Unhinged as it may be for the president to accuse, without a scintilla of evidence, a morning television host of murder, that particular conspiracy theory was not the most disturbing accusation to issue from Trump’s Twitter feed this week. No, that prize goes to his tweet from 26 May, claiming:
There is NO WAY (ZERO!) that Mail-In Ballots will be anything less than substantially fraudulent. Mail boxes will be robbed, ballots will be forged & even illegally printed out & fraudulently signed … This will be a Rigged Election. No way!
The president’s defamation of Joe Scarborough is no more than an extreme version of something we have seen throughout Trump’s tenure in office: his ability to deflect attention from one colossal misstep by simply committing a fresh outrage. The fact that even a handful of Republicans have expressed mild regret at Trump’s bizarre accusation only underscores that it has served its instrumental purpose. For the moment, the news cycle is consumed not with the fact that 100,000 Americans have died in a pandemic that the White House recklessly insisted posed no threat; instead, all attention is riveted on the spectacle of a sitting president accusing an opponent in the “lame stream media” of homicide.
Trump’s attack on mail-in ballots, by contrast, is far more ominous. Here, the president is defaming not an individual but the integrity of our electoral process, confidence in which is a key to a stable democratic order. And the purpose of this attack is not distraction but pointedly political. The politics of disenfranchisement has emerged as a staple of Republican electoral strategy, and the reasons for targeting mail-in ballots are not hard to divine. The bulk of such ballots are cast in urban areas, where Democratic voters predominate, and as the nation continues to grapple with the Covid-19 outbreak, we can expect millions of urban voters to cast mail-in ballots in November as a hedge against the obvious health risks that come with in-person voting. Trump’s tweets serve, then, the politics of voter suppression.
But that is only one aspect of the dark logic behind the tweets. Far more alarmingly, Trump’s attack on the reliability of mail-in votes establishes the groundwork for a radical refusal to acknowledge electoral defeat. In contrast to ballots cast in-person on 3 November, mail-in ballots often cannot be fully counted until several days after the election. This means that in a very tight race, the results announced on election day may be no more than provisional; and second, because of the demographic patterns I mentioned above, the full counting of ballots may well swing the outcome in the favor of Democratic candidates.
The 2018 Arizona senatorial race witnessed a particularly dramatic case of this effect, dubbed the “blue shift” by election law expert Ned Foley. On election day, Martha McSally, the Republican candidate, enjoyed a 15,000-vote lead over her Democratic rival, Kyrsten Sinema. By the time the state’s canvassing had ended, however, McSally found herself defeated by Sinema by some 56,000 votes – a swing of 71,000 thousand votes.
Trump is more than familiar with the phenomenon of blue shift. Also in 2018, when the senatorial race in Florida saw Republican Rick Scott’s lead over Bill Nelson shrink from over 56,000 on election day to an uncomfortable 10,000 by the time the state completed its canvass, Trump had urgently tweeted:
The Florida Election should be called in favor of Rick Scott…in that large numbers of ballots showed up from nowhere, and many ballots are missing or forged. An honest vote count is no longer possible—ballots massively infected. Must go with Election Night!
Recall that in 2016, Trump’s margin of victory over Hillary Clinton was a combined 70,000 votes in the swing states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. It is more than possible that Trump could narrowly capture these states on 3 November, only to see his victory vanish as mail-in ballots are tallied in the days following the election. His tweet from Tuesday tells us how he would respond to such a loss. He will reject it as a product of fraud. That is an eventuality – or even a certainty – that the nation must prepare itself for.