Fears of voter suppression focused on mail-in ballots appear to have receded somewhat, even as generalized fears of electoral disruption — even outright theft — have grown.
“Get rid of the ballots,” Donald Trump said on Sept.23. “[T]here won’t be a transfer [of power.]”
He was ranting against “unsolicited mail-in ballots,” but nobody’s concentrating on that — and for two good reasons: First, because it’s overshadowed by the larger threat of Trump’s refusal to leave office, and second, because it just doesn’t make any sense.
Trump’s latest bogeyman, “unsolicited mail-in ballots” is only found in nine states, only one of which — Nevada — is remotely possible for Trump to win. There, the Trump campaign sued to block a new law automatically mailing ballots to all registered voters. The federal court simply dismissed the case for lack of standing.
But solicited mail-in ballots clearly are a problem for Trump, as shown by SurveyMonkey data from June 8 through Sept. 21. Those who strongly disapprove of Trump were 74 percent likely to vote by mail versus 25 percent unlikely, while those who strongly approve were the reverse: 77 percent unlikely vs 23 percent likely.
Similarly, a just-released Times/Siena poll of Pennsylvania found Biden leading Trump 75-18 percent among voters who’ve requested an absentee ballot (about one in three) and trailing Trump by 8 points among those who haven’t. Biden leads by 9 points overall.
So, disrupting mail-in voting — increasing the number of votes that don’t get counted — is clearly a high priority for Trump. And it’s grown more difficult for Trump with a series of three federal court rulings ordering the U.S. Postal Service to halt changes implemented by GOP mega-donor Louis DeJoy that have delayed mail delivery nationwide.
In short, Trump’s war on mail-in ballots isn’t focused on the nine states that actually have unsolicited ones, but on fueling false narratives and mass confusion in the general public, outrage in his base, and discouragement in his opposition, while providing cover for additional shenanigans in the states that will matter most — particularly the three Rust-belt states he narrowly and surprisingly won in 2016 — Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.
But Trump trails in all three, by margins that seem too large for all his disruption to erase, especially as Democrats have shifted focus to a multi-option strategy: vote-by-mail, by drop-box, early in-person voting or voting on election day. One indication of success was the long lines of voters on the first day of early voting in Virginia on Sept. 18.
Using 538 and Real Clear Politics averages, Trump is trailing by 4.8 to 5 percent in Pennsylvania, by 5.2 to 7 percent in Michigan, and 6.9 to 7percent in Wisconsin. He’s also trailing in four states he hadn’t counted on needing to worry about: Florida by 1.3 to 1.8 percent, Ohio by 1.1 to 3percent, Arizona by 3.4 to 3.7 percent and North Carolina by 0.8 to 1.3 percent. Disruption of voting could more easily wipe out Biden’s leads in most of this second set of states.
Ohio is noteworthy, since it first reports early votes, which Biden will dominate, then Election Day votes, which will favor Trump. Trump is expected to lead at this point, and Ohio doesn’t report its mail-in ballots until 10 days later. So, if the election does come down to Ohio, expect the mother of all nail-biters.
But odds are that if Ohio is that close, Biden will have already won. It’s a very tall order to block 10percent of Biden’s vote or more, which is what Trump would need to prevail in those three must-win states. So, let’s look at what’s happening in each of them. Republicans control the gerrymandered state legislatures in all three, so there’s been no legislative help in protecting voters or ballots during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In Pennsylvania, a key focus has been the requirement to mail your ballot inside a secrecy envelope — the result of a GOP victory in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Sept. 17, stoking fears that tens of thousands of votes could be thrown out. But Democrats won something in that decision, too: it allowed county election boards to have drop boxes to collect ballots and extended the deadline to count mail-in ballots postmarked on Election Day but received after.
“It’s very concerning because we can see 30,000 to 40,000 ballots that can very likely be thrown out, just in Philadelphia,” Philadelphia City Commissioner Lisa Deeley told BuzzFeed News.
But that same story went on to note:
“The ruling has inspired partisan nonprofits to organize.”
One organization cited, the Philadelphia-based Committee of Seventy, could reach a half-million voters with its voter outreach campaign, WeVote, according to its president, David Thornburgh.
Wisconsin is even more chaotic — but with a 2 percent larger polling average in favor of Biden. In April, Wisconsin had a 1.8 percent rejection rate for absentee ballots, which could be even worse due to late-arriving ballots in November. Usually, Wisconsin absentee ballots are counted only if clerks have them by election day. But, on September 21, U.S. District Judge William Conley ruled they should be counted if postmarked by Election Day, and received within six days — by Nov. 9.
According to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel: “Conley provided the extension because of the coronavirus pandemic, a surge in mail voting and recent problems with delivering mail on time.” Six days later the U.S. Court of Appeals put Conley’s order on hold–but only for two days until it released its decision that Republicans challenging Conley’s order–including state lawmakers–lacked standing to challenge it, because it did not directly harm them.
The state election agency is doing what it can, despite GOP legislative refusal to make the process more efficient in the face of COVID 19. It has sent absentee voting guidelines and applications to 2.6 million registered voters and implemented intelligent mail barcodes to track ballot envelopes through the postal system. Witness requirements were a major problem in April, which jurisdictions like Milwaukee and Madison dealt with using a “drive-up drop off” system, having election inspectors collect and witness absentee ballots outside polling places without voters leaving their cars.
Madison has gone even further for the general election, with its “Democracy in the Parks” program, kicked off last Saturday, at more than 200 locations, where poll workers helped people register to vote or request absentee ballots, served as witnesses for those who with absentee ballots, and collected them once completed. More than 10,800 ballots were collected in all. But mail delays could easily disenfranchise an equal or greater number in November. The early vote doesn’t begin until Oct. 20.
Michigan faces a tsunami of mail-in ballots. In the August primary, 1.6 million out of 2.5 million voted absentee. In November, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s office is predicting 3 million absentee ballots, of which nearly 2.4 million have already been requested. To handle this massive influx, Michigan Election Clerks, a bipartisan association, asked for legislation allowing a seven-day pre-processing period before Election Day. Instead, the Republican-dominated legislature passed a bill allowing just 10 hours. Benson called it a “step in the right direction” that “does not go nearly far enough.”
To work around such limitations, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan has announced that he will basically be shutting down city government for two days in order to place all city employees at the city clerk’s disposal to handle the flood of ballots. But it remains to be seen how many other jurisdictions will also step up—as well as how many ballots will be thrown out.
Currently, clerks must accept any ballots postmarked no later than the day before the election, and received 14 days after it, according to a court ruling that Republicans are trying to overturn on appeal. Like Conley’s ruling in Wisconsin, they stand a good chance of success, so the number of votes that will go uncounted is anybody’s guess. But, requested absentee ballots are already being sent out, and Detroit has already set up 30 drop-boxes for quick returns.
“We made sure that every district in Detroit is well-represented with a dropbox and a voting center,” Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey said, according to The Detroit News. “We did not just seek the high voter turnout areas, but we also did the low voter turnout areas.”
There are similar stories in the other battleground states mentioned — Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio, etc. Beyond that, in Texas, the Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton has repeatedly tried to block Harris County (including Houston) from simply sending vote-by-mail instructions to every registered voter!
He’s lost repeatedly in both state and federal court but has not exhausted his appeals. That’s typical of how Republicans, following Trump’s lead, are simultaneously spreading fears of chaos, and refusing to do anything constructive. Meanwhile, Democrats are doing all they can to help people vote safely, smoothly and securely.
Vote-by-mail — once dominated by Republicans — is a critical component of this effort. But the real story is about preserving options and providing voters with everything they need.