Has there ever been an election like this? Of course, it’s not the first time we’ve voted amid crisis. In 1942 and 1944, millions were away from home. The 1918 election during the Spanish Flu was called “the first masked ballot.” In November 1864, as the Civil War raged, Abraham Lincoln was determined to hold a normal election, even though he expected to lose. Two days after his victory, Lincoln spoke to a crowd at the White House. There were “emergencies,” he noted. “But the election was a necessity,” he declared. “We can not have free government without elections; and if the rebellion could force us to forego, or postpone a national election, it might fairly claim to have already conquered and ruined us.”
So, yes, we’ve voted under duress. But never before has the leader of one of the political parties, let alone a sitting President, greedily seen crisis as a chance to collapse turnout and suppress the vote. Never before in our country’s history has a President made undermining the legitimacy of the national election a central political and governing strategy. (Well, Jefferson Davis, but he doesn’t count.)
Plainly, it’s not an impulse, a rage tweet, or a bid to deflect attention from some other outrage. It’s a strategy. It is one that his supporters, including elected Republicans, have embraced. Donald Trump will be a major figure in the history of voting rights in the United States. Either he will have clung to office through a brazen bid to block the vote. Or his effort will fall short, and he will go down as a failed cheater. Either way, his assault on American democracy has clarified the urgency of democracy reform.
Trump started his presidency bizarrely claiming fraud in an election he won. “I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally,” he insisted. (Not just illegal voters, evidently, but invisible as well: Nobody saw them.) To prove his bogus claim, he convened a task force chaired by Vice President Mike Pence and guided by Kris Kobach, former Kansas secretary of state. Kobach was so mendacious that a federal judge in a 2018 voting rights case ordered him to take remedial evidence classes. The commission met only twice, found no evidence of fraud, and collapsed in recrimination.
At first, Trump’s claims just resembled a cartoonish version of the arguments made by conservatives. They have been debunked repeatedly, and are easily mocked, but still are widely believed. They provide the constitutional and legal underpinnings to the wave of new laws passed in most states in the past decade that make it harder to vote for the first time since the Jim Crow era.
Nor has Trump’s governmental stance on voting been markedly worse than his party’s. He has nominated egregious judges, of course. His Justice Department switched its position on voter ID laws in Texas and elsewhere, abandoning the department’s Obama-era position that such laws were intentionally discriminatory. But recall how under George W. Bush, two attorneys general made the futile search for voter fraud a top organizational priority. When principled prosecutors refused to pursue charges against innocent people, they were fired. The resulting scandal led to the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
But in 2020 Trump’s approach grew far more dangerous.
It was clear early that the pandemic might make it very hard to hold a free, fair, and safe election in November. During the primary in Milwaukee, for example, the number of polling places fell from 180 to five. Citizens had to wait in line for hours, forced to choose between their health and their vote.
The solutions, urged by election officials of both parties: Universal access to vote by mail (a method already used by one in four Americans, pushed heavily by Republicans, and once among the least controversial voting topics). Early voting. Safe Election Day polling places. Congress quickly appropriated $400 million for states to implement these changes—a big move, though more was needed.
Then Trump began a six-month campaign of loud, braying vilification of every step that would make it possible to hold an election in 2020. At first he blurted out his motive on Fox & Friends. Vote by mail, he said, would mean “that if you’d ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.” Soon he went full authoritarian. He declared that the election would be “rigged” and “fraudulent.” By one count he lied about vote by mail one hundred times before Labor Day. In June, he claimed that “Mail-In Voting . . . will lead to the most CORRUPT ELECTION in our Nation’s History!” Proving it is possible even now to shock, he suggested that the election be postponed.
Trump now travels the country, warning of vote stealing and fraud in language that barely bothers to cloak its racism. To be clear: His charges are not claims, but lies. He’s using the bully pulpit to bully voters. Verbal vote suppression is now a core political strategy of one of the two parties.
Meanwhile, Trump’s political apparatus has lurched into action. In 17 states so far, Republicans have brought lawsuits to challenge the steps needed to run an election—everything from drop boxes so voters can safely leave ballots to extended counting deadlines. Because a longstanding court order has been lifted, the Republican Party can mount a “ballot security” operation to intimidate Black and Latino voters.
Now as Election Day approaches, Trump’s millions of followers have become increasingly convinced the election itself is fraudulent. Support among Republicans for vote by mail has plummeted. Election Day votes may favor Trump. He may declare instant victory, and his backers could refuse to accept any other result.
If Trump loses, Trumpism will live on—with a fear of democracy firmly part of the message. His squad of lifetime-appointed judges will close off courts to voting rights claims.
But there is one bright result of this ominous turn. For the first time in years, the health of our democracy has become a central public issue. Former President Barack Obama gave it voice at Representative John Lewis’s funeral. To honor Lewis’s legacy, he said, we must enact automatic voter registration, enact redistricting reform (all part of H.R.1 which passed the House last year), restore the Voting Rights Act, and admit D.C. as a state. “And if all this takes eliminating the filibuster—another Jim Crow relic—in order to secure the God-given rights of every American,” he said, “then that’s what we should do.”
It would be sweet irony if Trump, the candidate of white backlash, so overreached in his grab for power that it produced its own backlash: a democracy movement that transforms politics.