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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

May 9: Watch Out! Team Trump Setting Up Another Premature Victory Claim

I got a strong sense of deja vu from a comment by Lara Trump this week, and fired off a warning at New York:

A dark specter hanging over the 2024 presidential election is the possibility that Donald Trump will again declare victory on Election Night based on deliberately false accusations about voting by mail. Lest we forget, that was the foundation for all of Trump’s efforts to reverse Joe Biden’s 2020 victory, up to and including the January 6 insurrection: the idea that it was Democrats who “stole” the election by stuffing the ballot box with fabricated mail ballots counted after Election Day had ended (that wasn’t the only phony “fraud” allegation made by Team Trump, but it was the one made most often).

In the run-up to the Trump-Biden rematch, Republicans and the candidate himself have sent mixed signals about the legitimacy of voting by mail, mostly suggesting it’s inherently fraudulent yet encouraging MAGA voters to use it as a sort of fighting-fire-with-fire strategy. But the crucial if totally counterfactual idea that Democrats will look to see how many votes they need on Election Night and just make up enough mail ballots to reverse a Trump victory is being kept alive by Trump’s daughter-in-law, the new Republican National Committee co-chair Lara Trump, in an interview on Fox News. Per Raw Story:

“Republican National Committee co-chair Lara Trump argued Sunday that ballots should not be counted after elections are over.

“’You cannot have ballots counted, Maria, after elections are over,’ Trump opined. ‘And right now, that is one of the many lawsuits we have out across this country to ensure that just that happens, that we have a free, fair, and transparent election.’

“’So in Nevada, as you pointed out, we are saying we want, on election day, that to be the last day that mail-in ballots can be counted,’ she added. ‘And we’ve been very successful in a lot of lawsuits.’”

Taken literally, this argument is absurd. An election isn’t “over” until the votes are counted. Trump’s 2020 victory claim was based on the candidate arbitrarily declaring the election “over,” conveniently, when he was momentarily ahead. Even in the era before widespread voting-by-mail, close elections often weren’t resolved until days or even weeks after Election Day, as anyone who remembers 2000 (or countless other elections with respect to downballot contests) can tell you. Slow counts are sometimes as attributable to safeguards against election fraud as to any sort of funny business.

Lara Trump’s reference to a lawsuit in Nevada, however, suggests a much narrower issue: Nevada is one of 17 states where mail ballots postmarked by Election Day can be counted if they are received by election officials within a specified time. This practice has sometimes been demonized by Republicans seeking conspiracy-theory legitimization for election defeats (notably in 2018, when early GOP leads in California congressional races melted away once late mail ballots were counted). But it raises a question critics of voting-by-mail never seem to answer: When does voting happen in the first place? When a vote is cast or when it is tabulated? If it’s the former, why isn’t the act of filling out, sealing, and placing a ballot in the hands of the U.S. Postal Service as definitive an act of voting as marking a ballot in a polling booth? Arguably the postmark-rather-than-receipt deadline is fairer and more rational at a time (in 2024 as in 2020) when expedient delivery of mail by a troubled USPS is by no means assured.

Of the 17 postmark-deadline states, only two (Nevada plus North Carolina) are likely presidential battleground states, so it won’t be easy for Team Trump to pin an election defeat on that practice. But complaints about Election Day being extended by larcenous Democrats, however bogus, are part of the pall Republicans are trying to cast over the entire 2024 election. If Trump wins, our election system will retroactively become golden in MAGA-land, or perhaps we will be told Trump’s immense popularity will have overcome Democrat and Establishment efforts to count him out. If he loses, the election was “rigged” and patriots need to to un-rig by any means necessary.

We’ve been warned.

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