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Opinion Trump just told us how mail delays could help him corrupt the election

President Trump at Thursday's press briefing at the White House. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

It’s telling that after President Trump was widely rebuked for suggesting a delay of the election, he wasn’t remotely chastened. Instead, he floated another scenario that could help him accomplish the same goal of avoiding a free and fair election:

He suggested that only the votes that can be tallied on Election Day should count.

This may seem like Trumpian bluster. But it’s much more alarming in light of an important new exposé in The Post that reports on big backlogs in mail delivery due to “cost-cutting” by the new head of the U.S. Postal Service — who, by spectacular coincidence, just happens to be a top Trump fundraiser.

And here’s an additional reason for alarm that needs more attention: The impact of those delays could be dramatically exacerbated by state laws that invalidate ballots that are mailed before Election Day but arrive after Election Day.

Guess which key presidential swing states have such provisions invalidating ballots that arrive after Election Day?

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All of them do, with the exception of North Carolina.

“In states where ballots won’t count if they are received after Election Day, the impact could be devastating," Vanita Gupta, the CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, told me, adding that this could “result in potentially hundreds of thousands of ballots getting rejected.”

“The delays are going to be unpredictable with the cuts being made on the postal service,” Gupta continued. “That impact could turn a swing state completely.”

The Post exposé reports that Postmaster General Louis DeJoy is implementing changes that have critics charging that mail delays may be “the result of a political effort to undermine absentee voting.”

These changes, The Post reports, include “prohibiting overtime pay, shutting down sorting machines early and requiring letter carriers to leave mail behind when necessary to avoid extra trips or late delivery on routes.” The result:

The new policies have resulted in at least a two-day delay in scattered parts of the country, even for express mail, according to multiple postal workers and union leaders. Letter carriers are manually sorting more mail, adding to the delivery time. Bins of mail ready for delivery are sitting in post offices because of scheduling and route changes. And without the ability to work overtime, workers say the logjam is worsening without an end in sight.

A spokesperson for the USPS is vowing that the changes are temporary and are not intended to delay the transmission of mailed ballots. But delays could nonetheless end up having a massive disenfranchising effect whatever the USPS’s motives, due to the precise confluence of factors coming together right now.

What’s more, USPS officials can plead innocence all they want, but Trump himself is banking on these delays to save his reelection hopes. Trump is basically telling us so himself.

Historian Carol Anderson traces the evolution of voter suppression tactics — from poll taxes to poll closures — and argues they are all rooted in White rage. (Video: The Washington Post)

Trump said it out loud

At Thursday’s press briefing, Trump unleashed a stream of absurdities about vote-by-mail, and tellingly said this:

So many years, I’ve been watching elections. And they say the “projected winner” or the “winner of the election” — I don’t want to see that take place in a week after November 3rd or a month or, frankly, with litigation and everything else that can happen, years. Years. Or you never even know who won the election.
You’re sending out hundreds of millions of universal, mail-in ballots — hundreds of millions. Where are they going? Who are they being sent to?

It’s all there. Trump is looking to declare himself winner on Election Day, no matter how many mail ballots remain uncounted. He will say they are fraudulent. And if they tip the result against him, he will say that outcome is rigged, something he has already said publicly is inevitable.

And so, any such delays — whatever the USPS’s intentions — will be seized on by Trump to delegitimize all of those outstanding ballots.

Now add into this volatile mix those state laws mentioned above.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice and the Democratic-run Democracy Docket, swing states that currently do not accept ballots that are postmarked before but arrive after Election Day include: Arizona, Florida, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio and Georgia. Those states will decide the election.

This sheds more light on an important piece by David Wasserman predicting a disaster brewing around absentee ballots. Democrats will use vote-by-mail in far higher numbers than Republicans — due to Trump’s nonstop attacks on it — yet absentee ballots get rejected at disproportionate rates, due to procedural complexities.

We now see why that might happen in a particularly worrisome way: Because they arrive after Election Day. Indeed, as Paul Waldman pointed out, such invalidation is already happening in primaries.

A disastrous scenario

We cannot know in advance what sort of numbers we’re dealing with here, but in very close races, the impact could be serious.

“This is certainly one significantly disastrous scenario that is looming,” Wendy Weiser, who directs the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, told me.

It’s obviously very possible that Biden’s leads could remain large enough to negate such problems. But does anyone think it’s wise — or fair — to have to count on that?

Indeed, Weiser points out that this is doubly ludicrous amid current conditions — postal cutbacks even as a pandemic drives demand for vote-by-mail much higher.

“This is particularly unreasonable during a pandemic,” Weiser said. “We’re already experiencing substantial delays in the mail that will make it exceedingly difficult for many to meet those states’ deadlines, through no fault of their own.”

There is recourse here: Top Democratic lawyer Marc Elias tells me Democrats are litigating against these laws in every swing state, with an eye toward getting ballots counted that are postmarked before but arrive after Election Day. The absurdity of that deadline amid a pandemic and postal cutbacks might boost their legal case.

So it’s very possible Democrats could succeed in getting ballots counted after Election Day in many swing states. But even if that happens, try to imagine the paranoia Trump will whip up in his supporters about it. Then imagine what sort of civil conflict could erupt if Trump does lose after Election Day in exactly this fashion.

Democratic Party lawyer Marc Elias says states and Congress need to act now to ensure all votes count during the general election. These changes are overdue. (Video: The Washington Post)

Read more:

Michael Waldman and Harold Ekeh: Trump’s call to postpone elections is an outrageous break with American faith in democracy

The Post’s View: Trump cannot move the vote. But he can undermine our trust in it.

Henry Olsen: Trump’s suggestion to delay the election is the most anti-democratic thing any president ever said

Jennifer Rubin: A new report shows the 2020 election is in peril. Congress must act.

Brian Klaas: Here’s how to prepare for Trump rejecting the election results in November

Kevin Johnson and Yuval Levin: There are two easy steps to avoiding chaos this election. We haven’t taken them yet.