Voter Suppression in the US Presidential Race?

At the time of writing, President Donald Trump is on the ropes. National polls show Democratic nominee Joe Biden scoring between 6 and 8 percentage points ahead of the beleaguered Trump, who is battling widespread disapproval at home and abroad for, amongst other things, his catastrophic handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time of writing, with over 5m cases since the start of the pandemic the US accounts for nearly one quarter of all cases worldwide, and with over 167k deaths, it has the highest global mortality rate from – 60k ahead of Brazil, the country with the second highest COVID death toll.

Trump’s shambolic response to the pandemic has had an impact on his support. Back in early April support for Trump’s handling of the pandemic was shared by around 86% of Republicans, but since then it has gone steadily downhill for the President with only 74% of Republicans now backing their man’s stewardship during the worst global health crisis in the last century.

Facing a tanking economy, a rising number of cases and deaths and following a series of particularly dreadful press appearances where Trump has tried to set the record straight on his approach to tackling COVID-19 (including one extraordinary Axios interview which almost made Prince Andrew’s appearance on Newsnight seem competent), there is a sense that Trump and his team are beginning to panic.

Given both the way in which COVID-19 has torn through US society and what we currently know about how the virus is transmitted, it is unsurprising that there is set to be a big increase in the number of voters favouring postal ballots at this election rather than turning out to polling stations. Purely from a public health perspective, it would appear to be a sensible and safe decision to increase the ease with which postal voting can be conducted in order to limit the spread of the virus during an election campaign whilst maximising voter turnout.

But it seems Donald Trump does not agree. On Wednesday 12th August at his daily COVID briefing Trump told reporters that the US Postal Service (USPS) does not have the capacity to contend with a substantial increase in the number of postal ballots, before brazenly stating that he would not sign off on the $25bn worth of emergency funds requested by Democratic congressional leaders to assist the USPS deal with that very same dilemma, nor the $3.6bn to help states process the votes. Unsurprisingly Trump’s decision has provoked uproar, with a spokesman for Joe Biden describing it as ‘an assault on our democracy and economy by a desperate man’, and former President Barack Obama has accused Trump of trying to ‘kneecap the postal service’. 

Not only does Trump believe that mail-in ballots favour the Democrats, but he also claims to believe – despite clear evidence to the contrary – that they lead to widespread voter fraud and opportunities for election interference. According to Trump, their increased use in the 2020 Presidential Election would cause “the most corrupt election in US history”. 

However, as well as the lack of USPS funding there is perhaps further cause for alarm. In an interview with NPR, the head of the Iowa Postal Workers Union has claimed that, as a result of new policies introduced by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy (who happens to be a donor to the Republican party) sorting machines in Iowa are being removed, throwing sand in the gears of the day-to-day postal operation in the state. 

So desperate is the situation that on Thursday 14th, the USPS General Counsel Thomas Marshall alerted Pennsylvania’s secretary of state to the fact that the state’s law regarding the request of mail-in ballots one week ahead of the November 3rd election would not be able to be met by the service due to the slowdown resulting from DeJoy’s new policies. This could result in millions of ballots going uncounted in the key battleground state, won narrowly by Trump in 2016.

Mail-in ballots in US elections are by no means a new phenomenon. In fact, they were used by somewhere in the region of 150,000 soldiers in the Union army during the American Civil War who gave support to Lincoln thus securing his reelection in 1864, and they have been a staple of the democratic process ever since. They are unquestionably a net-positive in terms of electoral participation, with research showing that the presence of mail-in ballots increases turnout at elections. In the 2016 Presidential election, 25% of votes cast were mailed-in, amounting to around 33 million ballots. In 2016, Colorado, Washington and Oregon solely used mail-in ballots, and this time around they are set to be joined by California, Utah and Hawaii with voters in those states also able only to vote by mail. 

With nearly 50% of US voters already concerned about the ease with which they will be able to vote in this year’s Presidential election due to COVID-19, the last thing US democracy needs is for it to be undermined further in this way. Trump’s refusal to provide adequate financial resources to a USPS facing unprecedented challenges ahead of the 2020 Presidential election would appear to amount to blatant voter suppression. 

But there is something else going on here. Taken together, Trump’s refusal to fund properly the USPS, his repeated false claims about the links between voter fraud and mail-in ballots and the alleged activities of supporters in high places (e.g. DeJoy) speak to a wider project of both reducing people’s trust in the postal system for mail-in ballots and thus demotivating them from casting a vote in this election, whilst simultaneously attempting to delegitimise this election as a whole. By claiming, falsely, that the grounds on which the election are being fought are themselves unlawful, Trump is not only getting his excuses in early but also ramping up the anger amongst his volatile supporters. Misinformation, anger, hate and fear were effectively mobilised by the Trump campaign in 2016, it remains to be seen if they will be as effective this time around.

However, one thing the last four years of Trump’s Presidency has demonstrated is that no matter the scale of the crisis facing him, nor the amount of liberal hand-wringing about it, accusations rarely seem to have an impact. It remains to be seen whether Trump’s latest attack on the democratic process bucks that trend, but HOPE not hate will be monitoring how this story develops over the coming weeks.

Our solidarity with all USPS workers.