Last week, as Donald Trump ginned up for the Republican National Convention, he went on Fox News to talk with Sean Hannity about “voter fraud,” be it fraud committed at polling sites or fraud committed by mail. To preempt this, he assured his audience, he would send sheriffs, miscellaneous other law enforcement and U.S. attorneys into polling places around the country to monitor for irregularities.
This warning, along with ongoing GOP plans to send 50,000 “poll watchers” to polling stations around the country, echoed GOP strategies from decades past, when the party routinely sent out monitors to Black neighborhoods and other areas that tended to skew Democratic. In April, The Intercept reported that conservative activists wanted monitors for the November elections to include off-duty and retired police, military, even Navy SEALs — a practice that was banned between 1981 and 2018 by a consent decree stopping the GOP from carrying out such monitoring, but which has been permitted for the past couple years after a judge in New Jersey decided not to renew the consent decree. Into this legal opening, Trump apparently hopes to place an armed force intended to scare would-be voters away from polling sites.
A few days after Trump’s Hannity interview, Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf acknowledged his department didn’t actually have the authority to dispatch agents to in-person vote sites in November. In Congress, Trump’s beleaguered Postmaster General Louis DeJoy tried damage limitation by claiming that the U.S. Postal Service was absolutely equipped to handle a surge in mail-in votes; he also reportedly told Trump and his operatives to stop undermining confidence in the postal system.
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Trump responded not with contrition but with more attacks on the postal system. As the GOP convention got underway, he continued issuing warnings that his opponents were intent on stealing the election through a vast conspiracy to commit wholesale vote-by-mail fraud.
Now, this may all be bluster. But it’s calculated bluster that is designed to shore up Trump’s position in November. For whether or not Trump actually tries to order the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice and other departments to send out armed agents and other officials to polling sites, the damage that he is already doing is immense.
Two-thirds of Republican voters now tell pollsters they don’t have confidence in the fairness of the election. And some polls have shown that 8 out of every 10 Republican voters now believe that an expanded vote-by-mail system will lead to a fraudulent result.
Now, don’t get me wrong; a healthy dose of skepticism when it comes to elections being undermined by those with power isn’t a bad thing. After all, when political leaders push and courts uphold restrictions on the franchise — through purges of voter rolls, disenfranchisement of those with felony convictions, making it harder for students to register to vote in the college towns in which they live, and so on — that clearly isn’t a good thing for democracy. Similarly, when polling sites are closed in poor, disproportionately nonwhite neighborhoods, resulting in people having to spend hours in line simply to cast a ballot, that too flies in the face of any sense of democratic fairness. When polling stations are shut, as they were this June in Lexington, Kentucky, while hundreds of people who have waited for hours are still in line outside, that’s also anti-democratic, as a judge noted in ordering the polls to stay open longer so that these voters could cast their ballots.
For more than 20 years I have written about organized efforts to suppress the vote. And the vast majority of voter suppression efforts emanate from the right wing. They are championed by people such as Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, who, both as secretary of state and in his current job, has pushed for strict voter ID laws in his state. These laws are seen as election-winning tools by conservative activists in states such as Wisconsin, who have sued to enforce strict purges of the electoral rolls. They are embraced by the GOP in Florida, which, despite passage of a ballot initiative a couple years back to re-enfranchise those with felony convictions, has stonewalled the changes and fought a rearguard political and legal action to limit the scope of the re-enfranchisement.
If Trump were genuinely interested in protecting the integrity of the electoral process, he would tackle all of these well-documented abuses head-on. If he really wanted to use federal agents and attorneys to protect the election, he would ask William Barr’s Department of Justice to investigate these orchestrated efforts to disenfranchise huge numbers of Americans. But, of course, that’s the last thing Trump wants.
Trump, who has never had an approval rating above 50 percent as president, knows that the more Americans that vote, the poorer his re-election chances are. If he wants to maintain power, he has to both massively reduce the numbers who vote and also gin up enough distrust in the results amongst his supporters that, if he loses, he can convince them the result is illegitimate.
In short, Trump’s definition of fraud seems to be electoral participation by people who disagree with Trump. And his definition of “monitoring” for fraud, is, similarly, more realistically “intimidating political opponents and refusing to acknowledge unfavorable vote tallies.”
To call this a scorched-earth strategy is an understatement. For it is a strategy that could push the U.S. toward violent civil conflict over the coming months. This week, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, a young white man fixated on his support for the police murdered two people protesting the shooting of Jacob Blake, as armed white militias swarmed the protests. Now, the country needs to grapple with the likelihood that these same far right militias may turn to violence to protect Trump’s presidency.
With less than 10 weeks until the election, Donald Trump is explicitly laying the groundwork to reject the results of the election, and to encourage his followers to take to the streets to maintain his hold on power.
In an era in which paramilitary groupings have increasingly brought weapons to protests, and in a period in which there are more guns in civilians’ hands in the U.S. than there are people, that is a scenario that ought to inspire horror no matter what your ideological affiliations are.