Just before 9 a.m. on the day that America bid its final goodbye to civil rights icon John Lewis, who was nearly killed a half-century ago while campaigning for voting rights, the leader of our nation had this to say about free and open elections.
Postpone this November’s presidential election, said President Donald Trump.
It’s worth noting that, if numerous polls remain true, Trump is expected to be tossed out of office by voters this November. He didn’t mention that in his Thursday morning message on Twitter, which he posted as former presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, along with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and dozens of other Congressional members flocked to the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta for Lewis’ funeral.
That Lewis’ farewell was at the same church made famous by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. also seemed to have no impact on the man in the White House. Trump — who didn’t bother to pay his respects when Lewis was lying in state in the Capitol Rotunda earlier in the week — was thinking of Nov. 3 and his own potential electoral funeral.
“With Universal Mail-In Voting (not Absentee Voting, which is good), 2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history,” Trump said in a Twitter message at 8:46 a.m. “It will be a great embarrassment to the USA. Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???”
You may want to excuse Trump’s clumsy punctuation, not to mention his random use of capitalization and the falsehoods he trumpets. But Trump’s message was clear.
Our president is telling the nation he was elected to serve that it should not trust any election with mail-in ballots even while a pandemic is raging that has already killed more than 150,000 and is likely to take 200,000 or more by election day.
This message is hardly a shock. Trump has been signaling for months that he does not intend to honor the results of November’s presidential election. He says he won’t trust mail-in balloting even though many states are resorting to that option to protect voters — and election workers — from having to risk spreading the deadly COVID-19 virus with too much person-to-person contact on Election Day.
For months, the internet has been alive with speculation that Trump may not only refuse to concede if he is defeated by the likely Democratic nominee, Joe Biden. Even worse perhaps is the prospect of Trump’s legal squads flooding courthouses across America with dozens of lawsuits challenging the results.
If states don’t get their electoral act together, America may be facing a nightmarish post-election scenario that would make the 2000 ballot count controversy in Florida seem like a mere hiccup.
The Voting Booth project, which monitors election issues for the nonprofit Independent Media Institute, is recommending that voters begin to prepare now — yes, in the summer — for how they might get to the polls or deliver mail-in ballots for the election.
Meanwhile, Trump’s Republican allies warn that states need to do more to prevent fraud. “Without basic precautions, our elections are on course to become the laughingstock of the developed world,” said John Lott, a conservative pundit, gun rights advocate and president of the Crime Prevention Research Center.
Lott’s sentiments came only hours after Trump’s Twitter request to delay the Nov. 3 election unless more safeguards are in place. You can expect plenty of more warnings from Trump supporters and others in the coming months.
This is not surprising. From the first attempts at democracy in ancient Athens, voting has invited fraud. Simply put: people cheat. In the late 1800s in Manhattan, the Tammany Hall political machine notoriously used “repeaters” to vote “early and often.” In New Jersey in the early to mid 1900s, with the legendary manipulation of elections in Hudson County by Jersey City mayor and power broker Frank “I am the Law” Hague, voter fraud took on the aura of folklore.
Mail-in balloting is particularly difficult to monitor. In most states, all a voter needs is a signature on a ballot and a so-called witness.
The problem is that states and, in particular, municipal and county election boards are often not geared up to carefully examine the deluge of mail-in ballots that could pile up on Election Day. Most election boards are the domain of political loyalists. They’re not election detectives. And polling workers are mostly volunteers — often retirees.
Proponents of mail-in voting are banking on the belief that some instances of fraud may occur but it won’t be so organized and widespread that it would affect the outcome of a national election where millions of people cast ballots.
That may be true. But what happens if Biden wins a key battleground state such as Pennsylvania by only a few thousand votes? Do we then examine every mail-in ballot?
Multiply that problem with claims of fraud in other tightly contested states such as Michigan and Wisconsin, and America could be drawn into a debate that could easily last for months, with no credible and believable outcome in time for the Constitutionally mandated presidential inaugural on Jan. 20, 2021.
Let’s also not forget the possible spread of COVID-19. Some scientists predict an uptick in COVID-19 infections as the weather cools in October. Will that keep voters home on Nov. 3?
Some Democratic alarmists think so. Ace Smith, a San Francisco-based Democratic consultant, believes that worries from COVID-19 infections could even cause some states to cancel elections. “Nothing should surprise us anymore,” Smith wrote in a recent essay in the Sacramento Bee newspaper.
In New Jersey, we have already been given a glimpse of how mail-in voting could emerge as a significant problem.
Faced with a mounting crisis from the spread of COVID-19, Gov. Phil Murphy ordered that municipal elections in May and the party primaries in July should be conducted almost entirely with mail-in ballots. The idea was to keep voters at home instead of crowding into polling places.
But several notable problems occurred. In Morris Township, ballots for the primary were destroyed when a mail truck caught fire. And after local elections in May were decided, the NJ Spotlight news service found that one out of 10 ballots were not even counted.
The worst problems occurred in Paterson, where state investigators charged two council candidates and two other campaign workers with a scheme to defraud the election by bundling mail-in ballots.
The Paterson case was just the kind of attempted criminal takeover of an election that Trump supporters have been saying could easily take place on a much larger scale during the upcoming presidential election. Not surprisingly, after allegations of the Paterson plot were made public, Trump took to his Twitter feed with his own warning.
“Bad things happen with mail-ins. Just look at Special Election in Patterson,” Trump wrote on June 29, misspelling the city’ name.
Actually, election fraud experts say Paterson is worth studying for another reason. Yes, it showed that fraud is possible. But it also demonstrated that law enforcement officials could easily detect fraud and stop it.
Nonetheless, plenty of people — Democrats and Republicans alike — worry that a repeat of the Paterson problem is entirely possible this November. Is New Jersey geared up to deal with it?
On Wednesday, in one of his daily briefings on the COVID-19 pandemic, Murphy said he expects to decide by mid-August whether to impose special rules for in-person and mail-in balloting for the Nov. 3 election.
“We want to get this right,” Murphy said.
It’s a laudable goal. But voting, especially this year, is fraught with tension.
Even Obama raised concerns about voting in his eulogy at the end of John Lewis’ funeral. Without naming Trump, Obama said “there are those in power” who are trying to limit voting, even to the point of “undermining” the U.S. Postal Service, which would be charged with keeping mail-in ballots secure and safe.
But Obama had a message to ordinary voters, too. “We can’t treat voting as an errand to run if we have the time,” he said. “We have to treat it as the most important action we can take on behalf of democracy.”
Obama is right, of course. Casting a ballot, in-person or by mail, is not the same as another errand.
We have less than 100 days to figure out how to make it safe.
Mike Kelly is an award-winning columnist for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to his insightful thoughts on how we live life in New Jersey, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.