President Trump floated the idea of postponing the November 3 election. An outcry ensued, which is not surprising after one of his tweets, but this time all shades of the political spectrum denounced the idea. Republicans, Democrats, academics, columnists, constitutional lawyers all agreed that the president cannot postpone the election. A congressional law sets it, and it would take another law, not a presidential edict, to change it. Furthermore, the responders all agreed that the election date should not be changed. Even during the Civil War and World War II, elections went on as scheduled, and our present problems are not bigger than those of the past.  

          Trump may not have been concerned about the disagreements; he may only have been trying to generate an outcry. On the day of Trump’s postponement tweet, John Lewis’s funeral was being held. And then numbers were dropped that showed the economy in a historical freefall. With a positive portrayal of someone else and news that damaged reelection possibilities, Trump, being Trump, had to get people talking about him. He accomplished that. Trump may be ignorant of many things, but he, like a crying baby, knows how to focus attention on himself.

          Trump’s tweet, however, did something more. Even though several states have for years successfully conducted their elections largely without in-person voting, Trump suggested that the election be postponed until balloting could be done without the massive fraud that he says is sure to ensue from the expected wide use of mail-in ballots during the pandemic. This is a continuation of conservative cries of electoral fraud generally. Proof is not presented of the fraud claims, but it is not necessary. Eliminating the nonexistent false ballots has not been the goal. Instead, the fraud assertions lay the groundwork for advancing measures making it harder for some to vote. We may claim that ours is a democracy, or a representative democracy, but some partisans would like fewer people voting. “Voter fraud,” they shout. “We must have voter ID laws” . . . and fewer people will vote. “Fraud,” they shout. “We can’t have same day registration” . . . and fewer people will vote. “Fraud,” they shout. “We can’t have expanded early voting” . . . and fewer people will vote. “Fraud, they shout. “We can’t have a mail-in election” . . .and fewer people will vote. Our experience shows we have little voter fraud. However, our experience shows that there will be attempts to suppress the vote of certain groups, by those citing the prevention of voter fraud, no matter what methods of voting we use.

Condemn Trump if you want for his remarks about moving election day, but don’t let his provocation shift the focus from assuring an election that allows us to vote easily and equally in these difficult times. If a state plans to rely on mail-in ballots, an understandable choice during the pandemic, and you believe in our democracy, work to make sure that all who want or need these ballots get them in a timely fashion; that the requirements for filling them out are clear and simple; and that there are good methods for their timely return. We should not just concentrate on postponement tweets; instead, concentrate on good ballot design and post office performance. And then consider the best ways for efficiently and securely tabulating the results.

For in-person voting, we need to make sure that there are sufficient polling places with enough workers so that people can cast their votes easily. Each election we see voting queues that are hours long. These scenes should embarrass all who say they are proud to be an American. And, of course, these lines, surprise, surprise, are disproportionately centered in certain kinds of neighborhoods. All votes are supposed to count the same in this country. They don’t if in some places voters have to endure hours of standing or sitting to cast a ballot while other voters don’t. It should take no longer to vote in the city of Atlanta than in an affluent suburb of Atlanta, and we should be working to make that happen.

          Trump, however, was probably not so much attempting to postpone an election as laying groundwork for undermining the upcoming election. This should be a difficult task because no studies have shown that mail-in ballots disfavor Republicans. Indeed, in the present world, a mail-in election could favor the conservatives. Studies have shown that mail is more often misdelivered or not delivered in poor and minority areas, and if we have cutbacks in the coronavirus aid, we can expect a wave of evictions. People living in their cars or doubled or tripled up with relatives or friends or in shelters are highly unlikely to get their mail even if they make the effort to have it forwarded. With a mail-in election, slews of people may be effectually disenfranchised, and I doubt that these disenfranchises are disproportionately Trump supporters. A widespread dependence on mail-in ballots in a world of evictions could help Trump. Even so, Trump will want to be able to shout, or at least, tweet “unfair and illegitimate” if he loses the election. He is laying the groundwork to undermine the legitimacy of the voting.

(concluded August 7)

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