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Trump’s plan to win by invalidating votes, explained

First, make it illegal to count votes quickly. Second, paint the slow count as suspicious.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Behind in the polls, Republicans are becoming increasingly blunt about their plan to win the election: don’t let everyone’s votes be counted.

As Astead Herndon and Annie Karni reported for the New York Times Saturday evening: “Trump advisers said their best hope was if the president wins Ohio and Florida is too close to call early in the night, depriving Mr. Biden a swift victory and giving Mr. Trump the room to undermine the validity of uncounted mail-in ballots in the days after.”

This is a very plausible scenario. As Vox’s Andrew Prokop has explained, due to differences in local election law, “the general expectation is that Florida, North Carolina, and Arizona are in a good place to count most of their votes on election night or soon afterward” but “Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan — the trio of states that clinched Trump’s victory in 2016 — are a different story.”

Current polls show Biden leading in all six states. But his leads are narrower in the fast-counting states than in the slow-counting states, so if Trump does moderately better than polls currently suggest, he could win the fast-counting states on election night and wage battle in the courts to try to prevent the slow-counting ones from fully tallying their votes.

It’s a longshot effort, but the only reason it’s on the table at all is that the GOP-controlled legislatures in those three states have deliberately acted to keep the vote count slow. So there are indications Trump may have party support if he tries to undermine the counting. Meanwhile, other actions over the weekend from North Carolina to Texas reveal a Republican Party that is broadly committed to using roadblocks to voting as a strategy for victory.

Vote suppression in Texas and North Carolina

Police officers in Graham, North Carolina, used pepper spray on a peaceful crowd participating in a Black Lives Matter “march to the polls” event Saturday. Witnesses in North Carolina reported gas was turned on a crowd including children and the elderly.

Rank-and-file police have become increasingly enmeshed in partisan politics, with police union representatives featured heavily at the Republican National Convention and pro-Trump gatherings using the Thin Blue Line flag in addition to the American flag.

Meanwhile in Texas, where the new “judge” (chief executive) of Harris County (which includes Houston) has gone to extraordinary lengths to boost voter turnout, two disturbing incidents serve as reminders of the lengths to which Republicans will go to win.

On the legal front, the Texas Republican Party has sued in court to get over 100,000 votes that have already been cast at Houston-area “drive-through” voting centers invalidated. Tossing them out at this point would not only be a huge inconvenience for those voters, it would likely prevent people from voting altogether. The claim is legally dubious and has already been dismissed by a Republican-dominated Texas Supreme Court. But the district court judge to which the case has been assigned, Andrew Hanen, is one of the most right-wing and incautious figures in the entire federal judiciary.

Separately in Texas, a swarm of Trump supporters surrounded a Biden/Harris campaign bus in Hays County in the Austin suburbs, prompting an FBI investigation.

In a stark contrast with Republicans’ purported belief in decorum over things like Sarah Sanders being refused service at a restaurant, Trump hailed the assailants on Twitter, remarking “I LOVE TEXAS!”

It’s very unlikely that police officers going rogue in North Carolina will effectively suppress the vote there, or that Texas will be decisive in the election. But these irregular activities speak to a larger strategy for winning the election that focuses on invalidating legitimate votes.

The plan to not count the votes, explained

Many states, especially those with Democratic governors, moved to expand early voting and vote-by-mail options this year, both in light of the Covid-19 pandemic and also because Democrats tend to favor these ideas in general. Trump has all along maintained the paradoxical position that expanded mail voting is bad because it’s highly vulnerable to fraud (which is not true), but that the widespread use of vote-by-mail in Florida (where it’s well-entrenched and Republicans have a robust vote-by-mail infrastructure in place) is good.

The dispute about vote-by-mail and the larger dispute about the pandemic ultimately opened up a huge partisan gap in how people are voting. Across the country, Biden supporters are much more likely than Trump supporters to be voting by mail.

This, in turn, opened up a partisan gap in election administration. In states like Florida and Arizona where mail voting is long established, it’s normal to start counting early votes in advance. As the Democratic governors in the Northern battleground states moved to expand early voting, they also moved to update vote-counting procedures to match the fast-counting process. But in all three states, legislatures that have Republican majorities (despite a majority of votes in each state having been cast for Democratic state legislators) opted not to do that.

Separately, states vary in how they treat the deadline for ballots to arrive. In some places, a ballot is valid as long as it was mailed by Election Day (the way it works with tax returns) while in others it must arrive by Election Day. Republicans have forced states to discount late-arriving votes, while simultaneously the US Postal Service has slowed down mail delivery, with large slowdowns seeming to happen in swing states.

Consequently, in the Northern battlegrounds:

  • Some voters will have their preferences not counted because the mail came too slowly.
  • The initial counts will likely be heavily weighted toward Republicans who vote in person, then swing toward Democrats over time as the mailed ballots add up.

It’s extremely common in the United States for it to take days or weeks to fully tally the votes in an election. In 2018, there was a House race in California that wasn’t settled until November 26. But Trump’s rhetorical denigration of mail voting as fraud-ridden, his frequent statements at rallies that we should know the winner of the election on Election Day (which is not, and has never been, any kind of rule), and Republican legislatures’ refusal to modernize counting practices have long raised eyebrows.

As Jason Miller, a Trump campaign official, put it Sunday morning on ABC, “If you speak with many smart Democrats, they believe that Trump will be ahead on election night, probably getting 280 electoral [votes], somewhere in that range, and then they’re gonna try to steal it back after the election.”

Herndon and Karni’s reporting confirms that if Trump manages to hold on in the South, his campaign has a formal strategy of trying to invalidate the vote in the slow-counting Great Lakes states.

And the alarming acts in Texas and North Carolina are reminders that Republicans won’t necessarily limit themselves to legal means — or be limited by sworn law enforcement officers — in their efforts to get what they want.

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