Andrew Steele is a vice-president at StrategyCorp in Toronto.
Last month, U.S. President Donald Trump was roundly repudiated for floating the idea of moving the November presidential election date. But the statement was also another example of Mr. Trump priming his supporters – this time over the supposed potential for fraud created by mail-in voting ballots. It’s becoming clearer that Mr. Trump’s plan may be to use delays in announcing the results of those mail-in ballots to blame fraud for losing, and then appeal the election to the Supreme Court and its Republican majority.
The American electoral system is already prone to close and contested outcomes. Of the 58 presidential elections in U.S. history, five were won by the candidate with fewer votes and another four allowed the winner to claim victory by a fewer-than-one-per-cent margin. That means at least 15 per cent of presidential elections have been nail-bitingly close.
Recent U.S. presidential elections have tended to be even closer. Since 2000, the mean margin of victory has been fewer than 3.5 per cent, with two elections won by the candidate with fewer votes.
Recent polls find presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden about 12 points ahead of Mr. Trump, but that lead is likely to narrow in the fall for several reasons. First, as a gaffe-prone candidate in the past, Mr. Biden has successfully used the COVID-19 pandemic to avoid attention and keep the spotlight firmly on Mr. Trump. One example is his decision not to attend the Democratic nominating convention in Milwaukee on Aug. 20. But maintaining this low-profile strategy during the inevitable and intense media scrutiny in the fall could prove impossible for Mr. Biden.
Second, after his formal nomination, Mr. Trump will likely experience a modest boost of three to five per cent in polling, which is typical of presidents seeking re-election.
Third, some voters have not made their final decision. An analysis of the 2016 election by the American Association for Public Opinion Research showed one in eight voters in the key states of Florida, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin made their decision in the week leading up to the vote, and skewed heavily toward Mr. Trump.
None of these factors indicate that Mr. Trump will win outright, but they do raise the spectre of a close election dependent on mail-in ballots in some swing states.
The partisan advantages of mail-in ballots are unclear. Some argue it would increase voter turnout among Democrat constituencies in dense urban areas, while others argue it increases turnout among Republican-leaning seniors.
What is clear is that mass mail-in voting takes much longer to finalize than in-person voting. Some primary contests have experienced large spikes in mail-in ballots this year, and have taken weeks to release final results. The critical swing states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania do not allow mail-in ballots to be processed until Election Day itself, guaranteeing a delay in declaring a winner in a tight race. New York doesn’t start counting mail-in ballots until a full week after voting closes.
Mr. Trump is now suing Nevada over legislation that would send a mail-in ballot to every registered voter, further demonstrating that his objective is to create delays. Voting counts in states too close to call could stretch Election Day into Election Week, and any confusion would seemingly confirm Mr. Trump’s sinister allegations about mail-in voting.
Issues of election fraud are not decided in the House of Representatives; that process is only used if no single candidate gets a majority in the Electoral College. By filing lawsuits alleging voter fraud due to fake mail-in ballots, Mr. Trump could force the election into the Republican-controlled Supreme Court. In 2000, the five Republican-appointed justices on the Supreme Court voted as a bloc to end the manual ballot count in Florida and award the state to George W. Bush, securing his presidency. It is plausible that the Court could again vote along partisan lines if faced with a contested presidential election.
Hopefully, American voters will repudiate Donald Trump in a landslide victory that eliminates any uncertainty about the result. But if they do not, we may be reminded of Winston Churchill’s description of the days leading up to the First World War: “The terrible ‘ifs’ accumulate.” If there is a close election, if mail-in ballots lead to delays as expected, if there is no winner on Election Day, if the Republicans contest the results, and if the matter winds up in the courts, we could see a further withering of American democracy.
Because of the current public-health crisis, it is critical that each state now reform its laws to allow mail-in voting and that each state allow those mail-in votes to be processed quickly. There must be a clear winner on November 3, or the “terrible ifs” could accumulate.
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