Imagine this election night scenario: With a decisive number of mail ballots yet to be tallied, President Donald Trump enjoys a narrow lead over Joe Biden. But before all the votes can be counted — a process that could take days — Trump declares victory, citing purported irregularities with mail-in votes.
You can even picture Trump insisting that the preliminary election night tally must stand as final with a tweet that reads similarly to this one he posted in November 2018, when Florida’s US Senate and gubernatorial elections were still undecided:
The Florida Election should be called in favor of Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis in that large numbers of new ballots showed up out of nowhere, and many ballots are missing or forged. An honest vote count is no longer possible-ballots massively infected. Must go with Election Night!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 12, 2018
It might be hard to fathom that sort of authoritarian power grab happening here in the United States, but it’s a scenario that election experts are worried about.
“That is my nightmare scenario,” said Paul Gronke, professor of political science at Reed College in Portland and director of the Early Voting Information Center. “We gotta slow down. Trump’s gonna be tweeting, the media, you, all of your counterparts, have to slow down. Because he’ll claim victory, or he’ll start to claim malfeasance and fraud, lawyers will be climbing into airplanes and arriving in all these small jurisdictions, and it will be not good.”
Gronke’s concern was echoed by Ari Berman, a senior reporter at Mother Jones and author of Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America.
“Trump is still trying to tell his voters that they should vote in person, and Democrats are telling their voters that they should vote by mail,” Berman said. “And mail ballots take longer to count then in-person ballots. So you could very much have a situation where the initial returns make it seems like Republicans are way up, because the mail ballots that are largely cast by Democrats haven’t been counted yet.”
“If you had a situation where Republicans are up and Democrats take the lead based on mail ballots, even if that’s a totally normal situation, Trump is absolutely going to try to weaponize that, and claim it’s evidence of some sort of voter fraud or rigged election,” he warned.
Winners, of course, don’t usually whine about the rules while a contest is ongoing. But Trump has been trailing presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden in polls for months. And with the interlocking public health and economic crises stemming from the coronavirus not trending in a positive direction, using the levers of state power to delegitimize election results would be a desperation play.
“You know, you could have a case where this election won’t be decided on the evening of November 3,” Trump told Axios’s Jonathan Swan in an interview that aired on HBO last week. Asked why that’s a problem — after all, there’s no rule that elections have to be decided on election night — Trump said, “lots of things will happen during that period of time; especially when you have tight margins, lots of things going to happen.”
Then, during a media availability on Sunday, Trump claimed that Democrats are using mail ballots to try and “steal an election.”
Trump is preemptively laying the groundwork to challenge a loss to Joe Biden by accusing the Democrats of trying to “steal an election” with mail voting pic.twitter.com/l9bdYrN2r7
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) August 10, 2020
Experts worry that — as is so often the case with Trump — those comments are actually projection.
Since the coronavirus pandemic began to seriously disrupt American life in March, Trump has been conspiracy-mongering about mail voting, tweeting things like it’ll result in a “CORRUPT ELECTION” and the “SCANDAL OF OUR TIMES.” In a remarkable July 30 tweet, Trump went as far as to suggest that the election should be delayed until people can safely vote in person.