Throughout the 2020 campaign, President Trump has pursued a strategy to try to keep voter turnout low in the general election, which, conventional wisdom holds, helps Republicans.
On Wednesday, for example, the president made clear that he wanted states to stop counting ballots soon after Election Day, regardless of whether they had been cast legally.
“Hopefully the few states remaining that want to take a lot of time after Nov. 3 to count ballots, that won’t be allowed by the various courts, because you know we’re in courts on that,” Trump told reporters ahead of a campaign rally in Arizona. “We just had a big victory in Wisconsin on that matter, so hopefully that won’t be happening."
Trump was referring to a ruling by the Supreme Court that allowed Wisconsin to discard mail-in ballots postmarked before Nov. 3 but not received by the state until after 8 p.m. on that date. The five Republican-appointed justices all agreed with the decision, which turned in part on the question of federal versus state judicial authority over election procedures. The three liberal justices dissented. A concurring opinion by Trump appointee Brett Kavanaugh said the deadline was necessary “to avoid the chaos and suspicions of impropriety that can ensue if thousands of absentee ballots flow in after Election Day and potentially flip the results of an election.”
States, he wrote, “want to be able to definitively announce the results of the election on election night, or as soon as possible thereafter.”
At the same time, as Yahoo News’ Jon Ward reported Tuesday, Republican officials in some key states are trying to prevent election officials from getting a head start on counting mail-in ballots, or even checking their validity, as they arrive.
In 2016, Trump won Wisconsin by approximately 23,000 votes. This year, in the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, 1.7 million absentee ballots were requested. Of that number, 1.4 million had been returned as of Tuesday, leaving 320,000 ballots yet to be received by state officials.
A Marquette University poll released Wednesday found that while Joe Biden leads Trump by a margin of 48 percent to 43 percent, that lead shrinks to 48 percent to 45 percent when the pollster uses a model that anticipates low voter turnout.
In recent weeks, COVID-19 has hit Wisconsin especially hard. On Monday, the state reached 200,000 cases, with more than half recorded in the previous 36 days. While many states required bars and restaurants to close over the summer, Wisconsin did not, leading to one of the worst outbreaks in the Midwest.
Despite the worsening pandemic, or perhaps because it has resulted in a large spike in mail-in and absentee voting, Republicans have filed hundreds of voting-related lawsuits across the country in recent months. Many of these cases may be headed to the Supreme Court, which now includes Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who could provide a crucial vote siding with the president’s party.
But the court can be unpredictable. Before Barrett’s appointment, it deadlocked 4-4 on a case concerning Pennsylvania election law, letting stand a lower court’s ruling that votes could be tallied up to three days after Nov. 3, even if they lack a legible postmark. With Barrett in a position to tip the balance of the high court, Republicans sought to have it reconsider the case.
Late on Wednesday, their petition was denied by a 5-3 vote. Barrett, who joined the court only on Monday, did not participate, but the case could still come before the court in time to affect the outcome in Pennsylvania, a crucial state for both parties.
In Texas, meanwhile, where a surge of Democratic voters in urban areas like Houston has helped put the state in play, Republicans have targeted drive-through voting in Harris County, a procedure enacted to help people vote safely during the pandemic.
In a year when many states will set early voting records, Texas is leading the way. Nearly 8 million Texans had voted as of Tuesday, which is, astonishingly, almost 90 percent of the state’s total 2016 turnout. Polls show Trump with a lead among voters who plan to vote in person on Nov. 3, while Biden leads among those who have voted or plan to vote early.
In many ways, Trump’s efforts to make voting harder are simply a continuation of a long-running battle between Democrats, who have for years pushed to expand voting rights, and Republicans, who seek to restrict access to the ballot.
Former President Barack Obama, whose 2008 victory was propelled by a surge in the percentage of Americans who voted, has been highlighting this divide as he campaigns for Biden in states like Pennsylvania and Florida.
“Usually, no more than half the people that could be voting vote. We get 50, 55 percent of people voting and then people say, ‘Aw, look, you know, not enough change happened.’ Well, imagine what would happen if 60 percent voted. What about 70 percent?” Obama said last week at a drive-in rally in Philadelphia.
Trump, meanwhile, has regularly attacked mail-in voting — the category expected to see the biggest increase this year thanks to the pandemic — as prone to fraud.
“Big problems and discrepancies with the Mail In Ballots all over the USA,” Trump wrote in an Oct. 26 tweet flagged by Twitter as “misleading.” “Must have final total on November 3rd.”
There is no constitutional requirement for a “final total” on Election Day. The Electoral College, which actually chooses the president, meets on Dec. 14, and the “safe harbor” deadline for states to certify their electors is Dec. 8. And there is little evidence, apart from a few scattered anecdotes, to support the claim of “big problems and discrepancies,” election officials across the country say.
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