Analysis

If Trump Is Trying to Steal the Election, It’s Not Working

The president’s allegations aren’t being taken seriously by election officials and the courts.

Donald Trump
American president Donald Trump boards Marine One outside the White House in Washington DC, July 31, 2020 (White House/Tia Dufour)

More than a month ago, I warned Donald Trump would try to steal the American election by depressing Democratic turnout, discounting postal ballots, changing the outcome in the Electoral College and possibly throwing the election to Congress.

Now that he has lost, and few elected Republicans are repeating his lie that Democrats stole the election, it seems that — hopefully for the last time — I overestimated Trump’s ability to put autocratic words into action.

Depress Democratic turnout

This year’s presidential election was the first in forty years in which Republicans didn’t need to ask permission from a judge to carry out so-called “ballot security” operations.

My fear was that (armed) Trump supporters would show up at polling places in Democratic neighborhoods to intimidate voters, just like off-duty cops did in New Jersey in 1981, which prompted the forty-year consent decree.

This didn’t happen on the scale I feared. Republicans recruited some 50,000 volunteers in fifteen swing states to monitor polling places. By and large, they followed the rules. Trump’s lies notwithstanding, they were given the access they are entitled to under the law, including to monitor the counting of votes. (Democrats and nonpartisan organizations also had poll watchers across the country.)

Another way to depress turnout is to wrongly “purge” voter registrations: remove people from the lists, supposedly because they have moved out of state or died.

Republicans did this in Georgia in 2018. As many as 200,000 voters were disenfranchised. Many were black, a constituency that tends to vote Democratic. This almost certainly made the difference in the gubernatorial election that year. Republican secretary of state Brian Kemp beat Democrat Stacey Abrams by around 55,000 votes.

We don’t know yet if voter purges had a similar effect this year, but both Senate elections in Georgia were so close that they had to go to a runoff and the Biden-Trump contest in the state is still too close to call.

Other examples of voter suppression are the Republican state government of Florida requiring former felons to pay all their outstanding legal fees before they could vote and the Republican state government of Texas making only one drop-off box available for early voting ballots in each county, so that Harris County, which includes the city of Houston and has a population of 4.7 million, had as many drop-off boxes as Loving County, with a population of 134.

Former felons are more likely to vote Democratic. Urban voters are more likely to vote Democratic than rural voters.

It probably didn’t influence the outcome in Texas, where the margin between Biden and Trump was 650,000. But it may have in Florida, where the presidential election was decided by under 400,000 votes. The same number of former felons were unable to register this year, because the state couldn’t tell them how much they needed to pay.

Throw out postal ballots

Trump — despite voting my mail himself — disparaged postal voting, claiming, without evidence, that it is prone to fraud. Many Republicans took him seriously and voted on election day. Most Democrats did not and voted early to avoid lines and crowded polling places in the middle of a pandemic.

Because some states, like Pennsylvania, require election-day votes to be counted before postal ballots, we saw what political scientists dubbed a “red mirage” on election night: Trump was initially ahead before Biden overtook him in a “blue shift”.

Trump prematurely declared himself the winner and demanded that election officials and volunteers stop counting votes on election night. They ignored him.

Trump’s campaign sued in several states to stop the vote count. They haven’t won anywhere. Legal experts see little merit in the cases. Trump’s campaign is demanding a recount in Wisconsin but can’t seem to find $3 million to pay for one.

The point isn’t simply to get votes for Biden thrown out, which would be difficult; it is to draw the process out until early December, when states must name their members of the Electoral College. Trump could still accomplish that.

Appoint alternative electors

December 8 is the so-called “safe harbor” deadline for appointing the 538 men and women who will formally elect the president and vice president in the Electoral College. They don’t meet until six days later, on December 14, but Congress must accept their credentials before they do, hence the earlier deadline.

The Constitution leaves it up to the states to decide how to appoint their electors. The Supreme Court, in the contentious 2000 election, confirmed that state governments have the right to “take back the power to appoint electors” from voters.

The Atlantic reported before the election that the Trump campaign was discussing such a scenario with Republican state officials. But Republicans in Pennsylvania, who control the state legislature, have pushed back and legal scholars point out that the Supreme Court reversed itself earlier this year, when it ruled against so-called faithless electors; members of the Electoral College who don’t vote for the winner in their state. Even if Team Trump tried to go down this route, they might not get far.

Fight it out in Congress

That makes it even less likely that Congress will get involved.

If no candidate wins a majority in the Electoral College, or if Democratic governors and Republican state legislatures in swing states, such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, appoint dual slates of electors, the new Congress would need to decide the outcome on January 6. But since Democrats are still in the majority in the House of Representatives and Republicans in the Senate — at least until the January 5 runoffs in Georgia — that might not resolve anything.

It is unclear how a tie in the Senate, which would happen if Democrats won both Georgia runoffs, would be resolved.

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