Voting by mail: Are we really playing with fire?

Voting by mail: Are we really playing with fire?
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President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden says voters should choose who nominates Supreme Court justice Trump, Biden will not shake hands at first debate due to COVID-19 Pelosi: Trump Supreme Court pick 'threatens' Affordable Care Act MORE and his wife vote by mail. So does Attorney General William Barr. Yet, Trump trashes states using mail-in voting during the COVID pandemic. Except for Florida. He says Florida is OK. According to studies, all forms of voting fraud are extremely rare in the United States. Barr testified to Congress that he had no facts suggesting voter fraud this year by the use of the mail or otherwise.

Barr, nevertheless, channeled Trump in condemning mail-in voting, telling CNN that, “This is playing with fire. We’re a very closely divided country here…People trying to change the rules to this…methodology – which, as a matter of logic, is very open to fraud and coercion – is reckless and dangerous and people are playing with fire.”

The attorney general also repeated the conspiracy fantasy that foreign governments could create large numbers of absentee ballots and send them to voters. Experts say this would be nearly impossible to accomplish. But Barr’s statements stoke Trump’s embers that question the legitimacy of mail-in voting altogether. Barr conceded he had no evidence to support this theory. He said he was “basing it on logic.” He may as well have based it on “illogic.”

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This election year is unique. Because of the virus, many voters may prefer to vote by mail rather than risk their health by going to the polls. Mail-in and absentee ballots are not ordinarily a factor in national elections, but this year they could prove decisive. Election rules are governed by state law. And in the seven swing states there are laws that mail-in ballots, even though postmarked prior to November 3, if received by the election authorities after November 3, will be ignored. Polls show that many of these states will go blue if all the votes are fairly counted, but that they could readily go red if most of the mail-in vote is not. And the Post Office warns that many mail-in votes will not arrive in time.

If that happens, Trump wins. Democracy loses.

Trump has other paths to victory. If there is no clear answer in the Electoral College by December 8, the statutory “safe harbor date,” the election could be thrown to the House of Representatives, where the Constitution provides that the members vote by states. Here, the Republicans have the advantage. They outnumber Democrats in the House 25 states to 24 with one state, Pennsylvania, tied. If this happens, again Trump wins by losing.

Trump has decided to defund the Post Office. Why now? Millions of Americans depend on the mail for social security checks, health care reports, news of their loved ones in harm’s way and other vital pieces of information. One could only speculate as to the reason, except Trump has admitted it. He made the dead giveaway that his purpose is to prevent Democrats from expanding mail balloting, which he said would hurt his reelection chances.

So, what is the answer? There must be a national “make your vote count” campaign. Voters who do not wish to go to the polls in person, because of the virus fear factor or otherwise, should personally take their ballots to the elections office nearest their location, and deposit them there before Election Day. If the elections office provides drop boxes, as is the case in many states, this would be easy. The Trump campaign is already trying to block the use of drop boxes in Pennsylvania. If the state does not provide drop boxes, the voter would have to go for it, put on a mask, go inside and hand her ballot to the election clerk. Presumably, lines would be shorter, and the voting transaction would be speedier than at the polls themselves. The director of elections in Denver says she calls mail-in voting “ballot delivery” because “most voters actually return their ballots in person, as opposed to using the Post Office to mail it back.” Trump said he disapproves of drop-boxes because of the hazard that they may become infected with COVID. That statement was so misleading that Twitter tagged it on its platform for “making misleading health claims that could potentially dissuade people from participation in voting." 

The right to vote in a fair and honest election is a precious asset of the American constitutional system, not to be squandered or undermined. The journalist Anne Applebaum suggests that we are in a global “twilight of democracy” with a seductive drift toward authoritarianism. Let’s hope it doesn’t happen here.

James D. Zirin is the author of the recently published book “Plaintiff in Chief-A Portrait of Donald Trump in 3500 Lawsuits.”