WASHINGTON — Five months before the November election, the incumbent president and his Democratic challenger are both telling Americans their opponent could “steal” the election perhaps setting the stage for a contentious fight even after the voting is over.
The warnings from President Donald Trump and presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden are growing louder and earlier than in 2016, when Trump decried a “rigged” political system in the final weeks before his victory over Hillary Clinton.
The claims are also more direct, reflecting the deeply divided nation that has defined the Trump era.
Both men’s rhetoric is largely aimed at the same issue – vote-by-mail, which Biden and Democrats support to allow citizens to vote safely amid the coronavirus and Trump strongly opposes. Trump has long stoked fears of election-stealing.But in a new warning Wednesday, Biden ramped up his attacks on the president over voter access.
“It’s my greatest concern, my single greatest concern: This president is going to steal this election,” the former vice president said in an interview with host Trevor Noah on “The Daily Show.”
“This is a guy who said all mail-in ballots are fraudulent, direct voting by mail, while he sits behind a desk in the Oval Office and writes his mail-in ballot to vote in the primary.”
States embrace mail voting
Tim Murtaugh, communications director for the Trump campaign, called Biden’s remarks “just another brainless conspiracy theory from Joe Biden as he continues to try to undermine confidence in our elections.”
“President Trump has been clear that he will accept the results of the 2020 election,” he said.
Matt Grossman, an associate political scientist at Michigan State University, said the “polarized information” in today’s politics makes for legitimate fears in the public that losers of an election won’t respect the outcome. He said election laws that differ state-by-state can further fuel suspicions.
“Obviously that becomes more of a concern if you have a close electoral outcome, especially one where there’s some type of post-Election Day problems in getting all of the results,” Grossman said. “Unfortunately, we’re kind of headed that way.”
Several states, led by secretaries of states of both parties, have taken action to make voting by mail either available to all voters or more widespread.
Thirty-four states and Washington, D.C., already offered absentee voting by mail to all registered voters without an excuse before the pandemic. To keep people from packing polls during a health crisis, some states opted to send mail-ballot applications to all voters. California will send mail ballots to all voters for the November election, joining Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Utah and Hawaii, which also conduct their elections entirely by mail.
In several of the 16 states where voters must provide an excuse to receive an absentee ballot – being over 65 years old, out of town during Election Day, or in the military, for example – they can now cite coronavirus as a reason. Most states made the change only for the upcoming primary election but could extend that to November.
Only five states, each in the South, have not taken legislative action to expand voting by mail, but legal challenges could force them to make changes. A judge in Tennessee ruled last week the state must make absentee ballots available to all voters during the pandemic. The state is expected to appeal.
Biden: Trump is trying to ‘undermine’ the election
Biden has said Trump is attempting to “undermine” the election by making it more difficult for people to vote through his opposition to vote-by-mail. He’s called on Congress to provide enough funding for all states to allow individuals to cast a ballot by mail in November.
“We have to make it easier for everybody to be able to vote, particularly if we are still basically in the kind of lockdown circumstance we are in now,” Biden told supporters during a virtual fundraiser in April.
On the Daily show, Biden accused Republicans of passing 82 pieces of legislation to “make it harder for people to vote,” referring to voter-identification requirements and other laws that Republican legislatures have passed in recent years.
He said his campaign will have a “major initiative” that deploys attorneys across the country during the election to fight voter suppression.
He also pointed to long lines and and other delays voters faced Tuesday in Georgia’s primary and last week’s Pennsylvania primary, suggesting it could preview things to come in November. Pennsylvania is still counting votes one week after its primary after lacking the resources to count mailed ballots quickly.
Noah asked Biden whether he considered what would happen if Biden wins the election but Trump refuses to leave.
“Yes I have,” Biden said, adding that he has faith in the military to intervene if needed. “I’m absolutely convinced they will escort him from the White House with great dispatch.”
Civil rights groups like the NAACP and organizations such as the ACLU have mounted lawsuits against several states that have limited vote-by-mail laws, seeking to force them to expand options.
Trump returns to a 2016 theme
A USA TODAY/Suffolk University poll last month found 65% of Americans support vote-by-mail as an alternative to in-person voting during the pandemic, compared to 32% of Americans who oppose the option.
Despite strong public support, Trump has been on a crusade for weeks against vote-by-mail, arguing it leads to voter fraud, “vote harvesting” and hurts Republican candidates.
“We can’t let the Fake News, and their partner, the Radical Left, Do Nothing Democrats, get away with stealing the Election,” Trump tweeted in April. “They tried that in 2016. How did that work out?”
Last month he tweeted, “The United States cannot have all Mail In Ballots. It will be the greatest Rigged Election in history.”
Ahead of the 2016 election, Trump singled out cites such as Philadelphia, which has a large African-American population, as he warned the election could be “stolen” from him.
This election cycle, Republicans launched a legal front to fight states moving to universal vote-by-mail. Ronna McDaniel, chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, accused Democrats “under the guise of the COVID-19 crisis” of trying to change the election to “fit many of their election agenda items that existed long before this crisis.” She said the lawsuits from the leftwould “destroy the integrity of our elections.”
Studies dispute Trump’s claim that vote-by-mail gives Democrats an advantage. Utah, one of the five universal vote-by-mail states, is solidly Republican with two Republican U.S. senators and a Republican governor.
A study by the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice at the New York School of Law found incidents of overall voter fraud “extraordinarily rare.”.
And despite Trump’s claims, Republican Rep. Mike Garcia flipped a blue House seat in California last month, winning by 12 percentage points in a race conducted by all mail to replace former Democratic Rep. Katie Hill.
Last month, Trump threatened to withdraw federal funding to the swing state of Michigan if it “illegally” sends absentee ballot applications to the state’s citizens before its primary Aug. 4 and the election Nov. 3. However, mailing absentee ballot request forms to all voters has been widely used in other states, even those led by Republicans.
Will warnings suppress or motivate voters?
Grossman pointed to other moments when one party accused the other of stealing an election.
Most memorably, in the 2000 election, George W. Bush beat Al Gore after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to halt a recount in Florida.
Speaking of the likelihood of one side disputing the election results, Grossman said, “There’s precedent for it, but obviously having the president and the other presidential candidate egg it on, or anticipate it, might make it more likely.”
Michael McDonald, associate professor of political science at the University of Florida, said both Trump and Biden are using rhetoric devices to rally their bases.
McDonald, who manages the United States Elections Project, which tracks voter turnout patterns, said the reality is many voters are going to vote by mail in November because of the pandemic.
That poses a risk to Trump, he said, if his supporters follow his cue and don’t vote by mail and instead pack understaffed polling sites, which could lead to long lines and “Trump suppressing his own vote.”
He said it’s hard to predict whether more voters could sit out of the election because of the claims. He guessed the opposite could end up being the case among voters who are closely watching the election. He said it could be a motivator.
“They’re going to take these claims of the other side stealing the election more as a reinforcement for themselves to go out and vote” he said.
Contributing: Associated Press
Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @Joeygarrison.