Near the tail end of last week's chaotic debate, President Donald Trump once again raised the specter of widespread election malfeasance.
This has become somewhat routine for Trump, who warned throughout the spring and summer that expanded mail-in voting—an arrangement made necessary by the COVID-19 pandemic—would become a tool for fraudsters. Lately, however, he's turned to suggesting not only that the absentee ballots are vulnerable to fraud but that election officials running the system are part of the supposed scheme. That was the point that Trump drove at on Tuesday night.
"Take a look at West Virginia. Mailmen selling the ballots," he said. "They are being dumped in rivers. This is a horrible thing for our country."
Factually, the president was conflating and exaggerating two different events. In West Virginia, a mailman was convicted earlier this year of altering a handful of absentee ballot applications. Here's the rub: He was caught changing them from Democrat to Republican.
The claim that ballots were found "in rivers"—later Trump also talked about ballots being dumped "in a ditch"—is a little more difficult to nail down. When asked about it on Wednesday, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany declined to provide additional information to support the president's claim. There were three trays of mail found in a ditch in rural Wisconsin last week, which may be what Trump was alluding to. But Wisconsin election officials told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that no absentee ballots were found there.
Trump's exaggerated claims only go so far on their own. Behind the scenes, the Trump campaign and the Republican Party are helping sow the seeds of chaos. In North Carolina, for example, the Trump campaign has written directly to county election officials to ask them to disregard the state's own rules for handling some mail-in ballots, the Associated Press reports. It's a blatant attempt at politicizing one of the most fundamentally objective aspects of democracy: counting votes.
The Trump campaign argues that it is merely trying to ensure a fair election, but the rhetorical and legal attacks on voting suggest otherwise. Trump appears to be laying out a rationale to challenge the results of the election after it's finished, not merely to ensure it is conducted correctly.
The absence of a national conspiracy to rob Republicans of the election does not change the fact that the widespread use of absentee ballots due to COVID-19 is creating some very real challenges for state and local election officials.
In many ways, the mail-in ballot process is actually more secure against the type of fraud that Trump is worried about—ballot boxes being "stuffed" or Republican votes being discarded in rivers en masse—because there is a paper trail for every ballot. That's how we know, for example, that one North Carolina county has been rejecting an abnormally high number of mail-in ballots. Being able to detect those outliers is the first step toward preventing abuse. Rather than being evidence of fraud, those reports actually prove that the system is working as intended.
The real worry is that counting millions of votes cast by mail will simply take a lot longer. That's especially true in some key states—including Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin—where election officials are not allowed to begin opening and counting mailed-in ballots until Election Day itself. There will likely be thousands of votes that remain uncounted until days or even weeks after the election, and that period of uncertainty is potentially made worse by a president who thrives in chaos.
Luckily, most voters seem to have received the message that we may not have a president-elect on Election Day. A Politico/Morning Consult poll published last week found that just 20 percent of voters believe a winner will be declared on November 3, while 66 percent say they expect it to happen later—though most of that group believe the election will take only a few days to resolve. Only 21 percent of voters believe the race will remain unresolved for a week or more.
In the same poll, an outright majority of voters (53 percent) said they were "concerned" about Trump "prematurely declaring victory." Only 33 percent said they were worried Biden would do the same.
If there is a dispute over who won, of course, it will become all the more important that the election system itself is regarded as trustworthy, so Trump's attacks on its legitimacy matter—and the hardball tactics Republicans are using to generate more confusion surrounding Election Day aren't helping.