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The 5 most important words in Michelle Obama’s DNC speech

Democrats are telling their voters not to trust the post office.

Former first lady Michelle Obama speaks during the first night of the Democratic National Convention.
Democratic National Convention via AP
Ian Millhiser is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he focuses on the Supreme Court, the Constitution, and the decline of liberal democracy in the United States. He received a JD from Duke University and is the author of two books on the Supreme Court.

Former first lady Michelle Obama delivered an arresting speech on the first night of the 2020 Democratic National Convention Monday.

“If you think things cannot possibly get worse, trust me, they can,” Obama warned. “And they will, if we don’t make a change in this election.” If the nation is to “have any hope of ending this chaos,” the former first lady continued, then “we have got to vote for Joe Biden like our lives depend on it.”

Ordinarily, the Democratic Party’s quadrennial meeting is an uplifting affair, focusing on the party’s past accomplishments and familiar platitudes about prosperity and patriotism. Monday night’s speeches were something else. For every celebration of democracy, there was an implicit — and, at times, explicit — warning that we are on the cusp of losing it.

“Every four years we come together to reaffirm our democracy,” actress and convention emcee Eva Longoria Baston said at the beginning of the evening. “This year we’ve come to save it.”

Which brings us to the five most significant words of Obama’s address. She did not simply urge her audience to vote for Joe Biden; she urged them to vote early. She urged voters who must vote absentee to request their ballots immediately and return them as soon as possible.

And she urged voters to cast their ballots “in person if we can.”

Those five words — “in person if we can” — mark a subtle but important shift in the party’s messaging about how its voters should cast their ballots. For months, voting rights experts of all stripes urged voters to use mail-in ballots to protect themselves from exposure to the coronavirus and to reduce the size of the crowds at polling places that are likely to be understaffed in November. And this admonition to vote at home with a mailed-in ballot was heard loud and clear — by Democrats.

Numerous polls show that Biden voters are especially likely to vote by mail, while Trump voters are far more likely to vote in person. Historically, mail-in ballots have not skewed toward either party. But this year, Trump has spent months levying false attacks against voting by mail.

More recently, however, Trump has also done something else. Last week, he admitted in a Fox Business interview that he’s stalling pandemic relief, at least in part, to prevent Congress from appropriating funds that will help ensure that every mailed-in ballot is counted.

The Post Service, led by Trump megadonor Louis DeJoy, is decommissioning mail-sorting machines, ordering postal workers to work less, and, at least in some places, slowing the mail to a crawl. DeJoy claims these changes are intended to place the Postal Service on stronger financial footing and that they do not target the election. But targeted or not, they could have serious effects on America’s democracy. It is far from clear that a ballot mailed at a reasonable time before the November election will be delivered in time for it to be counted.

In fact, the Postal Service warned 46 states in July that it might not be able to guarantee that ballots will arrive on time.

So Democrats are adapting. They are now urging their voters to cast a ballot early and to do so in person, if possible. It’s the best way to “make a change.”

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