Going postal: Could a Democrat victory end up lost in the post?

Going postal: Could a Democrat victory end up lost in the post?

A funding crisis, a hollowing out of capacity and much greater demands could stretch the USPS to breaking point

There are six general processes that need to be satisfied in order for us to be able to legitimately describe an election as free, fair and democratic.
– Parties, candidates and voters need to be able to register without undue hindrance; and accurate records of those registrations then kept.
– Parties and candidates need to be able to campaign freely, with fair access to the media and electorate.
– Voters need to be able to cast their ballots secretly, securely and without undue barriers.
– The voting system used should translate votes cast into election results in an unbiased, consistent and logical way.
– Votes need to be counted accurately, and the results of those counts announced to the public and to candidates within a reasonable timeframe.
– The announced winners of the election need to be able to take the offices to which they’ve been elected.

It naturally follows that if you want to rig an election, you need to corrupt one or more of the above to your advantage, ideally as far out of sight as possible. So how do you do that?

The best options are to target the early stages of the process: skew the electoral roll to your advantage, make it hard for your opponents to campaign, and ensure there’s an element of threat and retribution to communities and/or individuals who campaign the wrong way. If you can do that then the bit that the outside world pays attention to – the voting and counting – can all be done above board with little worry. See Vladamir Putin for details.

That level of control is generally not possible in federal US elections, where power is dispersed to a far greater extent (and indeed, elections are not even run by the federal government) – though that might not matter if your supporters have their hands on local levers on your behalf. However, one lever that does sit in DC is the US postal service.

Voting-by-mail is widespread in the US. One poll this week, from Pew Research, found that some 39% of voters would prefer to vote by mail, as against 40% who prefer to vote in person on Nov 3, and 18% who’d cast an early ballot in person. This doesn’t necessarily mean that two-fifths will vote by mail – availability varies from state to state – but it is probably fairly indicative of that given the expansion of the option that Covid-19 has prompted.

What is particularly striking though is the extent to which the use of postal voting differs between Republicans and Democrats. The same poll found that while only 17% of Trump-supporters would prefer to vote by mail, fully 58% of those backing Biden would. If the Trump administration wanted to rig the process towards the GOP, this would be the place to do it.

As ever, it also helps if there’s a convenient cover, where partisan advantage can be put down to an ‘unintentional’ side-effect of an innocent decision – and in this case, there is: the USPS is in a financial crisis, made worse by Covid-19, and in the absence of a bail-out its leaders are implementing cuts. So at the same time that voting by mail will almost certainly reach record levels, there are fewer machines, and people working fewer hours to process them. The net result is that it’s quite possible that many ballots may not be returned in time to be included in the count. Trump and the Postmaster General (a Trump donor) are well aware of this.

Will that be enough to swing the election? We simply can’t say without knowing quite how many votes might be affected, and where, and what the results of those states will be. While Biden has enjoyed a clear lead all year, that’s not guaranteed to last (though I think it will: Trump has too many people too strongly against him, and Biden doesn’t).

One other effect of the scale of both the voting by mail, and the partisan split in postal vote usage, is a much greater Blue Shift in the results than previously: the phenomenon where results move towards the Democrats as postal votes arrive within deadline but after polling day itself. Even with a clear Biden lead, this effect might lead to Trump appearing to have won on the night, only for the figures to then move strongly against him – something which will no doubt enable him to cry ‘fraud’, especially having teed that claim up already.

What we should be prepared for is November 3 not being the end of the election, both because the numbers themselves could change quite markedly and because both candidates could cry ‘foul’, with greater or lesser justification. Expect court cases for sure; don’t be too surprised if Trump tries to have Electoral College votes not awarded or not counted if doing so will swing the election.

The right to vote is nothing unless it comes with the right to have that vote counted (and much else besides). The concern for those taking part, and those observing from beyond America’s shores, is that far too many may not be.

David Herdson

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