The United States is in the midst of several overlapping crises, each of which could have decided the race in previous years. The coronavirus pandemic has killed nearly 200,000 Americans and is still out of control. Protests against racial injustice continue across the country. And unemployment is almost unprecedented.
Coming as they did simultaneously, these crises made the prospect of a one-term presidency for Donald Trump a very real possibility – the defeat of an incumbent is something that only happened four times. times in the past 100 years.
In the face of these historically unfavorable re-election prospects, the Trump administration has embarked on an unprecedented campaign to undermine the democratic process in an effort to stay in power.
Some of these efforts take place behind closed doors, some in court, and others in the open. Together they have the potential to play a decisive role in the outcome of this year’s elections.
Mr. Trump has made unsubstantiated statements about election rigging for years, but until recently he had never identified mail-in ballots as a problem.
Its first attacks began in April, at a time when the coronavirus pandemic caused a dramatic increase in demand for mail-in ballots to protect against the spread of the virus.
Mr Trump said there was “huge potential for voter fraud, and for some reason it doesn’t work well for Republicans.” Since then, he has repeatedly claimed without evidence that postal voting is vulnerable to fraud.
The Trump campaign, working with the Republican Party, has also launched lawsuits in several swing states to block the expansion of mail-in voting – most of which were state efforts to protect voters from the coronavirus.
It may seem counterintuitive for a president to attack a method of voting that is also used by his own supporters, but polls suggest that a much larger number of Democrats are considering postal voting in the presidential election of November.
According to a recent poll, more than a third of Americans plan to vote by mail in November: 48% of them plan to vote for Joe Biden, and only 23% for Mr. Trump.
Any attempt to slow down, limit, or block mail-in ballots would therefore likely benefit the President.
It is for this reason that Mr. Trump’s decision to block emergency funding for the US Postal Service has caused such alarm.
Last month, Mr. Trump offered a candid explanation as to why he was blocking emergency funding for the service in the upcoming coronavirus stimulus bill.
“They need this money to run the post office so that it can receive all of those millions and millions of ballots,” he told Fox Business. “But if they don’t get those two things, that means you can’t have universal postal voting because they’re not equipped to have it. “
Mr Trump has asserted that “universal postal voting” – which means anyone can request a postal vote – is susceptible to fraud, again, without proof. His opponents, on the other hand, say his attacks are political.
“I think the motivation is pretty clear. Donald Trump sees mail-in voting as a threat to his re-election, so he’s looking to dismantle the post office, ”said Eric Swalwell, a Democratic congressman from California. The independent.
Mr. Trump’s attacks on the USPS, in addition to sweeping changes made by new Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, have raised concerns that the increase in the volume of mail-in ballots will not come in time for be counted on polling day.
Mr DeJoy, a major donor to Mr Trump before being selected by the Republican-led USPS board of governors, defended his changes as essential cost-cutting measures and insisted that all election mail is delivered on time.
But states have accused postal executives of failing to help them prepare for the expected surge in the polls.
These lawsuits and attacks were not limited to postal ballots. Mr. Trump has also frequently targeted ballot boxes – which voters can use to safely deposit their ballots in places such as schools or libraries that election officials must collect.
Reflecting his attacks on mail ballots, Mr Trump has claimed without evidence that ballot boxes are vulnerable to fraud and could lead to a rigged election. His campaign went on to block their expansion into Pennsylvania and other swing states.
On Thursday, the Trump campaign lost that case, dealing a blow to efforts to limit non-in-person voting in the state. Witold Walczak, chief legal officer of the Pennsylvania ACLU, called the move “a victory for the voters.”
“This case has always been about promoting safe access to the ballot for all eligible voters in the Commonwealth, and the tribunal has understood the importance of lowering barriers to voting,” he added.
But the cloud of confusion caused by the president’s false statements about postal voting could have an impact on its own. For now, Mr. Trump’s stated goal of having the USPS hampered in its ability to manage those ballots appears to be working.
Even if many attempts by the Trump administration to suppress the vote fail, they could still have a damaging effect on voter confidence and deter some people from voting.
The unprecedented attacks on the electoral process by the White House have prompted unprecedented warnings from voting rights groups and observers.
This year, for the first time in its history, the democracy promotion organization founded by former President Jimmy Carter is leading its first election mission to the United States.
The organization said the movement, which was first revealed by The independent, was motivated by a growing awareness that “the state of democracy in the United States is eroding”.
“We are now at a point where we have made an institutional decision to explore direct engagement on US electoral issues. And that’s a departure from our whole history in trying not to do that, ”said David Carroll, director of the centre’s democracy program. The independent.
The center will focus its attention on public education efforts to combat the potential decline in voter confidence. This is something that is of concern to other election monitoring experts as well.
In the past, he added, the center has prioritized countries where there is “significant potential for a significant change in the quality of democracy”, or where democracy is “seriously threatened”.
Dame Audrey Glover, a veteran British human rights lawyer who led the 2016 US election mission for the democracy arm of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), recently said The independent that voter confidence was “absolutely essential” for a free and fair election, and was under threat.
“I don’t think there’s ever been an election like this in the United States lately. And we cannot underestimate what could happen on election day, ”she said.
“There have been a lot of allegations that have not been heard in the past, and I think it worries the confidence of the individual in the whole system,” she said, in reference to questions about mail integrity. in the ballots.
This lack of confidence in the system could deter people from voting, but it could also create a large number of disgruntled voters who do not trust the result, which would bode ill for American democracy.
American democracy faces challenges like it has never seen before. Mr Trump is now refusing to say whether he will leave the White House if he loses the election, and many serious observers fear he is trying to interfere with the outcome.
It depends on polling day. Many Democrats believe the president’s attacks on mail-in ballots are a precursor to his attempt to prevent them from being counted. Mr Trump may well have a head start in voting on Election Day, but Mr Biden’s advantage with postal ballots – which take longer to count – may go unrecognized for days.
“It is possible that he is saying, ‘We should stop counting the ballots because all of these missing ballots are illegitimate,” said Trevor Potter, president of the Non-Partisan Campaign Legal Center and former chairman of the Federal Election Commission appointed by Republicans.Le Washington Post.
“If his supporters believe it, it would be false but regrettable as regards the acceptance by the country of the credibility of the final results of the elections”, he added.
Hillary Clinton, who lost to Mr Trump in 2016, suggested that her former opponent “spoiled the absentee vote” in order to gain “a limited electoral college advantage on election day.”
“Joe Biden shouldn’t concede in any way because I think it’s going to go on forever,” she said in an interview on Showtime.
The only way to avoid such a scenario is a convincing victory anyway. Specifically, a victory for Mr Biden in Florida – who has processed a large number of mail-in ballots for years and has the ability to publish a result on election day – would almost give him the victory.
An unclear picture on Election Day would make any of Mr. Trump’s attacks on mail-in ballots hugely significant.