And the Precedents It Will Clarify and Preserve
We should all be grateful to Donald Trump for taking the first step, prior to the end of his failed Presidency, to ensure that never again will another President make the stupid mistake of ‘threatening’ to cancel or postpone a Presidential election, over which no President has any jurisdiction –for good and obvious reasons- per both the Constitution and several clear laws.
Without his ridiculous threats, the subject would have remained out there as pure speculation. And, the press would have been confined to playing with subject as a possible problem, but not a real one.
Now the Congress, the Courts and the military have been put on notice by the President himself that he must be seriously considering that option. Thus, they all would be remiss if they did not now fully prepare to meet any formal effort of his along those lines expeditiously, forcefully and decisively.
The notion that Trump could extend his term in office is so offensive that it could lead to bloodshed on top of virus deaths!
There are two keys to our democracy. Voting to select a President and voting to deselect a President.
Trump is now trying to use the Post Office budget to limit its ability to handle the mail volume associated with mail in ballots.
Let’s figure that out? Let’s start by assuming that 60,000,000 people – roughly half the electorate – request absentee ballots. That’s a total of 120 million pieces of mail (accounting for the round-trip journey ballots must make).
In the last two years, the U.S. Postal Service has averaged roughly 55 billion pieces of first-class mail delivered annually. That’s an average of 176.3 million pieces of mail on each delivery day, not including package deliveries.
In other words, the cumulative load of an unprecedented level of mail-in voting would be … not even ONE day’s volume of mail.
And the USPS doesn’t have to do this work terribly quickly. On average, states send out mail-in ballots 36 days before an election (the outliers are the states of Washington – 18 days beforehand, and North Carolina, which ships out ballots 60 days in advance of an election). Assuming three days in transit in each direction (generous, given that ballots are mailed out and returned to a local election board), voters have, roughly speaking, a month to complete and return their ballots.
Even if all 60 million absentee voters waited until the last possible moment (3 days before the election, to allow time for delivery), the USPS would need to handle 20 million each day – a drop in the bucket of postal capacity. (It’s also worth noting that 20 years ago, first-class mail volume was nearly double what it is today, suggesting actual postal system capacity may remain far higher when necessary.)
What of the other big argument against mail-in voting, namely fraud? First, domestic voter fraud is vanishingly rare. Some 250 million mail-in ballots have been cast in the last 20 years; in that time, some 143 people have been convicted of fraudulently submitting them. That works out to a not-very-alarming rate of 0.00006% of all mailing in votes being fraudulent. That means fewer than 100 mail-in votes in 2020 can be expected to be frauds – hardly enough to alter the outcome even in a single county.
What, then, of the dark threat of foreign interference raised by Trump and his minions, notably Attorney General William Barr? This, too, is exceedingly unlikely. First, elections are administered not by the federal government, and not by states, but by the counties, cities and towns. Depending on the jurisdiction, the local election authority may have a handful or dozens of variations of ballots it distributes, reflecting state and local races that fall on the same day as the presidential election. In addition, the size, style and other details of mail-in ballots vary from county to county – and change every election cycle. Given that there are 3,141 counties and nearly 20,000 cities, towns and villages, a determined fraud maker getting the details right at a scale that could alter the outcome of an election is next to impossible.
Even if a malicious foreign actor could overcome all those hurdles, there is the matter that about half the states print unique tracking codes on ballot envelopes (primarily to detect duplicate votes by a single individual and, in some jurisdictions, to let people verify that their ballot was received). Many states require voters to provide additional identifying information when returning their ballots (driver’s license, last four digits of the voters’ social security number) that can be verified against information already on file. Finally, all jurisdictions require voters to sign their ballots (usually along with a witness), and those signatures, too, can be verified against the ones on file.
We also live in an age of massive data, where norms can be established across huge data sets. Deviations from those norms (an inherent component of election-rigging schemes) would set off alarm bells far and wide.
Finally, the verification of printed documents is a well-understood problem. Checks, for example, carry watermarks or security seals that make fraud difficult. Election officials could simply, if they wished, select a code, seal or other security measure to add to their ballots. The mechanism would need to be shared with only the printer – and, again, with some 22,000 entities involved in administering elections, the idea that a foreign actor could “crack the code” for a meaningful number of them, in time to print and ship ballots (that must still match the many variations outlined above), without significant risk of detection, defies logic.
Make no mistake: it’s not fraud Donald Trump and his now-panicked underlings fear – it’s the judgement of the American people. Fraud is simply the mechanism by which the fraudster-in-chief (Trump University, Trump Foundation, the list goes on) hopes to undermine public confidence in the outcome. It’s not clear that Trump has an endgame for this gambit – it reads more like a desperate play to claim he won, even if he loses handily, in advance of tucking his tail between his legs on his way to Mar-A-Lago.
In the end, Trump’s maneuvering room is incredibly limited. Whatever else happens before then, if, on January 20, 2021 a new President has not been properly selected and certified, the Speaker of the House will automatically become President, who looks likely to be Nancy Pelosi!
So, why not do it the right way: on schedule and on time?