The presidential election is fewer than 100 days away, but the anxiety surrounding how it will play out is already at a fever pitch. One symptom of the anxiety is the Transition Integrity Project, a group led by former government officials who try to game out how things could go wrong this fall. The New York Times’s Ben Smith on Sunday described one recent exercise in which longtime Democratic operative John Podesta, playing Joe Biden, “shocked the organizers by saying he felt his party wouldn’t let him concede.” Smith continued, “Alleging voter suppression, he persuaded the governors of Wisconsin and Michigan to send pro-Biden electors to the Electoral College. In that scenario, California, Oregon, and Washington then threatened to secede from the United States if Mr. Trump took office as planned. The House named Mr. Biden president; the Senate and White House stuck with Mr. Trump. At that point in the scenario, the nation stopped looking to the media for cues, and waited to see what the military would do.”
The Atlantic’s David Frum, a participant in the “war games,” also wrote last week about the havoc Trump could wreak even if Biden ultimately walks into the White House on January 20, 2021. Their stand-ins for Trump, he wrote, “diverted public resources to Trump personally,” “preemptively pardoned Trump associates and family members,” “destroyed, hid, or privatized public records,” “refused to cooperate with the incoming administration,” sabotaged the Census, and undermined government efforts to combat both the pandemic and the recession. “Perhaps everything will go smoothly,” Frum explained. “But as the president suggests postponing the election, it’s important to understand the hazards ahead, and the timelines and decision points that may prove crucial.”
Strictly speaking, it’s not impossible that something so lurid and sensational could happen this fall. But the focus on these extreme hypotheticals—and on D.C. elites’ efforts to roleplay the collapse of American democracy—is obscuring more mundane threats to American democracy already taking place. President Trump and his allies are working tirelessly to undermine voting by mail and delegitimize the electoral process through legal challenges and public tirades. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a major Trump donor, is sharply cutting the United States Postal Service’s operations in major cities, citing budget shortfalls. And Republican lawmakers appear unwilling to intervene to maintain the nation’s postal system or its election processes. To the extent that crimes against democracy will occur this year, they’re already underway.
At the heart of the problem is the Republican Party itself. Over the past decade, and especially since Trump’s victory in 2016, conservatives have increasingly seen American democracy as an obstacle to their goals instead of the means to achieve them. The GOP owes much of its current power in Washington, D.C., to structural flaws in the republic: the disproportionate influence of smaller, rural states in the Senate, for instance, or the anti-majoritarian effects of the Electoral College. In states like North Carolina and Wisconsin, GOP lawmakers spent the 2010s entrenching themselves through partisan gerrymandering at the state and federal level. All too often, Republican elected officials choose their voters instead of the other way around.
Trump himself is all too willing to join in the spree. Republicans often cite mythical fears of widespread voter fraud to justify restrictions that, in practice, effectively disenfranchise thousands of voters. This cynical strategy dovetails well with Trump’s instinct to attack and delegitimize institutions he can’t control, especially when they don’t favor him. It also feeds his insatiable hunger for validation—a hunger that the American electorate so far appears unwilling to satisfy in November. As I noted last week, it’s pretty telling that Trump’s first response to dire economic news wasn’t a call for stimulus measures but for the election to be delayed.
The result is an all-out campaign by Trumpworld against mail-in voting. Last weekend, lawmakers in Nevada approved a bill that would send absentee ballots to every registered voter in the state. The move drew a furious response from Trump on Monday morning. “In an illegal late night coup, Nevada’s clubhouse Governor made it impossible for Republicans to win the state,” he wrote on Twitter. “Post Office could never handle the Traffic of Mail-In Votes without preparation. Using Covid to steal the state. See you in Court!” Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak, apparently undeterred by Trump’s threats, signed the bill into law later that day. It’s unclear what sort of legal challenge Trump could mount in court; no lawsuit has yet been filed. And despite his claims of an “illegal late night coup,” Nevada’s civil government appears to be intact.
Trump’s admission that it becomes “impossible for Republicans to win” when Americans can easily cast a ballot is also shaping his legal strategy. In Pennsylvania, for instance, local election officials used mobile drop boxes supervised by county officials to gather absentee ballots during the state’s primary elections earlier this year. Drop boxes are fairly common in states where absentee voting is widely used. Last month, however, the Trump campaign filed a federal lawsuit against the state and counties to stop election officials from collecting ballots anywhere but at a county election office, citing the hypothetical risk of fraud.
