Voters in the United States will be going to the polls in three months, and President Donald Trump, oracle that he is, has foreseen the outcome: He is going to lose, because the election will be rigged.
He is likely to be at least half right. Mr. Trump’s re-election chances don’t look good, with polls showing him trailing his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, by large margins even in Republican strongholds. With the spread of COVID-19 reaching new heights in the U.S., the economy foundering, and Democrats united around their candidate, the odds don’t favour a second term for the President who promised to make America great again.
However, his claim that he is about to be cheated out of a second kick at the MAGA can is false. It is also likely to further divide a country that is in the process of cleaving itself into irreconcilable political camps. There will be no quick way for the U.S. to recover from the suspicion and distrust that Mr. Trump is sowing.
Mr. Trump and his allies insist that mail-in voting, which will need to be used in record numbers in this COVID-era election, is rife with fraud. “Mail ballots, they cheat,” he said Tuesday afternoon. “Mail ballots are very dangerous for this country because of cheaters.”
Mr. Trump even went as far as to muse last week that the Nov. 3 election should be postponed until after the pandemic has passed, so that people can vote in person. He quickly backed off, for two good reasons.
One, it’s beyond his power to set the date of a presidential election. And two, there is simply no evidence that voting by mail is a source of ballot-rigging. On the contrary, there is plenty of evidence to show that voter fraud in the U.S. of any kind is so rare as to be insignificant.
Just as critically, there is no single authority in the U.S. that could co-ordinate a massive electoral fraud at the national level. The American voting system is decentralized, with control of elections held at the state or county level.
Mr. Trump is nonetheless suggesting to his base that voting by mail is a new and untested system that will flood the country with millions of unaccounted-for ballots. But that clashes with the fact that absentee voting, as it is technically called, is well established in the United States. In a growing number of states, including Republican-controlled ones, it is the way almost all votes are cast.
And it turns out that Mr. Trump has enough faith in mailed ballots to have used them when he voted in recent elections in Florida and New York. This week, he endorsed absentee voting in Florida for the November election, saying on Twitter that the state’s system is “Safe and Secure.”
It may have been pointed out to Mr. Trump that older Floridians who support him will want and need to vote by mail. But then, he isn’t trying to undermine a particular voting method – he’s trying to undermine elections themselves. He did the same thing in 2016, when he made the unfounded claim that millions of illegal voters had cast ballots for his rival, depriving him of winning the popular vote.
In questioning the electoral system once again, he is throwing fuel on America’s already overheated left-right culture wars. The U.S. is today a country where something as ostensibly unifying as a national anthem is a source of bitter debate, and where wearing a mask to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is a highly charged political act.
If Mr. Trump loses in November by a narrow margin, in an election whose ultimate result is delayed as mailed ballots are slowly gathered and counted, his supporters are primed to claim they were defrauded. He and the Republican Party will no doubt feed the controversy, with lawsuits and other challenges.
Mr. Trump is turning trust in elections into a partisan choice: Voting works if your guy wins, and it’s corrupt if he loses. Outside the unlikely exception of a landslide victory for either candidate, there is no way this ends well.
American voters need to have faith that their voting system will operate without favour or fraud during the COVID-19 public-health crisis. There is no reason for them not to believe that, other than the doubts sown in their minds by their President.
But if enough voters reject the outcome of the November election, the U.S. could fall into a crisis that makes recent events seem tame in comparison. Mr. Trump has no idea what dangers his false claims of election fraud could lead to.
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