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The Nightmare Scenario of the Coming Election

Medical experts are certain that Covid-19 will return in the fall, compounded by the regular flu season, setting off a new wave of illness and death if Americans slack off in distancing and masking, the latter a practice they have so far not adopted.

In the midst of this comes the presidential election on November 3rd. A debate rages as to whether it is sensible to require people to gather at polling stations where they must wait on lines, walking through each other's wake, ultimately to touch screens and devices that others have handled before them. Why not make mail-in ballots available to everyone?

The Republican reaction to that proposition has been apoplectic, with President Trump in the lead. They are waging a battle against voting by
Ballots at the post office

mail using the claim that absentee ballots are subject to fraud. Historically, there has been vanishingly small cheating to back up this claim, but given an election in which the incumbent is either feverishly adored or icily despised, we should perhaps make allowances for an increase this year.

What can be given no allowance is the dishonest claim that voter fraud is the reason for Republican alarm. (If fraud were the problem, wouldn't that threaten both parties?) Rather, the fear — so obvious that the fraud claim is ridiculed — is increased turnout. The Party has worked doggedly to hinder or prevent access to the polls by blocs that it perceives vote Democratic — blacks, Latinos, college students. And now, suddenly, along comes a threat to make it easier for them to vote by simply mailing in a ballot. Those extra votes from people who would have found it difficult or costly to go to a polling place would, for Trump, who thinks out loud and gives the plot away, cause "levels of voting that, if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again”. Other Party members have also let slip that their real fear is the higher turnout made possible by vote-by-mail, denouncing it as "devastating to Republicans", said the speaker of the Georgia House. "Universal vote by mail would be the end of our republic as we know it," said Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.).

if it ain't "fixed"

Nevertheless, herculean steps need be taken to assure a clean election with control of the House, Senate and presidency at stake, not so much because we like the notion that our elections are honest as because with Donald Trump we have the first president ever who, if he loses, will assuredly say the election was rigged and has even made comments suggesting he would incite his followers to take to the streets. In an interview with Breitbart, and not the only instance, he said:

"I can tell you I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump — I have the toughest people, but they don't play it tough — until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad".

In the event of a disputed election, we could see the most violent civil turmoil in our lifetimes and a threat to trust in this democracy — all because Mr. Trump insists on winning. As evinced in many opinion pieces, there is genuine worry that Trump will even resist being removed from office should he lose. He has already begun laying the groundwork, planting in the minds of his base that mail-in balloting means the election results will have been fixed. A California plan to expand mail-in voting would lead to a "Rigged Election", he tweeted.

A straight-as-string election won't stop him from orchestrating protests and spurring violence, but at least he will be robbed of any believable evidence when he begins planting in the minds of his base in advance of the election that mail-in balloting means the results will have been rigged by the fraud imaginings he is now promoting.

the coming deluge

States are scrambling to prepare for what is expected to be an onslaught of applications for absentee ballots. People fearful of going to polling places are matched by poll workers who will quit rather than be exposed to hundreds of voters who may, in the predicted fall wave, be asymptomatic but unknowingly spreading the disease. Governors who wish to avoid the shambles of Wisconsin's spring elections need to take notice that in Milwaukee 180 polling places were reduced to 5 because poll workers were too afraid.

Five states — Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and even dark red Utah- now have all-mail elections. Ballots are sent to every registered voter without need to request. In 28 others, including most of the swing states, voters can ask for an absentee ballot for any reason. In Arizona and California, voters can add themselves permanently to a list of mail voters. There are cases tilted to the right, like Nebraska, which allows counties of less than 10,000 people to mail ballots to all voters (where Republicans predominate) but forbids mail-in voting in large urban areas (where Democrats predominate). Texas allows no-excuse absentee voting for people 65 or older, another group that skews Republican. It should be recognized that millions of ballots have been mailed in dozens of elections without serious fraud. In the 2016 election, nearly a quarter of all votes were by mail.


Absentee ballots are not simply printed sheets of paper anyone can fill out. Different states have developed numerous security methods. Counterfeiting is discouraged because the paper for the ballots and envelopes needs to be of a grade that takes ink so as to scan correctly. Bar codes enable tracking delivery of ballots sent in envelopes that, in turn, contain certified mail return envelopes, also with bar codes. Bar or QR codes assigned to individual registered voters mean ballots cannot be used with conflicting names. Ballots must be signed. Poll workers are trained in comparing them to signatures on file. Signatures evolve over time, so the training looks more at the slant of writing and the shape of pen movements than identical matches.

In Colorado, an all-by-mail state, voters can ask for a text message when their ballot is mailed, when it is returned, and when it has been counted. Suspicious activity in that state in the 2018 mid-terms measured 0.0027%. Oregon tallies that it has sent 100 million ballots by post since 2000 with fewer than a dozen cases of fraud.

