“Trump’s bogus attacks on mail-in voting could hurt his supporters, too; The president is undermining democracy. He could also be undermining his own campaign.”

I have written this piece for the Washington Post. It begins:

On Wednesday morning, President Trump threatened to withhold aid from Michigan and Nevada because of purportedly illegal activity related to absentee ballots. In reality, the states are doing nothing illegal — they are trying to ensure that voters can exercise their right to vote without jeopardizing their health during a pandemic.

Even putting aside the likely unconstitutionality of the president conditioning aid to states upon acceding to his political demands, Trump’s unsupported claims are exceedingly troubling because they seek to cast doubt on the legitimacy and fairness of the upcoming elections without reason. And Trump may not realize it, but they are also politically counterproductive for him: Rural Republican voters, even in blue states, may be the ones most hurt in November by attacks on mail-in balloting….

By claiming that Democrats cheat, he’s laying the groundwork for instability and a potential political crisis in November should he lose. Democracy depends upon the losers of an election accepting the election results as legitimate and agreeing to regroup to fight to regain political power in the next election. If large numbers of voters believe that the winning side cheated in elections, we could have unrest and resistance to lawful government orders.

I am particularly worried about states like Michigan, which for the first time will see a tsunami of absentee ballots in November. These states do not have long histories of counting absentee ballots, which takes much more time than counting in-person ballots (because absentee ballot envelopes need to be checked and processed before ballots can be counted). It will be the big Democratic cities like Detroit that will take the longest for ballots to be counted. It is entirely conceivable that Trump could be ahead in the ballot count on election night based on votes cast in person, only to see his lead disappear and Democrat Joe Biden declared the state’s winner days later. What if Trump claims victory on election night and claims without evidence that the later-counted ballots are infected with massive fraud? As I explain in my book “Election Meltdown,” he made just such an unsubstantiated claim about a disputed U.S. Senate race in Florida in 2018. He could use the period during delayed counting to rile up his supporters.

The president’s dangerous tweets stand to undermine our democracy. In a recent report, a committee of election experts that I chaired issued 14 recommendations to ensure that we have a fair election during the pandemic and that the vast majority of voters will accept the results of the election as legitimate. Among the key recommendations are that states should reduce delays in the counting of absentee ballots and that the media should help inform the public that because of increased absentee voting, “delays in election reporting are to be expected, not evidence of fraud, and that the 2020 presidential election may be ‘too early to call’ until days after Election Day.”

But, ironically, Trump’s claims about voter fraud also increase the chances that he is going to lose in November. We know that rural Republican voters had a harder time voting by mail in Wisconsin when it held its recent primary under pandemic conditions. As political scientist Michael McDonald pointed out, rural counties are going to have the hardest time dealing with an absentee ballot surge because these areas are more likely to lack adequate resources and training. Why would Trump voters jump through extra hoops to vote by mail if they believe, as the president is telling them, that the system is rife with fraud? The voters Trump is hurting is his own.

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