President Donald Trump’s outrageous, dangerous, and insidious behavior seeking to stir chaos and cast doubt on the election throughout 2020 has been highly scrutinized by the media, often characterized by the more forthright outlets as an obvious and desperate attempt by a weak man to cling to power.
But while the president’s open attempts to undermine a free and fair election in the United States have attracted serious attention, the complex way in which the Republican Party as a whole has been complicit in — and in fact, has often led — this nefarious scheme has often gone unmentioned. In fact, some have even turned to the GOP leadership in expectation that they would denounce the open attacks on the electoral process, only to be disappointed in the vast majority of cases.
The truth is that the the legacy of Jim Crow and the conservative movement, and the Republican Party that is its current vehicle, have always been hostile toward voting access. As I’ve argued, the party has become increasingly explicit in its denunciation of democracy. In 2012, they started a full-court press of voter ID laws, which at least one GOP official admitted were intended to hand victory to Mitt Romney. Even before that, they were stoking nebulous claims of voter fraud without an substantial basis for years, claims which could be used to restrict the franchise
The 2020 election, however, is a whole new ball game. The Republican strategy hasn’t just been about restrictions on voting rights and access, seeking to squeeze out the marginal voter who was more likely to be disadvantaged and Democratic-leaning.
Now, the plan has been to spark all-out chaos.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, for instance, fought tooth and nail against increased funding for election security after Russia’s interference in 2016. (Often forgotten about the Kremlin’s attacks was an intensive probing of election systems across the country, a cyber incursion we still don’t fully understand and that might leave us vulnerable yet.) He eventually relented and allowed for an additional $250 million to be allocated for election security after being dubbed “Moscow Mitch.” But that figure was far below what many Democrats and experts thought would be sufficient to address the issue.
It was a puzzling stance for McConnell and the GOP to take after the events of 2016. There’s nothing partisan about wanting to secure election systems from foreign influence, and the Republicans usually have no objection to limitless national security spending when it comes to funding the Pentagon. One major conclusion that seems reasonable is that McConnell favors electoral chaos, so he isn’t interested in trying to prevent it.
When the pandemic hit, McConnell once again seemed to favor chaos. Experts argued that the shift in circumstances for the upcoming election demanded a huge infusion of federal funds — between $3 and 4 billion — to local election administrators, especially in light of local government budget shortfalls. But Republicans refused, approving only $400 million in the initial CARES Act — far less than what was needed. Shortages of poll resources and polling sites, which have led to long lines and waits to vote across the country, may be attributable to this stinginess.
And it’s not just the congressional Republicans causing problems.
During Wisconsin’s primary election in early April, right as the pandemic was surging, the state’s Republican legislature dismissed widespread fears about the outbreak and calls to delay the vote. One seat on the ballot, after all, was a key position on the state supreme court, and Republicans seemed to think that proceeding amid pandemic chaos would help their chances of holding on to it. The GOP’s candidate ended up losing, but the election may have spread the virus.
As the Nov. 3 election has drawn closer, Trump himself has gotten increasingly desperate. He’s been attacking mail-in ballots for months, baselessly suggesting they’re ripe for fraud. He’s complained that every glitch and error in the administration of elections thus far has been evidence of widespread fraud or some plot against him, despite experts’ constant debunking.
Now, in the last days of the campaign, he’s seized on the unfounded notion that there must be a final result on Election Day itself and that any votes counted after that point are de facto illegitimate. This claim has no support in history or law; states have weeks to count their ballots, and in many cases ballots can be legitimately received for days after Nov. 3. The only calls made on Election Night itself are projections made by media institutions — they have no force in law, even if a candidate concedes, and states won’t certify the results until much later.
This final move on Trump’s part, though, has long been anticipated. Ever since he launched his disinformation campaign against mail-in ballots, it’s been clear that he intended for his voters to dominate the Election Day vote as he tried to delegitimize all other votes. It’s not clear if there’s much of an actual plan here, but the general strategy seem to be to incite chaos, and then hope battles at the Supreme Court and possibly even in Congress can be used to resolve the election in Trump’s favor.
Republican-appointed justices on the Supreme Court have even seemed to open the door to this possibility, or at least to welcome the calls for chaos. The court his consistently inserted itself into election rules disputes this fall, typically deciding against efforts to make voting more accessible. And in a pre-election coup de grâce, some of the conservatives on the court have signaled they’re open to throwing out a small percentage mail-in ballots that arrive in Pennsylvania after Election Day, invoking a novel and strained constitutional argument.
Meanwhile, Republican lawyers across the country are trying to sow chaos in various ways. One group in Texas, which sought to have 100,000 ballots thrown out from the Democratic-leaning Harris County on an extremely flimsy argument, was slapped down on Monday by a district court judge. But the case will be appealed up to the circuit court, and there’s no telling how it will go from there.
One of the most egregious parts about Trump’s demands that the vote counting be completed by Tuesday night is that it’s his allies that have made this so much more difficult. Republican legislatures in the Rust Belt states — most importantly, Pennsylvania — have refused to let officials begin counting mail-in ballots as they arrive. Instead, they will have to begin the count on Election Day itself, a needless rule that only ensures the count will be dragged out longer. It may be several days before we have a clear sense of a presidential winner in these key swing states.
If the GOP actually believed in the principle of getting an election result as soon as possible, it could have offered states much more funding and adjusted the laws to make an efficient and speedy count possible. But they refused to do that, even as the leader of their party complains about the consequences of this inaction.
The conclusion is clear: The chaos is the point. They know Trump is unlikely to win this election fairly, and they think creating chaos and confusion is their best chance at maintaining a grip on power.
There are, however, some indications that this plan is likely to fail. If the polls are accurate, or if they’re underestimating Joe Biden’s level of support, the former vice president is likely to be ahead in the end by such substantial margin that the GOP’s chaos won’t matter. Turnout is already setting new records, so despite the GOP’s desire to suppress the vote, the United States may have more access to the ballot than ever before. In fact, as seemed to have happened in Wisconsin’s April election, the suppression efforts themselves may be encouraging supercharged turnout. And as the case of the Harris County ballots showed, there are some arguments that even right-wing judges will refuse to accept, even if the decision would benefit their side.
Elections shouldn’t have to be this hard, and Democrats shouldn’t have to win by a landslide to ensure that the results are reached fairly. But at least for now, there’s an optimistic case that democracy will function as intended, if quite imperfectly.