With just eight weeks to go, Democrats are growing increasingly anxious about the 2020 election and the potential for nightmare voting scenarios that could lead to President Donald Trump’s reelection this fall.
While former Vice President Joe Biden holds a comfortable lead in national opinion surveys, Trump has closed the gap in some polls of crucial battleground states like Florida and Pennsylvania, which could decide the outcome of the presidential race.
The coronavirus pandemic, meanwhile, may prevent Americans from learning who won on Election Day. An explosion in absentee voting coupled with delays in processing mail-in ballots is likely to delay results in both the presidential and congressional contests.
Add to the mix Trump’s incendiary claims about “rigged” elections and his false attacks against mail-in voting, and you have a recipe for chaos that has some elected officials worried the president will refuse to concede even if he loses outright in November.
“There are somewhere between 15 and 20 deeply worrying scenarios that in any other year would seem paranoid,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said. “Trump has shown himself to be completely without scruple or ethics. I worry about any of the above. Name a scenario, I’m worried.”
“My greatest fear is that President Trump will resist the verdict of democracy and call into question its honesty and integrity and make a mess of things in the courts,” added Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who, like Blumenthal, serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Earlier this year, Democrats launched a massive legal campaign to fight Republican efforts to restrict voting across the nation. The multimillion-dollar strategy has paid dividends in the courts, handing the Democrats victories against state voter-registration purges, ID requirements, and rules regarding signature-matching and ballot orders.
Republicans have also ramped up their legal attacks on voting by mail. The Trump campaign recently sued Montana, New Jersey and Nevada over those states’ expansion of mail-in voting.
Democrats are hoping their legal operation, helmed by election lawyer Marc Elias in coordination with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, will act as an insurance policy if Trump tries to contest the election results.
“We’re building up a legal apparatus to first and foremost make sure everybody gets to cast a vote, but it won’t hurt to have that legal apparatus in place if we are dealing with some ridiculous contest from the president,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.).
In a potential preview of coming election chaos, the Wisconsin Supreme Court told election officials on Wednesday not to mail out absentee ballots until the court decides whether to add the Green Party’s presidential ticket to the ballot ― even though more than 370,000 ballots may have already been sent out. The 4-3 order fell along ideological lines, with conservative justices ruling in the majority. Wisconsin is a key battleground this year ― Trump won the state in 2016 by only about 20,000 votes.
“It’s just crazy to me that we have to root for a 7 to 8 point win,” Murphy told HuffPost. “In today’s political climate, winning by 3 to 4 points should be considered a thumping, but that all of a sudden makes people nervous sort of by how rigged our democracy has become.”
The top congressional Democrats sent an unusual plea to their colleagues this week, advising them to urge their constituents to vote as early as possible.
“To prevent Donald Trump from stealing this election, VOTE,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) warned in a letter addressed to their members. “Americans must vote as early as they can — especially if you plan to vote by mail.”
Although in today’s polarized political climate, no one expected Biden to sustain his large lead over Trump until November, there are signs the race has become more competitive in recent weeks.
The nonpartisan Cook Political Report this week shifted its ratings of two swing states, Florida and Nevada, in Trump’s favor. Its analysis cited two factors ― the potential effect of the pandemic on traditional Democratic get-out-the-vote efforts and Biden’s weakness among Latino voters, who constitute a significant share of the population in each state. Polls have shown Biden underperforming with Latinos compared to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.
The polling misses of the 2016 election still weigh heavily in the minds of Democrats. Some fear it could happen all over again given the historic pandemic and the ways it might impact voting.
“I am respectful about the polls but I do worry about whether voters are really going to mail in their ballots or go to the polls, whether they are being honest with the pollsters, whether there’ll be enough poll watchers, all kinds of other scenarios that could make a difference in a battleground state,” Blumenthal said.
Biden and Trump have both placed a priority on Rust Belt states, making several visits to Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania this month. Both candidates attended events in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, on Friday to commemorate the 19th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Recent polls have shown Biden leading Trump in Pennsylvania by as many as 9 percentage points, although some have found Trump closing the gap after the Republican National Convention last month.
“The president will do anything to win, including breaking the law, but I think the turnout is going to be strong enough to be a convincing win ― but convincing could be 2 or 3 points,” said Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.).
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) ― who was Clinton’s running mate in 2016 and felt the heartbreak of the polling personally ― said he is “not overly” confident in the presidential polls. He expressed concern about the ways Trump may use his powers as president in service of his reelection, pointing to Trump’s promotion of materials illegally obtained by Russian hackers during the 2016 election.
Last month, Trump staged pardoning and naturalization ceremonies as part of the GOP’s official nominating convention, which he held in part on the grounds of the White House. The U.S. Department of Justice also announced this week that government lawyers would take over defending the president against a defamation lawsuit by a woman who has accused him of raping her in the 1990s.
“At that time, at least he didn’t have governmental power,” Kaine said of Trump’s 2016 bid. “Now, he’s got tools and governmental power at his disposal so there’s nothing he won’t do to win, including accepting help from a foreign adversary.”
“We have to be completely at the top of our game,” he warned.
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