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Donald Trump vs democracy: President’s attacks on the 2020 election explained

The Trump administration has engaged in an unprecedented campaign to undermine the democratic process in an effort to stay in power

Richard Hall
Wednesday 23 September 2020 12:09 BST
Voting rights groups are preparing for the worst on election day
Voting rights groups are preparing for the worst on election day (AP)

This is not a normal election.

The United States is in the midst of several overlapping crises, any one of which could have decided the race in previous years. The coronavirus pandemic has killed nearly 200,000 Americans and is still out of control. Protests against racial injustice continue across the country. And unemployment is near all-time highs.

Coming as they have simultaneously, these crises have made the prospect of a one-term presidency for Donald Trump a very real possibility –the defeat of an incumbent president is something that has only happened four times in the past 100 years.

Faced with these historically unfavourable re-election prospects, the Trump administration has engaged in an unprecedented campaign to undermine the democratic process in an effort to stay in power.

Some of these efforts are taking place behind closed doors, some in the courts, and some out in the open. Together, they have the potential to play a decisive role in the outcome of this year’s election.  

Mail-in ballots

Mr Trump has made unsubstantiated claims about election rigging for years, but until recently he had never identified mail-in ballots as a problem.

His first attacks began in April, at a time when the coronavirus pandemic sparked a dramatic increase in demand for mail-in ballots to protect against the spread of the virus.

Mr Trump said there was a “tremendous potential for voter fraud, and for whatever reason, doesn’t work out well for Republicans”. Since then, he has repeatedly claimed without evidence that mail-in voting is vulnerable to fraud.

The Trump campaign, together with the Republican Party, has also launched litigation in several swing states to block the expansion of mail-in voting – most of which were state-led efforts to protect voters against the coronavirus.  

It might seem counterintuitive for a president to attack a method of voting that is also used by his own supporters, but polls suggest that a far greater number of Democrats plan to vote by mail in November’s presidential election.

According to a recent survey, more than one-third of Americans plan to vote by mail in November: 48 per cent of them plan to cast their vote for Joe Biden, and only 23 per cent for Mr Trump.

Any attempt to slow down, limit or block mail-in ballots, therefore, would likely benefit the president.

Snail mail

It was for that reason that Mr Trump’s decision to block emergency funding for the US Postal Service caused such an alarm.

Last month, Mr Trump offered a frank explanation about why he was blocking emergency funding for the service in the next coronavirus stimulus bill.

“They need that money in order to make the Post Office work so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots,” he told Fox Business. “But if they don’t get those two items, that means you can’t have universal mail-in voting, because they’re not equipped to have it.”

Mr Trump has claimed that “universal mail-in voting” – which means anyone can request an absentee ballot – is susceptible to fraud, again, without evidence. His opponents, on the other hand, say his attacks are political. 

“I think the motivation is quite clear. Donald Trump sees mail-in balloting as a threat to his re-election, and so he's seeking to dismantle the post office,” Eric Swalwell, a Democratic congressman from California, told The Independent

Mr Trump’s attacks on the USPS, in addition to sweeping changes made by the newly appointed postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, have raised concerns that the increased volume of mail-in ballots will not arrive in time to be counted on election day.

Mr DeJoy, a major donor to Mr Trump before he was selected by the Republican-led USPS board of governors, has defended his changes as essential cost-cutting measures and insisted that all election mail will be delivered on time.

But states have accused the postal service leadership of not helping them prepare for the expected surge in ballots.  

Ballot boxes

These lawsuits and attacks have not been limited to mail-in ballots. Mr Trump has also frequently targeted ballot drop-off boxes — which voters can use to securely drop off their ballots at locations such as schools or libraries to be collected by election officials.

Mirroring his attacks on mail-in ballots, Mr Trump has claimed without evidence that ballot drop-off boxes are vulnerable to fraud and could lead to a rigged election. His campaign has sued to block their expansion in Pennsylvania and other swing states.

On Thursday, the Trump campaign lost that case, dealing a blow to efforts to limit non in-person voting in the state. Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, called the ruling “a win for voters”.

“This case has always been about promoting safe access to the ballot for all eligible voters in the commonwealth, and the court understood the importance of lowering barriers to voting,” he added.

But the cloud of confusion caused by the president’s false claims about mail-in voting could have an impact all on its own. For now, Mr Trump’s stated aim for the USPS to be hobbled in its ability to handle those ballots appears to be working.  

Voter confidence

Even if many of the Trump administration’s attempts to suppress the vote are unsuccessful, they could still have a damaging effect on voter confidence and deter some people from voting.

The unprecedented attacks on the electoral process by the White House have prompted similarly unprecedented warnings from voting rights groups and monitors.  

This year, for the first time in its history, the democracy promotion organisation founded by former president Jimmy Carter is conducting its first United States election mission.

The organisation said the move, which was first revealed by The Independent, was motivated by a growing realisation that “the state of democracy in the US has been eroding”.

“We are now at a point where we have taken an institutional decision to explore some direct engagement on US election issues. And this is a departure from our whole history trying not to do that,” David Carroll, director of the centre’s Democracy Programme, told The Independent.

The centre will focus its attention on public information efforts to address potential drop in voter confidence.  It’s something that other election monitoring experts are concerned about, too. 

In the past, he added, the centre has prioritised countries where there is “a significant potential for an important change in the quality of democracy”, or where democracy is “under severe threat”.

Dame Audrey Glover, a veteran British human rights lawyer who led the 2016 US election mission for the democracy arm of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), recently told The Independent that voter confidence was “absolutely essential” for a free and fair election, and it was at risk.  

“I don't think there's ever been an election quite like this in the United States in recent memory. And one can’t underestimate what might happen on election day,” she said.

“There have been a lot of allegations going around that one hasn’t heard in the past, and I think this is worrying the confidence of the individual in the whole system,” she said, in reference to questions over the integrity of mail-in ballots.

This lack of confidence in the system could deter people from voting, but it could also create a large number of disgruntled voters who do not trust the result, which would bode ill for US democracy. 

Election day

American democracy is facing challenges the likes of which it hasn’t seen before. Mr Trump now refuses to say whether he will leave the White House if he loses the election, and many serious observers fear he will attempt to interfere with the outcome.

Whether that happens depends on election day. Many Democrats believe the president’s attacks on mail-in ballots are a precursor to him attempting to stop them from being counted. Mr Trump may well command a lead in votes on election day, but Mr Biden’s advantage with mail-in ballots – which take longer to count – might not be known for days.

“It is possible that he will say, ‘We should stop counting ballots because all those absentee ballots are illegitimate’,” Trevor Potter, president of the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Centre and former Republican-appointed chairman of the Federal Election Commission, toldThe Washington Post.

“If his supporters believe that, it would be false but unfortunate in terms of the country accepting the credibility of the final election results,” he added.

Hillary Clinton, who lost to Mr Trump in 2016, suggested her former opponent was “messing up absentee balloting” in order to gain “a narrow advantage in the Electoral College on election day”.

“Joe Biden should not concede under any circumstances, because I think this is going to drag out,” she said in an interview on Showtime.

The only way to avoid such a scenario is a convincing victory either way. Specifically, a win for Mr Biden in Florida – which has dealt with huge numbers of mail-in ballots for years and has the capacity to post a result on election day – would all but grant him victory.

An unclear picture on election day would make all of Mr Trump’s attacks on mail-in ballots extremely consequential.  

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