“There are a lot of uncertainties in this time,” Jocelyn Benson, the Michigan secretary of state, told me a few weeks ago. “Democracy could be one of them.”
On May 20, Benson woke up to Donald Trump misinterpreting her decision to mail absentee-ballot applications to everyone in her state. He tweeted that she was mailing absentee ballots (which he later corrected), and that she was doing so “illegally and without authorization,” which didn’t make sense. Then he claimed that he was going to hold up funding to Michigan, though there’s no funding for him to hold up, and that absentee ballots constituted voter fraud, though he’d used one himself earlier this year, to vote in Florida’s presidential primary. He issued the same threat to Nevada, then seemed to back off, then struggled in an Oval Office appearance to explain what he was talking about. In the days since, the president, who has repeatedly claimed that the election he won was rigged against him, has tweeted several more accusations of fraud, and on Tuesday in the Rose Garden insisted that people who can’t legally vote are going to be sent ballots in California, though they won’t be.
That kind of thinking seeps in, even among Trump’s opponents. Joe Walsh, the former congressman who briefly ran a primary challenge against Trump, said that he sees a strategy already in motion to “cause unrest and division.”
“Just like we lacked the imagination to understand how big this virus was going to be, I worry that we lack the imagination to fully understand what this asshole is capable of doing,” Walsh, who’s never subtle about his feelings toward the president, told me.
But you don’t have to buy into Trump’s nonsense about voting by mail to worry about the integrity of the election. Americans are worried about all sorts of things that could affect the outcome in November: that they’ll be risking infection to vote in a pandemic; that their absentee ballots won’t be received; that others will submit fake absentee ballots; that there will be funny business in the counting process. Officials say there will be insufficient resources to pay for the staff and infrastructure needed to secure and tally the ballots.
And that’s just voting by mail. People are also worried that polling places might not be adequately staffed in urban areas; that some voters may have to wait in line for hours, six feet apart, to vote in person; that dirty tricksters could advertise the wrong date for the election or stand, coughing, outside of polling places; that armed protesters will intimidate people trying to vote.
Sherrilyn Ifill, the president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, is worried. “I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but I’m also not for pretending that voter suppression doesn’t exist,” she told me in an interview for The Ticket recently. “To the extent that there are those who are working to undermine that, they are creating the context in which people cannot have confidence in the election.” Tom Fitton, the president of the right-wing Judicial Watch, is worried too. He told me he’d seen pictures of mailboxes overflowing with unsecured absentee ballots in New Jersey, and warned me that a study his group conducted several years ago found millions more registered names than there were eligible voters. “The elections weren’t secure before the coronavirus, and now we have politicians of both parties taking advantage of panic to flood the system with bad proposals [to change the system],” Fitton said. “If the election contest is extremely close, you will have partisans of both sides raising doubts, depending on whose ox is being gored.”
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