President Donald Trump stepped up efforts this week to sow doubt about the integrity of the November election, repeatedly suggesting supporters try casting ballots by mail and in person to test whether the voting system “is as good as they say it is.”
Voting twice is illegal. Voting experts and state election supervisors warned it could not only put voters at risk of committing fraud, but could also add chaos to an election already facing unprecedented challenges from the Covid-19 pandemic, an overburdened postal system and Trump’s claims that he will only lose if results are “rigged.”
The president is “not just sowing doubt in the legitimacy of the process, but also sowing chaos and undermining the process itself, both through his words and through his actual actions,” said Wendy Weiser, vice president for democracy at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.
Trump has railed about the expected record number of mail-in ballots this year, despite assurances from election officials that the practice is secure and necessary to lower the risk of spreading the coronavirus at in-person polling sites.
His administration has filed lawsuits in Iowa, Pennsylvania and elsewhere aimed at limiting access to absentee ballot, or halting distribution of official drop boxes used to collect ballots.
Despite his attempts to curtail others, Trump voted absentee in Florida’s primary last month, insisting that state’s system is safe.
During a visit to North Carolina on Wednesday, Trump told a local television station that voters who have mailed ballots in should show up at the polls on November 3 and try to cast another vote because “if their system is as good as they say it is, then obviously they won’t be able to vote. If it isn’t tabulated, they will be able to vote.”
North Carolina officials quickly pushed back, warning that it is a felony for a voter “with intent to commit a fraud to register or vote at more than one precinct or more than one time … in the same primary or election.”
Attorney General William Barr, the nation’s top law enforcement officer, was more equivocal. He told CNN he wasn’t sure what the president meant, but he didn’t dismiss the idea outright, saying Trump is merely “trying to make the point that the ability to monitor this system is not good.”
“And if it was so good, if you tried to vote a second time you would be caught if you voted in person,” Barr added.
When Trump tweeted similar instructions on Thursday, Twitter flagged it with a rare “pubic interest notice … for violating our civic integrity policy, specifically for encouraging people to potentially vote twice.”
As criticism mounted, Trump modified his advice at a rally Thursday night outside Pittsburgh.
He told a cheering crowd in an airport hangar to track their mail-in ballot and if “it’s not tabulated and counted” on Election Day, “you go vote.” He added that if the ballot comes in after Election Day, it would not be counted more than once.
“The only way they are going to beat us is by doing that kind of stuff,” he said, suggesting Democrats would game the system to beat him.
Election officials and voting experts agreed that an individual’s ballot is unlikely to be counted twice, but most condemned Trump’s attempts to goad supporters into trying.
Many states use bar-coded tracking systems or other markings on ballots to show whether someone has already voted by mail. That would prevent the individual from voting again at the polls. In some states, a mail-in vote would be discarded if it arrived after the person had voted at a polling station.
But officials don’t want a glut of people at polling sites trying to test the system, or adding delays and possible disputes at polling places already stressed as officials try to protect volunteer election workers and voters in the pandemic.
Most states are urging voters to mail their ballots in early, track their ballots and resolve any problems before Election Day. As a last resort, some states will let voters cast a provisional ballot without penalty if they have reason to believe their ballot is lost.
“The storm we are trying to avoid is a bunch of people coming to polling places unsure whether their ballots are counted or not,” said Peter Bartz-Gallagher, spokesman for the Minnesota secretary of state’s office. “If a ballot is lost, there’s plenty of time to make it right before the last minute.”
Bartz-Gallagher said Minnesota, which traditionally leads the nation in turnout, is among many expecting a sharp increase in mail-in ballots because of the pandemic and earlier efforts to expand access. Nearly 60 per cent of ballots cast in the state’s August primary came in the mail.
Massachusetts, which had its primary on Tuesday, also saw an uptick in mailed ballots.
William Galvin, the secretary of state, said his office directed local officials to scour post offices for late-arriving ballots on Tuesday and to install as many ballot drop boxes as possible, in part to counter anxiety fueled by Trump and the US Postal Service, which has also expressed doubt about its ability to process ballots in a timely fashion.
Galvin said a few hundred voters who mailed ballots showed up at polling places because their ballots had not yet been registered as received. In those cases, poll workers called the central voting office to verify the lack of a ballot and marked the voter’s electronic file so that if a ballot showed up later it would be discarded.
In the general election, Massachusetts has promised to accept ballots that arrive as late as November 6 provided they are postmarked by Election Day, November 3
Galvin wants Americans to have confidence that their votes will be counted, but worries Trump does not have the same goal.
“He’s created this cloud of suspicion around vote by mail,” said Galvin, a Democrat. “He’s deliberately created a misrepresentation about vote by mail.”
Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School who worked on voting rights in the Obama administration, said Trump’s suggestions to vote twice are part of his broader attempts to undermine confidence in an election he might lose.
He has threatened to send federal law enforcement to polls, a tactic that has been used to intimidate black voters and decrease turnout in Democratic areas in the past. He also has claimed that votes counted after Election Day would amount to fraud, even though states often take hours or days to provide correct tallies.
Laying the seeds of doubt could lay the groundwork for Trump to dispute the results, or challenge them in court, if he loses to Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
“The president seems fixated on undermining the results of the election before the election takes place,” Levitt said. “It continues to be both irresponsible and reprehensible.”
Biden told reporters on Friday in Wilmington, Delaware, that he didn’t want his criticism of Trump’s voting advice to distract from what Democrats see as the president’s bungling of the pandemic and the economy. But Biden said Trump risks undermining even his own voters’ confidence in the election.
“It’s all designed to create so much chaos that no matter what the outcome of the election, it is thrown up in the air,” he said.