Alan Zendell, July 31, 2020
Americans who were fearful of Trump’s relentless attacks on the Constitution and the Rule of Law, myself among them, have waited for three-and-a-half years for the single act that would tell us how much of a danger he poses to our democracy. With ninety-five days to go until the election, he finally did it. His attempts to incarcerate immigrants and refugees, demonize nonwhite minorities, and destroy the health care of tens of millions of low and middle wage earners were cynical political actions designed as much as anything else, to discredit his predecessor, Barack Obama. They were immoral and insensitive, but they didn’t directly threaten the integrity of our democracy.
Yesterday, Trump did what every observer knew he eventually would if he was trailing in the polls. Following the script written by his fascist idols, he tweeted the idea of postponing November’s election. It’s ironic that the thing he is trying to change involves the one way in which we are most glaringly NOT a democracy – the election of a president. To me, democracy means every citizen has the right to cast the same equal vote, but the Electoral College does not treat all votes equally. The proof of that is the intensity of partisan arguements to retain or abolish it.
The chills we felt reading Trump’s tweet were offset by sighs of relief as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy quickly summoned reporters to remind them that setting the time and manner of federal elections is delegated strictly to the Congress. An 1845 federal law states “that the electors of President and Vice President shall be appointed … on the Tuesday next after the first Monday in the month of November,” unless a state requires additional time to count its votes. An act passed by both houses of Congress is required to change that.
Whether McConnell and McCarthy were drawing a line in the sand they would not allow Trump to cross or simply bowing to the reality that the House would only consider such a change in the event of a dire emergency, both wasted no time in speaking out publicly against the President. But neither McConnell nor McCarthy addressed voter suppression tactics or Trump’s claims that mail-in voting would result in massive fraud and invalidate the election. They were also silent about Trump’s pet Postmaster General who is quietly adding regulations and procedures designed to slow mail processing to the point where we are likely to see huge delays in counting on Election Day.
Trump’s chief talent is creating chaos. Toss a grenade into the process, then walk in and re-arrange the pieces in the way most favorable to him. He’s been successful doing that in business – it’s the only way he knows how to compete. Fairness, honesty, and adherence to laws are not part of his lexicon. That’s why it’s crucial to maintain our perspective for the next three months.
We cannot react every time Trump says or does something outrageous, as he surely will on a daily basis. If we focus on one tree at a time, he’ll burn the entire forest down before we even smell smoke. We also have to be clear about what the issues really are. Rescheduling an election is not inherently bad or immoral. Parliamentary governments do it whenever they think it’s to their advantage, but that’s the point. Ours is not a parliamentary government. The framers of our constitution created a republic with a legislature whose power was theoretically equal to the executive’s.
We should also be clear about mail-in voting. Trump’s claim that it will lead to massive fraud is absurd. Absentee voting, which is identical, has existed since the Civil War. In 155 years, there has never been a serious case of voter fraud when ballots were cast by mail.
That is not to say there won’t be problems. Mail-in voting requires creating massive databases, something that almost never comes off without a hitch the first time. My own state, Maryland, had problems during this year’s primary – both my wife’s ballot and mine were lost in the ether. But their database enabled the Board of Elections to track the ballots sent to every registered voter. A week prior to the submission deadline, they emailed every “delinquent” voter. When we were notified, we drove to the Board’s offices wearing masks, picked up new ballots, filled them out, and dropped them in a collection bin outside the office.
By November, Maryland will have had nine months to gestate the process, and other states will have the benefit of our experience. Will everything go smoothly? We don’t know, but like everything else about living in a pandemic, if our election process is to survive it must adapt. In the unlikely event that there are attempts to rig the election, they will most likely come from the side that is best known for voter suppression.