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There has been a lot of concern that President Donald Trump will use the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to postpone or even “cancel” the federal election set for November 3, 2020. Let me allay that fear right now: He will not. He’s an authoritarian who disrespects the rule of law, so he might want to. But, thankfully, this isn’t his call. The date of the federal election can be changed only by an act of Congress. As long as Nancy Pelosi draws breath, we should expect to be voting on November 3.
In fact, even if Trump or coronavirus concerns somehow prevail upon Congress to move the date, the worst that can happen is that the election will be temporarily postponed, not canceled. The election still has to happen before January 20, 2021. That’s because the Constitution requires that the current president’s term end by that date. We have to have a new, duly elected administration, even if it’s Trump’s second administration, by 1/20/21. We have to elect a new Congress. There is no constitutional mechanism for having a “provisional” government. Either we have an election before January 20, or we don’t have a government—we have a military dictatorship.
Unless Trump has the military on board for a full-on coup d’état, he simply doesn’t have the legislative or constitutional authority to escape from his reckoning with the American people.
We are going to have an election. Unfortunately, just because we have an election doesn’t mean everybody will be allowed to vote in that election. If an election happens but nobody is around to vote because they’re all quarantined, does it still count? The biggest danger to our democracy is not that our election will be postponed but that access to that election will be restricted only to the people who are likely to vote for Donald Trump.
That threat is very real. As I wrote yesterday, state governors have enormous emergency powers they can use during a public health crisis. They can restrict assembly; they can restrict travel; they can restrict the hours people are allowed outside of their homes. And they can place these restrictions on a county-by-county basis, meaning that your ability to assemble in a long line to vote might be predicated on what community you live in.
If you don’t understand how that is an invitation to suppress the vote in certain communities in order to manipulate an election, then you haven’t been paying attention to how Republicans play this game, whether or not there is a global pandemic to tie it to.
Imagine how easily it would be for Republican Governor Rick DeSantis to manipulate the federal election in Florida. Florida is one of those battleground states where certain counties vote the same way each election season, and the battle is always about turnout. If the coronavirus is still rampaging through the country in November, it won’t be shocking for DeSantis to put population centers like Miami-Dade County and Broward County on virtual lockdown. He could institute quarantines and curfews for those counties, severely restricting the ability of people who live there to vote.
Miami-Dade and Broward, it should be mentioned, are where most of the Democratic votes come from in Florida. What if DeSantis locks down those population centers, but does not impose the same restrictions on counties in the panhandle? What if Okaloosa County and Walton County and Bay County and Gulf County—all places that voted for Trump in 2016 by over 70 percent—are allowed to conduct their elections as normal, while people in Miami are prohibited from gathering in a room with more than 10 people?
This is the kind of power any governor could use, in bad faith, to manipulate the results of an election. All they would have to do to justify restrictions in large urban centers is simply frame them as responding to a health crisis where there are “hot spots.” Everybody would know they were trying to manipulate the election by suppressing the vote, but who would stop them?
Even if you don’t think Republicans would be so bold as to directly prevent city residents from voting at all, there are more subtle things they can do. Most likely, even in November, large public gatherings will be discouraged. That means a lot of voters are going to be voting by mail or absentee.
Do we have plans for an unprecedented rush on absentee ballots? Do we have enough forms available for those who are going to want them? This isn’t the kind of thing you can plan for two weeks before Election Day. Election officials need to be preparing for this now.
Again, would anybody be shocked if Republican officials were totally prepared to hand out absentee forms in low-population counties that are likely to vote for Trump but woefully under-prepared to handle the demand in high population cities? Would anybody be shocked if large numbers of these new absentee voters had their ballots rejected for some reason? Even without a coronavirus, we’ve seen how Republicans use voter ID laws to reject ballots based on minor clerical errors.
And don’t forget, many places don’t even count absentee or provisional ballots in real time. They open that can of worms only if the result is really close. People can scream “too early to call” in front of “big boards” in television studios all they want, but if Trump is leading on election night based on votes from only those people who are allowed out of quarantine, that’s gonna be a wrap. This president, this authoritarian president, will never relinquish power if people on Fox News tell him he’s “won.”
I’m old enough to remember the 2000 election. And I know that we haven’t made any significant changes to our election laws since then. If anything, we’ve lost voting protections since that election, because of the changes made to the Voting Rights Act by the Republican Supreme Court. So I can pretty much tell you how this is all going to play out.
Florida (or some similar state controlled by Republicans that represents the margin of an Electoral College victory for President Trump) will be “too close to call” on election night. But Trump will hold a slight lead based on the day-of vote. Trump will declare “victory” while the state is still counting absentee and provisional ballots. Election officials will throw out large numbers of those ballots based on minor errors. The Florida secretary of state—a Republican, by the way—will rush to certify the election night results. Trump will declare victory again. Horror stories will be reported about voters who tried to vote but were denied for all sorts of reasons.
Then the lawsuits will start. Voters who were advised to quarantine will complain that their ballots were thrown out. Or that they never got an absentee ballot, despite trying for weeks. The lawsuits will go through the state court system in Florida. Trump will intimidate the judges overseeing those cases on Twitter. They’ll rule for Trump. The cases will get appealed from the Florida State Supreme Court to the United States Supreme Court. Mitch McConnell will complain that Democrats are trying to “overturn the results of an election.” The Supreme Court will rule, 5-4, in favor of Trump. Democrats will blame black people in Miami who didn’t turn out. Years later, some Republican operative will die and we’ll find a document titled “How To Steal Florida 2020” on his laptop.
The point is this: Republicans don’t need the coronavirus to steal an election. The coronavirus will just give them additional cover to do what they were already doing. These people are robbing the bank in broad daylight, and we’re wondering if it’ll be easier for them to pull off their heist at night? Yes! Yes, it will be easier for them. Now, can we get some security?
The threat of Donald Trump using emergency powers to cancel the election is virtually nonexistent. The threat of conservative state officials trying to manipulate the outcome of the election through voter suppression is something minority communities have been screaming about since white people started allowing minorities to vote in the first place.