Why Donald Trump cannot use the coronavirus to cancel the election
Imagine it is seven months from now in late October. Despite the massive efforts of the administration, the coronavirus has not disappeared. In fact, the autumn weather has increased the number of confirmed cases after a decline over the summer. The economy has not recovered from its plunge at the beginning of the pandemic in our country. The general election is only weeks away, and Joe Biden has an insurmountable lead.
Faced with probable defeat, could President Trump take unprecedented actions like postponing the election to prop up his political fortunes? Will his casual disregard for democratic norms extend to scuttling the chance for voters to cast their ballots and have their say? He would seem, at least legally, to have no path to this. The precise date of federal elections is set by law, and House Democrats are unlikely in anything but extraordinary circumstances to support new legislation changing that date.
The Constitution decides the date for incoming members of Congress to take office. Changing this would require an amendment. Article One also unambiguously gives Congress the power of the purse. Yet the national emergency declaration by President Trump last year to divert funds that Congress explicitly refused to appropriate to build the border wall with Mexico was a direct challenge to the separation of powers.
Whether his legal arguments will prevail in court remains uncertain. But is it really inconceivable that President Trump will not push even further? If he did invoke emergency powers to postpone the election, there is some evidence that he could count on support from Republicans. Indeed, in a 2017 poll, a majority of Republicans believed his unsubstantiated claims that millions of illegal aliens in the country voted in 2016 and said they would support President Trump postponing the election if he found it necessary to ensure that only American citizens can vote.
There is of course precedent for postponing local elections, including the rescheduling of the primary elections in Ohio, Georgia, and Louisiana this year. The 9/11 terrorist attacks happened on the morning of the New York City mayoral primary, which had to be postponed. In the Empire State this week, local elections for village mayors have been delayed.
Putting off a federal election is nearly impossible, but there are tactics to influence it. The administration called for the mailing of checks to every household to stimulate the economy. President Trump could attempt to send another round of checks right before the election. He would not be alone in doing so. After signing a bill during an election year that raised Social Security benefits by 20 percent, President Nixon rushed to send letters to program recipients alerting them to the increase.
President Trump could, in executing stimulus bills, channel benefits, and federal dollars, focus disproportionately on swing states. Research shows this would also be far from exceptional. Even natural disaster declarations are routinely influenced by both partisan and electoral politics. While the number of severe weather events and the amount of storm damage are the strongest predictors of the number of natural disaster declarations a county receives, those counties in swing states receive a more favorable response from the White House when natural disasters strike.
President Trump has pursued policies that have concentrated benefits among his base and pain among his opponents. Key provisions of his tax cuts were carefully crafted to extract more revenue from blue states. He sued California to revoke its authority to set tougher emission standards. At his behest, Customs and Border Protection ceased processing Trusted Traveler Program applications for New Yorkers. Conversely, after a lifting of the moratorium on offshore drilling, the administration swiftly granted Florida an exception while rebuffing requests from other states.
Could President Trump follow a similar playbook and conform the federal response to the coronavirus to shore up his prospects? Or will he live up to his oath of office and place the national interest ahead of his electoral interest? In this administration, as we know, anything is possible.
Steve Israel served more than a decade in Congress representing New York and is currently the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. Douglas Kriner is a professor of government and faculty director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University.