The date of the U.S. presidential election — the Tuesday after the first Monday in November in every fourth year — is long established in federal law. In 2020, that date is Tuesday, Nov. 3, which is 95 days from now. The date can be changed only by an act of Congress; doing so would require agreement by both the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives and the Republican-controlled Senate. In Pennsylvania, Act 77 of 2019 established that any registered voter can vote by mail. The state allows individuals to apply for a mail-in ballot online, by mail or in person. Applications for mail-in ballots must be received by 5 p.m. on the Tuesday before the election (Oct. 27 this year), and the voted ballots must be returned to the county election office by 8 p.m. on Election Day, Nov. 3, to be counted.
We originally planned to write today about the convenience, the importance and, crucially, the safety of voting by mail in the upcoming presidential election. During this pandemic, we strongly urge registered voters — and please register, if you are eligible — to take advantage of the state’s flexible new law on voting by mail.
That’s still this editorial’s topic, but it takes on a different level of urgency given this tweet by President Donald Trump on Thursday morning:
“With Universal Mail-In Voting (not Absentee Voting, which is good), 2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history. It will be a great embarrassment to the USA. Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???”
There’s a lot to unpack in that tweet.
To begin: Voter education is vital to democracy. That includes separating the fact from fiction regarding security and credibility of elections.
We’ll go through the president’s tweet piece by piece:
— “Universal Mail-In Voting” is not the current practice in the United States. Only five states hold elections entirely by mail — Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah. In Pennsylvania, voters can still choose to go to the polls. And they must apply for mail-in ballots.
The Associated Press has noted, however, that “more states expect to rely more heavily on mail-in ballots in November because of the virus outbreak.” This expansion is wise and necessary. We don’t know how COVID-19 will be affecting our lives this autumn, so voting by mail is a prudent route for protecting ourselves, our families and poll workers on Election Day.
— The president continues to attempt to draw a distinction between absentee ballots (“good,” he says) and mail-in ballots (bad). This is baffling, because there is no appreciable difference.
“No-excuse mail voting or absentee voting — whatever you call it — is essentially the same thing,” said David Becker, founder of the nonpartisan Center for Election Innovation and Research. “You request a ballot, you get a ballot, you vote, you send it in, and there are protections in place. It doesn’t matter whether you call it mail voting or absentee voting.”
— There is no basis for the president’s hyperbolic claim that mail-in voting would lead to “the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history.” Distressingly, U.S. Attorney General William Barr has also pushed this false narrative.
“There is no evidence of widespread voter fraud through mail-in voting,” The Associated Press writes. “Election security experts say that all forms of voter fraud are rare, including absentee balloting.”
Many conservatives, in fact, tout the importance and safety of the process of voting by mail.
“Every mail-in ballot includes a unique bar code that is used to match you and your ballot, a security safeguard,” Kirk Radanovic, chairman of the Republican Committee of Lancaster County, wrote in a May op-ed published in LNP | LancasterOnline. “In addition, the signature on the mail-in ballot must match your voting record signature, just like it would at the poll on Election Day.”
Radanovic wrote that he understands the skepticism surrounding mail-in voting, but stressed that such ballots are an important option for voters who don’t want to risk their health by going to a polling location. And he noted that there will be oversight from both parties during the counting of mail ballots here.
— This is the final portion of the president’s Thursday morning tweet: “Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???”
He has framed this as a question, not a directive. That’s a rhetorical device he’s used in the past (remember disinfectants and injections?) to give him plausible deniability.
But whether it’s a question or statement, the facts are clear: The president cannot delay an election.
“The U.S. Constitution gives the power to regulate the ‘time, place and manner’ of general elections to Congress, while states control the dates of primary elections,” The Washington Post explains. “Nowhere is the president granted such power.”
Key members of the president’s own party made it clear Thursday that there will be no election delay. These quotes are all from Senate Republicans:
— “The election is going to happen in November, period,” said Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina.
— “Never in the history of the country, through wars, depressions and the Civil War, have we ever not had a federally scheduled election on time. We’ll find a way to do that again this Nov. 3,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
— “I’m going to go back and take a look at the Constitution because I think that the president’s term and the vice president’s term expire on Jan. 20, and if we were to delay the election past Jan. 20, the President would be the Speaker of the House,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.
We should certainly rely on the Constitution in this precarious moment.
It’s precarious because the president’s tweet — even if he doesn’t have the authority to do what he speculates about — is dangerous and irresponsible with respect to our democracy.
“Trump probably cannot postpone the election, the bedrock of American democracy, but the greater danger is that he can destroy its legitimacy,” David A. Graham explained in an analysis for The Atlantic. “If Trump loses the election in November and wants to argue that he was cheated and the voting was not legitimate, he can’t start on November 4. He needs to lay the groundwork ahead of time — for example, by repeatedly warning that the vote will be fraudulent and rigged, and by telling his supporters that he tried to postpone it but was denied by ‘Them.’ ”
Indeed, The Washington Post notes that Trump “has attacked mail voting nearly 70 times since late March in interviews, remarks and tweets.”
We cannot let that false narrative thrive.
The greatest threats to our election are from outside our country, not within. Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election and is already interfering with this one.
Congress’ efforts at protecting the integrity of the 2020 election should focus on thwarting Russia; ensuring that states and the U.S. Postal Service — the crucial backbone of voting by mail — have the resources they need to successfully administer the election; pushing social media giants to keep misinformation off their websites; and guaranteeing that everyone has fair access to the ballot.
Then we can — and must – do our part for democracy by voting. And if we’re doing so by mail, we should return our ballots as early as possible to help alleviate any extra stress on postal workers and election officials.