The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion This election is all about who gets to vote

Volunteer Edward Chow monitors the crowd on Illinois' primary Election Day in Chicago on March 17. (Youngrae Kim/For The Washington Post)
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We’ve never had to conduct a presidential election in the midst of both a pandemic and an economic disaster. But that’s not all that will make the 2020 campaign unique. We are almost certain to spend the next five months before the election arguing about procedure: who will get to vote, whether the vote will be fair and whether the counting will be accurate.

And it won’t end on Election Day. In fact, that’s when things could really start heating up.

In just the past couple of days, we’ve had important new developments in the voting wars. In Florida, a federal judge dealt Republicans a dramatic setback in their effort to keep people with felony convictions from registering to vote. In 2018, voters in the state overwhelmingly passed a ballot initiative allowing those who had served their time to have their voting rights restored. Republicans in the state legislature then passed a law requiring them to pay all fines, fees and restitution before being allowed to vote (but giving them no way of finding out what they owe). The judge held that this amounts to a poll tax, which grants voting rights to those with money but denies those rights to those who can’t pay. The state hasn’t said whether it’ll appeal.

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In California, the Republican Party filed a lawsuit to prevent the state from mailing absentee ballots to all voters, as Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) has announced his intention to do to keep people from going to the polls during a pandemic.

And of course, President Trump has continued his crusade against voting by mail, filled with his usual mix of paranoia and lies:

This, of course, is not the first time Trump has declared that an election is illegitimate and fraudulent if he doesn’t win. After Hillary Clinton got 3 million more votes than he did, he made the false claim that it was only because millions of undocumented immigrants had voted. But you haven’t heard him talk much about that lately; now, he claims that mail voting is inherently fraudulent.

Of course, when Trump talks about voter fraud, he presents it as something only Democrats engage in, even though the only recent major case of absentee ballot fraud involved a Republican consultant in North Carolina. And there is no evidence that mail balloting helps Democrats more than Republicans.

Those facts aren’t relevant to Trump. Because mail voting will increase this year, it’s a handy tool for him to claim the election is illegitimate if he loses. There’s no reason to think he won’t keep up that drumbeat from here to November.

And alongside Trump’s rage-tweeting, there will almost certainly be a string of lawsuits, rulings and new measures passed at the state level as the two parties wage their tug of war over whether it will be made easier or harder to vote. It’s entirely possible, if not likely, that there will be dramatic developments threatening to swing the outcome of the race right up to Election Day.

Then comes Election Day itself. Whether Trump likes it or not, this year there will be more ballots cast by mail than ever before. One of the consequences is that counting the results will take substantially longer than usual, since mail-in ballots take more work to record than votes cast at polling places, where they are quickly read by machine and tallied.

That means it’s entirely possible that we won’t know who won for days. In the key swing state of Pennsylvania, for instance, this is the first year they’re using no-excuse absentee voting, so election officials will be dealing with more mail ballots than they ever have before. No one seems to think they’re ready, and the consequence could be a lengthy delay in determining a winner.

Imagine what Trump will be doing if it’s the day after the election and votes are still being counted in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan and Arizona. Will he be shouting that the election is in the process of being stolen? Will he be encouraging violent protests against election officials?

And then, if former vice president Joe Biden is declared the winner, we can be sure the Republican Party will file lawsuits seeking to have the results overturned. The conservative majority on the Supreme Court handed them a victory in 2000. What’s to stop them from doing it again, especially if multiple states are in dispute?

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Even if those attempts fail and Biden becomes president next January, many Republicans will almost certainly be completely convinced that the election was stolen. Will they say, “Boy, that stinks. We’ll get ’em next time”? Or will they become even more radicalized and reject the legitimacy of not just Biden’s administration but the entire democratic system? What happens then?

That’s all something of a worst-case scenario. But it’s not a fanciful one. What is certain is that we will be arguing about who gets to vote for the foreseeable future. Let’s hope we can get through it with our democracy intact.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Would-be Americans are being kept from becoming citizens — and from voting in the fall

Catherine Rampell: These would-be citizens want to vote this fall. Why is the Trump administration blocking them?

The Post’s View: Texas’s Republican leaders are fighting to keep voting unsafe

Jennifer Rubin: What’s holding up voting by mail?

Marc Elias: The virus means we’ll be voting by mail. But that won’t be easy.

David Becker: Mail-in ballots to avoid coronavirus? Yes, but here’s how to minimize chaos and unfairness.