots that were discarded contained votes for Trump. Misinformation quickly shot across the right-wing media sphere, and Trump suggested publicly that the incident was evidence of a conspiracy against his reelection. However, local election officials later clarified that the ballots were mishandled in error, and there was no evidence of criminal or fraudulent activity.
“There is also no question that some election administrators, like those in Luzerne County, will make errors in handling ballots,” Hasen writes. “There are weak links in our election process. And things are bound to be weaker in 2020 compared with 2016 because Congress did not provide adequate funding for the increased costs of running in-person and mail-in balloting during a pandemic.”
Hasen writes that election administrators must remain transparent about what are expected to be inevitable but isolated mistakes, and the media must report on election malfeasance with caution. Rules for mail-in voting vary from state to state, and the media must make it clear that mistakes and irregularities are not the same as fraud, which is rare and involves a deliberate effort to sway election results. Across the country, election officials and voting rights advocates worry that the unfounded anxiety over fraud generated by Trump and his allies will result in voter intimidation at the polls. Last week, election officials in Fairfax, Virginia, confirmed that Trump supporters intimidated voters when their rally blocked access to a polling place open for early voting.
Trump has made it clear that he won’t go quietly if he loses, and advocates across the political spectrum are preparing for the worst. A coalition of 50 in the fields of election law, voting rights, cybersecurity, media and public health have formed the cross-partisan National Task Force on Election Crises to recommend policy responses to potential electoral debacles. Protect the Results, a network of voters and activists committed to mobilizing street protests if Trump refuses to accept the results of the election, is now supported by 100 advocacy organizations on both the left and the right.
“Donald Trump is telegraphing that he won’t accept the results of the election if he loses and casting doubt on the election process in order to suppress the vote,” said Christina Harvey, managing director of Protect the Vote coalition partner Stand Up America, in a recent statement. “This sentiment represents an existential threat to our democracy.”