These are best practices and, to be sure, are not followed by all states. The weak link is the practice of "ballot harvesting", whereby nearly half the states allow someone other than the voter to collect and turn in ballots. This is meant to aid the elderly or handicapped who have difficulty going to a post office. Donald Trump foresees that…

“thousands of votes are gathered, and they come in, and they’re dumped in a location, and then, all of a sudden, you lose elections you think you’re going to win.”

Neal Kelley, the registrar of California's Orange County said that in the 2018 mid-terms "People were carrying in stacks of 100 and 200 of them", which hardly sounds like a neighbor helping the infirm occupant next door.

The most notorious case in that year was in North Carolina where a Republican operative was convicted for paying workers to collect ballots, even filling in those that had been left blank. It resulted in an election re-run in which the Democrat overturned the Republican "winner".

There are simple remedies. Limit the number of ballots to a half dozen or so that any one person can turn in. Besides, for conspirators to mount the scenario that Trump pretends to fear, which is to sway an election on anything above a county councilman or sheriff, it would take enormous quantities of forged ballots which in turn require recruiting a virtual army of co-conspirators, not one revealing the caper, all willing to commit a federal crime, each facing a $10,000 fine and five years in prison, and for what — a thank you from some politician?

ballot battle

The illogic of ballot harvesting is thus exposed, as is the falsity of Republicans fighting state measures to expand vote-by-mail for that professed reason. In coming months we will see fights break out and law suits filed over trifles whose real purpose is to stall or block change. Should voters be able to request an absentee ballot online instead of by mail (many states don’t allow this)? In a time of distancing, should ballots need witness signatures (as North Carolina, Wisconsin, and other states mandate)? There's controversy over whether ballots postmarked by Election Day should count or only ballots received by Election Day — which could really matter if millions more people vote by mail and the underfunded U.S. Postal Service becomes overwhelmed.

President Trump has weighed in. Hearing that Michigan and Nevada sent vote-by-mail ballots to residents, he called it illegal, without basis, and threatened to withhold federal funds from the states. Trump tweeted,

Republicans should fight very hard when it comes to state wide mail-in voting. Democrats are clamoring for it. Tremendous potential for voter fraud and for whatever reason, doesn't work out well for Republicans."

States should eliminate the need to apply for an absentee ballot, cutting a step — and its cost — from the back and forth. That could pay the return postage for ballots in this digital age when younger generations tend not to have stamps and, with the deadline upon them, can't be bothered. States could eliminate altogether the need to apply for an absentee ballot, cutting a step — and its cost — from the back and forth.

Stanford University just released the most extensive study to date about whether one party benefits disproportionately from voting by mail. Analyzing absentee voting from 1996 to 2018, they found mail-in voting increased turnout but did confer an advantage on one party over the other. Democrats didn't profit after all, in no small measure because mail boosts participation by rural and senior voters. Both tend to vote Republican.

But Republican minds are made up. House Democrats want $4 billion to help states enable online and same-day voter registration, to pay for prepaid postage on mail-in ballots, to make 15 consecutive days the minimum of early voting. Senate Democrats have proposed a similar, $3.6 billion plan. But standing astride the final gate is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) who will say Congress should not dictate state election rules and allow no bill to go to the floor.

all of which is beside the point

With about 150 days remaining until the election, printers say that orders for ballots and envelopes need to be placed sooner than states will enact any legislation to expand mail-in voting. A New York Times magazine piece by Yale Law's Emily Bazelon reported that printers warned that they were already at capacity for November by serving their regular vote-by-mail states like California and Colorado. To expand would require costly equipment needing months to obtain and underwritten by no orders from slow-moving states and counties. Richard Gebbie, chief executive of Midwest Presort Mailing Services and president of his industry's national association, told Bazelon:

“For example, the machine that folds and inserts the ballot into the envelope can cost up to $1 million. It normally takes 90 days to order one piece of gear. Then you have to get it installed and check everything, because the security and quality control has to be very, very high.”

And then states will need to train workers to evaluate ballots and buy scanners to handle the increased load.

And as the final coup de grâce, there sits Trump — the enemy of using the Postal Service for voting — insisting that the agency hike package delivery rates to a level guaranteed to destroy its only profitable business (see our "Trump Makes His Move to Cripple U.S. Postal Service"), failing which he will, he says, not authorize $10 billion in pandemic relief to an essential agency that will be bankrupt come September.

game over

Spread on 50 states, all these problems not getting fixed will in sum amount to mass disenfranchisement, and become yet another calamitous outcome of the pandemic. Republicans working to thwart Democratic efforts to reconfigure the election to better fir today's exceptional circumstances will find themselves strangely in league with a force of nature that measures no more than 120 billionths of an inch.

If that results in a close and contested election, the results could be ruinous. Edward Foley, a law professor at Ohio State University, posed a question to the Times in April:

“Is the nation really ready, 20 years after Bush v. Gore, for President Trump’s re-election bid to turn on a 5-4 ruling from a Supreme Court whose composition is questioned by some because Trump, rather than President Obama, appointed Justice Scalia’s successor after the Senate left that seat vacant for so long?”

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