Donald Trump has suggested that November’s US presidential election should be postponed, saying increased postal voting could lead to fraud and inaccurate results. Observers in the US and around the world were taken aback by this unusual suggestion, although it is expected of Trump who is known to shun tradition and established procedures of US legislative and political institutions.
Trump’s suggestion raised several questions, starting with whether he can pull it off, the reasons behind this proposal and the extent and fate of the battle triggered by this proposal.
First, the US Constitution clearly prohibits the postponement of elections. Trump, who excessively uses executive orders to sidestep Congress from obstructing his policies, cannot use this measure to postpone elections, which is exclusively the mandate of Congress in times of emergency. Precedent shows that the US has never postponed elections, even during war. President Franklin Roosevelt (1882-1945) was elected for a third term in 1940 during World War II, which the US officially entered in 1941. Although some members of George W Bush’s administration attempted to use his war on terrorism as a pretext to postpone the 2004 elections, then secretary of state and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice responded it was impossible to consider this option because it was a threat to political and legislative values and principles that have long governed US politics.
Second, it is certain Trump knew well that his proposal will not be taken seriously, even by his supporters in the Republican Party. Therefore, when he made the suggestion, he didn’t really mean to actually postpone the elections. By linking postponing elections and limiting mail-in voting, Trump’s true goal is to frame the two as mutually exclusive rather than combining both. If his Democratic rivals insist on holding elections on time to uphold US values and principles, then they must accept that voting is done in-person at polling stations and that mail-in ballots will be limited to those who cannot be there in-person (for health reasons or travel). Voting in person upholds the principle that it is every individual’s responsibility to do their utmost to have a say. But if anyone is allowed to vote by mail then this notion of individual responsibility — a key trait of the US character — is violated.
Here we can ponder Trump’s reasoning that expanding mail-in voting will be to his disadvantage, unlike Democrats who believe extensive voting by mail would benefit them. Both sides have good reason to espouse their positions. Trump is legitimately worried that expanded postal voting would lead to many problems, including greater opportunity for fraud and outside intervention (hackers on behalf of other countries or ideological groups). He believes activists in cyberspace are mostly radical left-wing and neoliberals who hate him and support Democrats. Therefore, postal voting will not necessarily be in his favour.
Meanwhile, Democrats are concerned that turnout will be low if voters are required to cast their ballots in person, especially since a second wave of Covid-19 is predicted in Autumn when the elections take place. Modern life and Internet technology are prevalent today, and there is a belief that the right-wing is more willing to promote its ideas and positions through fieldwork despite Covid-19 difficulties and risks. Meanwhile, the left-wing or liberals prefer “electronic struggle” and in general are not willing to do the leg work to advance their ideas, except by participating in loud mass protests that feed their need for chaos, albeit in a transient and festive format.
Trump believes he will win a majority if most voters are forced to go to polling stations, while postal voting benefits Democrats more due to the postmodern approach of their supporters, who are more inclined towards easy struggle or wrangling online while sitting comfortably in air-conditioned rooms.
Third, how far can this battle go? As mentioned earlier, Trump is not seriously considering drafting his idea into law to present to Congress. He knows that Congress would never accept such a draft. Also, because he is only focused on preventing his Democrat rivals from supporting postal voting. And it appears Trump is well on his way to winning this battle since many believe he is correct to criticise the mechanism of postal voting. Chris Stewart, a Republican congressman from Utah, said that while he did not support delaying the election, Trump had a legitimate point about postal voting being hard to monitor.
Even commissioner of the Federal Election Commission Ellen Weintraub seems to appreciate Trump’s concerns, if indirectly. Weintraub said Trump did not have the power to move the election, and added: “Nor should it be moved.” She did, however, call for more funding for states to be able to run “the safe and secure elections all Americans want”.
Democrats are considering what could happen after the elections if they push through expanded mail-in voting. If Trump loses, he could contest the results which will create an unprecedented climate of political and social division that is potentially very dangerous. Even more disconcerting is how Trump refuses to answer media questions about whether he will accept the election results if he loses. He gives ambiguous answers, not only today but even back in 2016 when he said, “it’s not likely that I will lose.” Also, when Democrats were trying to impeach him, he threatened that his supporters would launch urban warfare across the country if Democrats succeeded.
Trump has put his Democrat adversaries between a rock and a hard place. They need to either abandon their support for expanded mail-in voting, which is beneficial to them, or take the risk and insist on this method and face contested election results if they win, which would open a political and social Pandora’s Box.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly