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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

July 31: Trump’s Ultimate Strategy on Voting By Mail

An ominous series of strategic moves from Donald Trump began to dawn on me, and I wrote about it for New York:

The president is getting a lot of much-deserved negative attention for his weird little tweet  suggesting that the 2020 election should be delayed — up to and including a co-founder of the Federalist Society saying that it was “fascistic” and merited a new impeachment proceeding. But considering how rapidly the idea is being repudiated by everyone in both parties, it’s likely Trump was simply adding fuel to the fire of his relentless campaign to stigmatize voting by mail, which he continued in an afternoon press conference. And it’s increasingly apparent that he has a two-pronged strategy in doing this, based on the strong likelihood that even if all the experts mock his claims about voting by mail, Republican voters will listen, setting up a strange dual election in which one party’s voters disproportionately show up on Election Day while the others disproportionately vote by mail.

One reason he might want to do this is highlighted by David Wasserman in a column warning that mail ballots are always more likely to be invalidated than in-person ballots, with the disparity skyrocketing this year:

“The real danger is a perfect catastrophe of administrative overload, postal delays and voter error that could lead to millions of absentee ballots not counting. And this year, unlike the past, those ballots are likely to be overwhelmingly Democratic … An extensive study by Charles Stewart III, director of MIT’s Election Data and Science Lab, estimates the true number of uncounted mail ballots in 2016 was … 1.4 million — 4 percent of all mail ballots cast.

“’Voting by mail is twice as involved administratively than voting in person,” Stewart said. “If problems arise in mail voting, it’s twice as hard to correct them than it is in person. And first-time voters are more likely to have their ballots rejected.’”

And that’s in a normal year, when you don’t have the number of people trying to vote by mail — many of them in states totally unaccustomed to this phenomenon — spiked by fears of contracting a deadly virus, and/or by inadequate in-person voting infrastructure in their neighborhoods (especially minority neighborhoods). As Wasserman observes, the record of states handling mail ballots in this year’s primaries has been ominous:

“[I]n pandemic-era primaries, rejection rates have been even higher, as ill-equipped and understaffed election offices strain to meet surging demand for mail ballots from voters inexperienced with casting them.

“In Wisconsin, over 9,000 requested ballots were never mailed to voters and 23,000 absentees (more than 2 percent) were rejected. In Kentucky’s Fayette County, the state’s second largest, 8 percent of absentees were tossed out. And in parts of New York City, upward of 20 percent of absentees have been flagged as invalid.”

If big majorities of these mail ballots are being cast by Democrats, then Democrats will lose votes they would otherwise harvest. And in a close election, that could be decisive, or at least muddy the waters.

And speaking of muddy waters, there appears to be a second prong of Trump’s strategy, which I have written about before:

“In most states, Election Day results are reported first (and in all states they are counted before late-arriving mail ballots and provisional ballots, both of which already tend to skew Democratic). So if Republicans are disproportionately voting in person and Democrats are disproportionately voting by mail, misleading early returns may show Trump and other Republicans doing much better than they will eventually do, enabling Trump to claim fraud when those evil mail ballots turn it all around for Biden and his Democrats.

“Anyone doubting this is a plausible scenario needs to look back to 2018, when Republican congressional leaders Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy made specious claims of voter fraud when late-arriving mail ballots predictably shifted the results in key House races in California. It could have been a dress rehearsal for what might happen this November.”

And it’s with this scenario in mind that an even later tweet by Trump today should be viewed, in which he said: “Must know Election results on the night of the Election, not days, months or even years later!”

After having this message beaten into their brains by Trump for weeks on end, MAGA folk — and for that matter, election officials in Republican-controlled states and counties — will be very inclined to view mail-ballot-dominated later returns as fraudulent, just as POTUS keeps saying they are. I don’t know exactly what Trump will do with the toxic atmosphere he might create with Election Night claims of total victory based on relatively small fractions of the ultimate vote. Maybe it would spawn litigation, or violence in the streets, or even schemes for Republican legislatures to begin naming electors since the popular vote is “disputed.”

Either way, by hook or by crook, a partisan split in methods of voting may give Trump an unearned advantage he’ll really need in November.

Now that they have the whip hand in coronavirus stimulus negotiations in Washington, it would be a good time for congressional Democrats to make the new funds ($3.6 billion) for election assistance a must-have priority. Perhaps more competent election administration can cut down on the number of mail ballots invalidated on minor technical grounds. And surely improving the sense that we are holding a fully legitimate election that maximizes the opportunity to vote will help silence those from the White House on down who will seize on uncertainties to cry havoc.

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