Terry H. Schwadron
Oct. 1, 2020
As if the tensions around the election itself were not troubling enough, Donald Trump has now made forthright his attempts to organize a state-sanctioned campaign to remain in office, whatever the vote.
Apart from his bullying antics during Tuesday’s debate, the singular takeaway ringing in our ears is that Trump thinks the election doesn’t matter, that he, his Justice Department and his court appointees — including the pending Amy Coney Barrett nomination to the Supreme Court — are part of an elaborate plan to steal the election, regardless of the votes.
The Tuesday debate made clear that Trump wants intimidation of voters at the polls, challenges to mail ballots and court challenges galore about any disputed claims of fraud. His supporters are talking aloud of alternate electors to the Electoral College.
Let’s say it out loud: Trump’s insistent refusal to accept election results is alarming. His repeated remarks suggest serious loss of trust in American government, if not inviting outright violence over the election outcome — which he also seemed to be doing by telling white supremacist militias to “stand by.”
What may be the most remarkable is that all the talk is out in the open about undercutting the election.
It’s abundantly clear that Trump plans to fabricate an election “emergency,” says Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, who warns that we are at a moment of crisis.
For at least a year, Team Trump apparently has been organizing dozens of lawyers from three major firms, organized volunteer lawyers, sheriffs and poll watchers in what is seen as intimidation efforts, and plotted legal challenges in state legislatures and the courts to find in their favor from any chaos they spread about mail-in ballots building as a result of pandemic.
Naturally, this has brought about a similar effort from Joe Biden to defend election rules, and to warn loudly about what amounts to an authoritarian coup dependent on suppressing anti-Trump votes.
Already, it appears that Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan may be key focus points for these efforts, both in the authenticity of ballots and the count itself.
Politico has outlined a Team Trump effort to send lawyers from elsewhere to be trained in local election laws in competitive states with a 20-person team of lawyers overseeing the strategy. There is nothing hidden about it: The Republican National Committee openly calls this its largest election-year legal effort ever — all because the pandemic that Trump refuses to acknowledge is prompting huge numbers of requests for mail ballots for personal safety.
Apart from all else, a long count after Election Day, the lack of trust evident in the deep rift in the country and the combination of possible mechanical and legal twists are going to make November and December hellish for all of us.
The Pennsylvania focus
The fate of Pennsylvania may prove the central question for this Trump approach. Pennsylvania is a big, battleground state that was settled by 44,000 votes in 2016, and Biden is holding a stubborn lead. But should lots of people vote by mail, the Trump campaign wants to kick over the whole table here.
At risk are rules governing those mail ballots, forming the basis for a possible move for the Republican-majority state legislature simply to name its own slate of electors to cast Pennsylvania Electoral College votes for Trump.
So far, the disputes have centered on the rules for casting and counting mail votes. The state Supreme Court ruled just a week ago that mail ballots can be counted for three days after Election Day, but also warned that “naked” ballots, those sent without a separate, second protective envelope, can be tossed. No one knows, of course, but that might well total as many votes as decided the whole election last time.
It was in Pennsylvania, too, that a set of nine ”naked” military ballots were found discarded, since they had been declared invalid. Unusually, the U.S. attorney in Philadelphia was ordered by Atty. Gen. William P. Barr to open an investigation for possible mail fraud, and then told Trump all about it, giving Trump fuel to declare it a big deal.
This is how it is going to work. Small incident, big PR about chaos, and suddenly a Trump Justice Department legal effort to declare a problem — and allow officials to call the whole thing for Trump.
To keep Pennsylvania from becoming the Florida of this election, Democrats are investing in ads to remind voters of the exact rules for state ballots. Pennsylvania is one of 11 states that do not allow election officials to begin processing mail ballots before Election Day, but state officials acknowledge that they won’t be done that night.
Meanwhile, the state legislature’s four top Republicans have filed a stay request with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on the state decision on the count, bringing this one potentially right before a newly confirmed justice named by Trump.
Warning: Chaos Ahead
The worry, of course, is not only Trump emerging as a winner in the election with a minority of votes, but the apparent attack on the Constitution and our democratic system altogether.
Why we are allowing voter suppression efforts to blossom through closing of voting sites in minority areas, or tampering with voter eligibility regulations or insisting that there is widespread fraud when there is no evidence is beyond me. The Trump charges are anything but respectful of the system over which he is president.
Much of this angst comes back to Trump’s refusal to acknowledge that pandemic is a huge problem for the country. If you are Trump and simply ignore it, it follows that there is no reason for increased mail ballots. Instead, he monkeyed with the Postal Service, worsening both delivery of mail and trust in the system.
Rather than showing leadership and addressing whatever problems he perceives, Trump merely rails against mail-in votes and the states that allow it — even while filing his own vote by mail to Florida.
The “disaster” he sees is not mail-in votes, it is in his not-veiled manipulations to stay in the White House even if he loses.
Trump has even told his own voters to vote twice — which is illegal in every state.
Individually, each of these moves is within the game rules. Together, they represent a dangerous attack on our democracy,