The complaint largely translates right-wing claims about voter fraud into legalese, warning that the use of “unmonitored” and “unsecured” drop off boxes “allows illegal absent and mail-in voting, ballot harvesting, and other fraud to occur and/or go undetected, and will result in dilution of validly cast ballots.” The campaign also sought to overturn a restriction that only allows county residents to serve as poll watchers at their own county’s election site. Kathy Boockvar, Pennsylvania’s top state election official, described the Trump campaign’s claims as “speculative doomsday allegations” in a motion urging the court to dismiss the lawsuit on multiple grounds.
Limiting ballot drop-off options would likely require more voters to return their absentee ballots by mail. For Pennsylvania, a key swing state that Trump can’t afford to lose in November, that may be a tricky proposition. The state is currently experiencing a widespread slowdown in mail delivery in cities like Philadelphia due to both staffing shortages from illness and policy changes. In memos issued last month, Postmaster DeJoy instructed postal workers to leave mail at delivery centers if it would delay their routes, cut overtime that could be used to make multiple deliveries, and limit other measures that would make it easier for the agency to deliver mail at a more regular pace. Those delays could be catastrophic when combined with the expected surge in absentee voters later this year. Michigan is already seeing systemic problems during its primaries this week; some results from New York’s June 23 primaries were still uncertain until Tuesday night.
DeJoy’s memos cited an imminent fiscal crunch at the agency to justify the cutbacks. Some of those woes are legitimate. The Postal Service announced in May that it expected a $13 billion decline in revenue this year because of the broader economic slowdown. But others are entirely preventable. Unlike virtually every other public and private institution in America, the Postal Service is required to pre-fund decades of retired employees’ health benefits. Bloomberg’s Barry Ritholtz noted in 2018 that the Postal Service otherwise would have been profitable in recent years. The disastrous 2006 law that imposed the mandate was introduced and passed by Congress within three days without a recorded vote; George W. Bush signed it into law two weeks later. Critics of the measure see it as a back-door effort to privatizing the Postal Service by artificially making it fiscally unsustainable.
That ideological posture would explain why Republican lawmakers haven’t backed efforts to keep the Postal Service afloat, let alone to remove the millstone around its neck. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell unveiled a $1 trillion stimulus package last week that included no relief for the postal system. A bill proposed by Maine Senator Susan Collins that would provide some funds to the Postal Service would also require it to send a report to Congress in nine months on its “long-term viability”— something that Collins herself could help ensure by working to repeal the 2006 law. Without that relief, top Postal Service officials will have plenty of justification to scale back service and delay deliveries. The dysfunction and disenfranchisement, in short, is the point.
The conservative plot against the Postal Service is more than just a policy mistake or a shameless privatization grab; it undermines one of the Founders’ most democratic innovations. “Their novel, uniquely American post didn’t just carry letters for the few,” wrote Winifred Gallagher in her 2016 book How the Post Office Created America. “It also subsidized the delivery of newspapers to the entire population, which created an informed electorate, spurred the fledgling market economy, and bound thirteen fractious erstwhile colonies into the United States. For more than two centuries, the Founders’ grandly envisioned postal commons has endured as one of the few American institutions, public or private, in which we, the people, are treated as equals.”
Trump and many of his allies do not share those lowercase “r” republican values, and there is almost nothing that Americans can do before the election to prevent him from trying to delegitimize the results if he loses. He is largely impervious to accepting reality when it embarrasses him as shown most recently by an interview with Axios this week where he tries to argue that the U.S. isn’t doing so bad with the pandemic. Even his own advisors and confidantes often find themselves unable to restrain him from making self-destructive posts on Twitter or embarrassing off-the-cuff remarks to reporters. The rest of us are unlikely to be more successful.
What Americans can do, however, is work to ensure that the election delivers a clear, relatively quick result. That means pressuring lawmakers to save the Postal Service. It means taking advantage of early voting as safely and as soon as possible. It means returning absentee ballots to county election offices instead of sending them in by mail. (Check your local requirements to see which options are best.) And it means mentally preparing oneself for a long, drawn-out vote-counting process after polls close instead of a speedy result on Election Night. The best way to reduce electoral chaos this fall isn’t to cosplay the fall of the republic after November 3 but to ensure things run smoothly between now and then.