Donald Trump's main beef against wide use of mail-in ballots is that it creates "a great Voter Fraud scenario," allowing Democrats to "cheat in elections" and deprive Republicans such as himself of their just victories. While the evidence of such a scheme is hard to find, the president recently has voiced a more realistic concern: that a flood of mail-in ballots from Americans worried about visiting polling places in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic will overwhelm vote counters, delay the announcement of results, and create lingering uncertainty about who won.
The experience with the recent primary elections in New York City, which was woefully unprepared to tabulate mail-in ballots, shows this danger is more than a figment of the president's imagination. Six weeks after those elections, the votes are still being counted.
A New York Times story about the fiasco, which it says has fed fears of a "November Nightmare," identifies several problems. Notwithstanding the likelihood that COVID-19 anxiety would result in an unusually large number of mail-in ballots—about 400,000, it turned out—the city's Board of Elections did not have enough workers. Some 34,000 ballots were sent to New Yorkers the day before the June 23 primary, giving them insufficient time to vote. Thousands of ballots were discarded because of "minor errors." Thousands more were not counted because the U.S. Postal Service did a haphazard job of postmarking the prepaid envelopes, which was required to document that ballots were cast before the deadline.
The upshot of this incompetence is that the Democratic candidate in New York's 12th Congressional District, which includes parts of three boroughs (Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn) and is currently represented by Carolyn Maloney, still has not been determined. Her leading challenger, Suraj Patel, currently trails her by a few thousand votes, meaning uncounted ballots could determine the outcome.
Votes also are still being counted in the 15th Congressional District, which includes part of the Bronx and is currently represented by José Serrano, who is not seeking re-election. The uncounted ballots are less likely to be decisive there, since New York City Councilman Ritchie Torres has "a comfortable lead" in the race for the Democratic nomination.
Yesterday a federal judge in Manhattan, responding to a lawsuit by Patel and other plaintiffs, ruled that the Board of Elections must count about 1,200 ballots received the day after the primary "without regard to whether such ballots are postmarked by June 23." U.S. District Judge Analisa Torres also said ballots postmarked by June 25, two days after the election, must be counted. The fate of votes disregarded because of "various small errors," such as ballot envelopes sealed with tape or lacking signatures, remains up in the air.
"This election is a canary in the coal mine," Patel told the Times. One obvious response is increased staffing. "This is logistics," said Democratic political consultant Bruce Gyory. "It isn't rocket science."
During a press conference yesterday, Trump mixed the legitimate concerns raised by New York City's bungling with his fanciful notion that voting by mail, which most states allowed without any special justification even before the pandemic, is a Democratic conspiracy to defeat him and other Republicans. "This was about six weeks ago, and they have no clue what's going on," he said. "They've lost ballots. There's fraudulent ballots….Nobody knows what's happening with the ballots and the lost ballots and the fraudulent ballots, I guess. I think you'd probably have to take the Carolyn Maloney race and run it over again. How can you do this? And this is a small race with literally thousands of people—small thousands—and it's all messed up."
Note that Trump simply assumes the existence of "fraudulent" ballots, which are one of his preemptive excuses for a defeat that looks increasingly likely. "There is no evidence that the New York primary results were tainted by criminal malfeasance, according to a wide array of election officials and campaign representatives," the Times says.
It is true that voting by mail is more vulnerable to fraud than voting in polling places, since the ballots can be stolen. "You can take thousands of ballots, put them together and just dump them down on somebody's desk after a certain period of time," Trump asserted yesterday.
Contrary to Trump's often repeated claims about "totally rigged" voting by mail, however, there is no evidence that the problem is widespread or that it has affected recent election outcomes. "Election fraud in the United States is very rare, but the most common type of such fraud in the United States involves absentee ballots," Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California, Irvine, law school, told the Times in April. "Sensible rules for handling of absentee ballots make sense, not only to minimize the risk of ballot tampering but to ensure that voters cast valid ballots."
When he talks about the potential for fraud, Trump draws an arbitrary distinction between "absentee ballots," which he says are "great," and "universal mail-in ballots," which he says "have turned out to be a disaster." That would be news to the 33 states that have long offered no-excuse absentee ballots, including five where elections are conducted almost entirely by mail.
If the threat of systematic fraud is largely imaginary, so is Trump's belief that he has the power to do something about it. Yesterday a reporter asked him whether "an executive order on this" would be "appropriate." Trump's reply: "Well, I have the right to do it. We haven't gotten there yet, but we'll see what happens." Contrary to Trump's confidence in his own omnipotence, he does not have the authority to dictate voting procedures throughout the country, or to punish states that allow residents to use mail-in ballots by withholding congressionally appropriated funds, which he also has threatened to do.
Judging from historical evidence, Trump's assumption that voting by mail disadvantages Republicans is mistaken, and it is apt to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Washington Post notes that "President Trump's unfounded attacks on mail balloting are discouraging his own supporters from embracing the practice, according to polls and Republican leaders across the country, prompting growing alarm that one of the central strategies of his campaign is threatening GOP prospects in November." Republican officials report that voters are confused by Trump's distinction between good and bad absentee ballots, the Post says, and surveys show "a growing divide between Democrats and Republicans about the security of voting by mail, with Republicans saying they are far less likely to trust it in November."
It looks like Trump is belatedly recognizing the electoral threat posed by his own fulminations. "Florida's Voting system has been cleaned up," he tweeted today, "so in Florida I encourage all to request a Ballot & Vote by Mail!" If Trump's hyperbolic warnings about voting by mail suppress Republican turnout this fall, he will be the unwitting orchestrator of a scheme that did not exist until he started talking about it.
Update: On Tuesday night, the Board of Elections declared Maloney and Torres the winners in their races.