On the morning of July 30, 96 days before the November election that polls suggest he is likely to lose, Donald Trump jumped onto Twitter and screamed:
With Universal Mail-In Voting (not Absentee Voting, which is good), 2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history. It will be a great embarrassment to the USA. Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???
Everything about that message from the president of the United States was wrong. Voting by mail provides a safe and secure model for casting ballots, as states such as Oregon and Washington have proven, and as election experts confirm. The true embarrassment to the United States is that the president and his allies have blocked funding to assure that the November 3 election can be organized with a smart combination of mail voting, early voting, and in-person voting on Election Day—even if there is a Covid-19 surge this fall. And this year’s presidential and congressional elections cannot be delayed by this desperate and lawless president.
Trump knows this. He is not serious about delaying the election. He is serious about making it a mess.
For this reason, Trump’s tweet should be read as a wake-up call. The RealClearPolitics survey of recent national polls, showing Democrat Joe Biden averaging 50.1 percent versus 40.7 percent for Trump, and the battleground state surveys trending in Biden’s favor have this president scared. And a scared Trump is a dangerous Trump.
When the president makes threats of this sort, he does so to create chaos and uncertainty. He seeks to suppress and depress turnout. As such, says New Mexico Senator Tom Udall, “These statements should be immediately met with universal condemnation by all American leaders.”
These condemnations should be blunt. They should recognize Trump’s disregard for democracy and the threat it poses. That’s what Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison did immediately, with a Thursday morning tweet of his own: “‘Delay the Election until…’ says Trump. This is how democracy dies in the USA. Don’t let it happen.”
How do we do that?
With facts and action.
Here are the facts.
First, presidents cannot delay elections.
The 20th Amendment to the Constitution declares that “the terms of the President and the Vice President shall end at noon on the 20th day of January.” To establish a timeline for the smooth transition of power that is essential in a democratic republic, the Congress has since 1845 established that elections to choose presidential electors and members of Congress will take place on “the Tuesday next after the first Monday in November.” Practically, what this means is that Trump can’t delay the election without the approval of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats who control the chamber that last year impeached the president.
As such, Trump’s avenues for intervention are constrained.
In addition, precedent argues against a delay. “The United States has never delayed a presidential election,” noted Becky Little in a recent essay on the turbulent “Civil War election” of 1864. Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia legislative leader and gubernatorial candidate who has become a national leader on voting rights, explains, “We were able to vote during the Civil War. We were able to vote during the 1918 Spanish flu. There is no excuse for not holding our elections in 2020.”
Second, there is no question that the United States can hold a safe and fair November election.
As Abrams explained to me recently:
South Korea had their first incidence of COVID-19 around the same time as the United States. In the midst of their process, on April 15, they had a national election, which achieved the highest turnout that they have had since the 1990s. President Moon managed to maintain and manage a successful democracy in the midst of a pandemic. I believe America is capable of the same. I do not believe that there is any justification—certainly not the abject lie of rampant voter fraud—that should deter us from doing what the majority of Americans believe, which is that if you’re eligible to vote, you should be able to vote, and that means you should be able to vote by mail if you choose, and if you choose not to or cannot, that you can vote in-person.
Abrams is right. There is no excuse for suggesting that Covid-19, or anything else, should delay the November election.
What’s needed are standards and funding. The standards must begin with the premise that voting should be easy—offering smart options that work for all voters: universal access to voting by mail, easy absentee voting, and systems to assure there can be safe early voting and safe in-person voting on Election Day. To make that happen, the Senate should complete the job begun by the House in May, when it approved $3.6 billion in funding to help state and local government agencies take necessary steps to organize a high-turnout election. The House also approved funding to keep the US Postal Service up and running, which is essential to voting by mail and absentee voting, and the Senate must do the same.
Third, Trump is not worried about “voter fraud,” he is worried about losing.
This is a chaotic moment for American politics and elections. As the Brennan Center for Justice explains:
The Covid-19 pandemic has already caused major disruptions to our elections system, and the risk that other real crises—natural disaster, machine breakdown, foreign interference—will further disrupt the election is significant. But there is also a significant risk that political actors will manufacture crises to undermine election results they don’t like. These fake crises can undercut trust in the accuracy of election outcomes, inflame partisan tensions, and destabilize our democracy.
At the top of the list of “fake crises,” according to the Brennan Center, is the notion that “voter fraud” is rampant:
Based on a meticulous review of elections that had been investigated for voter fraud, the Brennan Center found miniscule incident rates of ineligible individuals fraudulently casting ballots at the polls—no more than 0.0025 percent. Numerous reports have confirmed our finding that voter fraud is exceedingly rare. Research shows that voter fraud is similarly rare with mail ballots.
Universal vote-by-mail systems do not promote voter fraud. In fact, as the American Civil Liberties Union has long maintained, allowing universal voting by mail “would ensure that all Americans have an equal opportunity to vote by mail in federal elections for any reason. This bill [the Universal Right to Vote by Mail Act of 2007] would give all voters the choice of voting by mail by eliminating the unnecessary, burdensome, and often intrusive requirements that some states impose on voters requesting absentee ballots.”
So everyone should be clear about what Trump is doing: panicking. Democrats and Republicans should denounce his claims as what they are: self-serving lies designed to undermine confidence in this election and democracy in general. Representative Marcy Kaptur of Ohio did a good job of it when she said Thursday, “In America, politicians don’t get to pick and choose their election day. President Trump’s cynical suggestion to move the election is underscored by his calculated efforts to undermine Postal Service delivery and voting from home. The President’s blatant attempt to edge out an electoral victory in November by moving the finish line is unconstitutional, undemocratic, and un-American.”
This robust rejection of Trump’s lies must be coupled with action at the federal, state, and local levels to establish standards and allocate funds to ensure that voting in the November 3 election is easy, safe, and fair.
“If Trump truly cared about our elections, he would demand Congress provide the $3.6 billion in funding that states and localities need to properly and safely administer them amid the pandemic,” says Public Citizen president Robert Weissman.
Trump won’t do that. Americans who care about democracy must.