Early Monday morning, after returning from a European commemoration of the end of World War I and as Americans awoke to observe the Veterans Day holiday, President Trump announced a bold new strategy: refusing to recognize the votes of U.S. service members stationed overseas.
Trump, who has long argued without evidence that there was widespread voting fraud in the election that he won in 2016, was riffing off the tune played by Scott, Florida’s sitting governor, who leads his race to unseat incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson by less than 13,000 votes out of nearly 8.2 million votes counted. The slow pace of counting mail-in votes, particularly in urban (and blue-leaning) counties such as Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade, has led Scott to claim on Fox News — against the opinion of Florida’s top law enforcement agency — that “Sen. Nelson is trying to commit fraud to win this election.” What evidence does Scott have? None, other than that the offending South Florida counties “came up with 93,000 votes after election night. We still don’t know how they came up with that.”
As it happens, we do know where those votes came from: Among other sources, many of the ballots that arrive after Election Day are cast by military service members, contractors and dependents deployed overseas. Scott — a Navy veteran whose own administration snubbed several Florida-born Medal of Honor recipients to nominate him for the state’s new Military Hall of Fame in 2011 — should have known that from his time aboard a Pacific-based frigate. Indeed, the state he represents is one of the friendliest states of the union when it comes to accommodating overseas and military voters: It requires ballots to be sent to deployed service members at least 45 days before Election Day, and it counts those votes as long as they’re postmarked by Election Day and received in the voter’s home county within 10 days of the election — in this case, Nov. 16. Florida, in fact, has historically had a higher percentage of military personnel request and return mail-in ballots than any other state in the union.
What’s so puzzling about Trump’s, and Scott’s, anti-vote-counting fervor is that the military franchise probably benefits them, and their party has long fought for it to be counted. The armed services have always skewed conservative; recent polls have shown that even though military opinions of Trump are deeply divided, service members continue to favor him (and, presumably, his preferred candidates) at a higher rate than the U.S. population more generally. The “military vote” has long been an important Republican constituency. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed a law to make it easier for military personnel to register and exercise their voting rights; under its provisions, a Pentagon agency, the Federal Voting Assistance Program, helps service members understand and navigate the voting process, wherever they are. (Several months ago, as the editor of a site for young veterans and servicemembers, I worked with FVAP on a campaign to educate military voters, headlined “Think your absentee ballot doesn’t matter? Here’s proof it does.”)
As recently as 2009, researchers at the conservative Heritage Foundation argued that Democrats had disenfranchised military overseas voters in the 2008 blue wave that elected Barack Obama. They pointed to that year’s Minnesota Senate race, in which the Democratic nominee, comedian Al Franken, bested Republican Sen. Norm Coleman by 312 votes — one of the closest races in Senate history. Minnesota had distributed ballots to overseas voters only 30 days before Election Day, and returned overseas ballots were rejected at a rate 16 times higher than domestic absentee ballots — mostly for missing the postmark deadline or signature problems, the same sorts of questionable standards that have been used to invalidate many thousands of votes nationwide this year. If Minnesota had followed rules such as Florida’s, the Heritage researchers argued, “a vast majority (if not all) of the late arriving military ballots would have been counted — potentially changing the outcome of one of the closest Senate races in the state’s history.”
Heritage also noted that Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California and Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas both filed unsuccessful bills in 2008 to expedite delivery of overseas military ballots to election offices, under which “thousands of ballots that were rejected in 2008 would have counted.” Since Election Day last week, McCarthy and Cornyn have tweeted at least 21 messages of support for veterans but said nothing about the importance of counting their overseas ballots. Cornyn has instead retweeted a Republican chorus of voices alleging “fraud” and the counting of “illegal” ballots in Florida.
How is it possible that a party establishment and president who have long coveted the military vote could so coldly campaign against the counting of those votes now? Because this isn’t about service members or free elections: It’s about Donald Trump and the politicians he wants in his corner. This is a man who has insulted the families of fallen service members, repeatedly; who, on this day of observance for veterans, has chosen not to visit Arlington National Cemetery, or Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, or the Navy Memorial, or any of the more than a dozen military installations within a short drive of the White House; and who can’t be bothered to visit combat-deployed troops, as his four immediate predecessors have done. He is interested in service members only as kitschy props for his aura as a commander — not in their agency as freely choosing American citizens.
I tend to agree with what the Heritage Foundation wrote back in 2009: If American political leaders “are serious about protecting the rights of all voters, and, as they often claim, concerned about the welfare of American military personnel, they can provide actual proof of those sentiment by ensuring that this country’s military men and women have the same right to vote as all other Americans.” I never imagined an American president could disagree with that.