Donald Trump’s diagnosis with COVID-19 shifted the race in several ways. It refocused the election on the pandemic. It raised questions about Trump’s honesty and competence. And it sparked concerns about the president’s health.
But it also obscured something important. As the recently thwarted plot to attack Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer shows, the risk of political violence is dangerously high. But President Trump responded by denouncing Whitmer and publicly sympathizing with the attackers’ grievances, which could encourage similar attempts.
And that was before Trump doubled down on his call for poll watchers to be an “Army for Trump.”
Whatever the president’s motivation, it’s playing with fire. And stoking rather than tamping down the potential for violence fits with what Trump and his Republican collaborators had been doing before the president tested positive for coronavirus: laying out a three-pronged strategy to tilt the electoral playing field: voter suppression before the election, voter intimidation during, and voter disenfranchisement after.
In the debate—which was only last Tuesday—Joe Biden acted like a normal presidential candidate while Trump’s main message of the night was undermining the integrity of the election.
The president baselessly claimed that “it’s a rigged election,” citing things he made up about “major states…run by Democrats.” He repeatedly lied about mail-in ballots, spouting nonsense about multiple ballots being sent to the same voters, states “losing 30 and 40 percent” of them, some “being sold,” and others “being dumped in rivers.”
Moderator Chris Wallace asked the candidates if they would call for calm and “pledge tonight that you will not declare victory until the election has been independently certified.” Biden did. Trump refused.
“If it’s a fair election, I am 100 percent on board,” the president said. “But if I see tens of thousands of ballots being manipulated. I can’t go along with that.”
His reason? “It means you have a fraudulent election. You’re not equipped to, these people aren’t equipped to handle it, number one. Number two, they cheat. They cheat.”
Trump’s been pushing this message on Twitter and in public appearances for months. Most people reading this article know these accusations are false — just last week, FBI Director Christopher Wray told the Senate there’s no evidence of widespread voting fraud . But that doesn’t mean Trump supporters do. A mid-September Yahoo/YouGov poll asked “Do you think this year’s presidential election will be free and fair?” Half of the respondents who said they intend to vote for Trump answered “no.”
This fictional voter fraud narrative is necessary because it rationalizes the rest of the three-pronged effort. On voter suppression, it lets Republican-run states complement traditional techniques of purging voter rolls and reducing polling places in predominantly minority areas with 2020-specific variants, such as reducing locations where voters can drop off mail-in ballots.
For example, two days after the debate, Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced that, to “help stop attempts at illegal voting,” counties cannot have more than one location to drop off completed ballots. This forced Harris county, which includes Houston, to close 11 drop-off sites, leaving just a single site for 4.7 million residents.
The next step is what happens on Election Day itself.
Wallace asked the candidates, “Will you urge your supporters to stay calm during this extended period, not to engage in any civil unrest?” This was Trump’s response:
“I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully because that’s what has to happen. I am urging them to do it.”
Then he falsely claimed poll watchers were blocked from observing early voting in Philadelphia — as the Philadelphia Inquirer reported, no actual polling places were open, and satellite election offices where voters can get mail-in ballots were following pandemic rules about limiting the number of people inside — ominously warning that “bad things happen in Philadelphia.”
This doubled-down on something Trump had posted on Twitter before the debate:
So what’s going to happen? The actions taken by Trump supporters could be mild, like the pro-Trump demonstrators who formed a line outside a Virginia polling place this September and chanted slogans, forcing early voters to walk around them.
It could be violent, like the Trump supporters who drove into Portland, shooting paintballs and pepper spray at Black Lives Matter protestors, or like the Proud Boys, a far right group that openly advocates and engages in violence who Trump told to “stand back and stand by.”
It’s impossible to know the type and extent of voter intimidation in advance. Hopefully, there won’t be much. But with Trump and Trumpist media pushing the fictional narrative of fraud, and the president urging supporters to go to polling places to look for it, there’s enough of a risk that we should take the possibility seriously.
And then there is the post-election disenfranchisement. The Trump campaign has already signaled that it intends to claim fraud in any state where mail-in votes make a difference and send an army of lawyers to challenge every Biden vote they can. At the Cleveland debate Trump said, “we might not know [the results] for months.” Which lays the predicate for a situation in which Trump uses the courts to keep results uncertain long enough to pass key post-election deadlines.
What can be done?
Leaders, especially in law enforcement positions, can counter the president’s effort to stir up voter intimidation by making it clear they’ll prosecute election-related crimes, as Nevada Attorney General Aaron D. Ford did after the debate.
Police should prepare for the possibility of armed intimidation at polling places. And concerned citizens should prepare for the unlikely, but not impossible, scenario in which some police are overwhelmed — or choose to look the other way — by being ready to calmly, peacefully escort any intimidated voters into polling places.
Georgetown Law’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection recommends documenting what you see—if uniformed militia show up, photograph or take note of any insignias—and offers fact sheets on the relevant laws in 50 states, which you can find here.
Americans can vote for any candidate they want. But they should be able to do so absent intimidation, and every vote should count.