In June, President Trump sat in the Oval Office for one of his periodic interviews-turned-airing-of-grievances. When the conversation turned to the 2020 election, Trump singled out what he called the “biggest risk” to his bid for a second term. It was not the mounting death toll from COVID-19, or further economic damage inflicted by the pandemic, or anything else a reality-dwelling president might fret about.
“My biggest risk is that we don’t win lawsuits,” Trump told the Politico reporter he’d invited. He was referring to the series of lawsuits filed by his campaign and the Republican National Committee that fight the expansion of mail-in voting and seek to limit access to the ballot box in November. “We have many lawsuits going all over,” he said. “And if we don’t win those lawsuits, I think — I think it puts the election at risk.”
Going into 2020, Trump had the political winds at his back with a strong economy, roaring stock market, and historically low unemployment. Then came COVID-19. As of this writing, more than 135,000 Americans are dead from the virus, more than 3 million have gotten infected, and the economy has tipped into Great Depression territory. With Trump at the helm, the U.S. government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has ranked as one of the worst anywhere in the world.
By midsummer, the president’s approval ratings had sunk to the high 30s. According to Gallup, in the past 72 years only one incumbent president with a comparably dismal standing, Harry Truman, went on to win re-election. The possibility of Trump going down in flames, Hindenburg-style, and bringing the rest of the Republican ticket with him had even Fox News speculating on whether he might drop out of the race before the election.
But Trump defied the prewritten obituaries in 2016, and he could do it again this year. In recent months, a central theme of his re-election strategy has come into clear, unmistakable focus: Trump and his Republican enablers are putting voter suppression front and center — fear-mongering about voting by mail, escalating their Election Day poll watching and so-called ballot-security operations, and blocking funding to prepare the country for a pandemic-era election. “The president views vote-by-mail as a threat to his election,” a lawyer for the Trump campaign recently told 60 Minutes. Attorney General William Barr told Fox News that vote-by-mail “absolutely opens the floodgates to fraud.” And Trump blasted out in a May tweet that “MAIL-IN VOTING WILL LEAD TO MASSIVE FRAUD AND ABUSE. IT WILL ALSO LEAD TO THE END OF OUR GREAT REPUBLICAN PARTY. WE CAN NEVER LET THIS TRAGEDY BEFALL OUR NATION.”
“They’re shouting the quiet part out loud,” Marc Elias, one of the Democratic Party’s top election lawyers, tells Rolling Stone. “They’re not whispering it. They’re shouting it.”
Justin Clark, a senior lawyer on the Trump 2020 campaign, had a message for the group of Republican lawyers gathered at a members-only club in Madison, Wisconsin, last November. Every time he met with President Trump, Clark told the group, Trump asked, “‘What are we doing about voter fraud? What are we doing about voter fraud?’”
“Traditionally, it’s always been Republicans suppressing votes in places,” Clark said. He would later explain that he was referring to what Democrats say about Republicans, but it was all part of a larger point — namely, to ensure the president’s election, the Trump campaign and RNC were stepping up their efforts to root out the supposed scourge of “voter fraud.”
“It’s going to be a much bigger program, much more aggressive program, a better funded program,” said Clark. The president, he assured the group, “believes in it, and he will do whatever it takes to make sure it’s successful.”
To be clear, rampant voter fraud is a myth, a fantasy dreamed up by those who need a pretext to make it harder for certain people to exercise their right to vote. Instances of in-person and mail-in voter fraud are extremely rare, according to decades of data and academic research. The conservative Heritage Foundation — whose co-founder Paul Weyrich once told a group of evangelical leaders that “I don’t want everybody to vote” because “our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down” — is one of the loudest proponents of the voter-fraud myth. Yet according to Heritage’s own research, in the past 20 years, 0.00006 percent of all mail-in ballots cast were fraudulent. “There is no support for the argument that mail-in voting is a problem,” says Lorraine Minnite, a political-science professor at Rutgers University and author of The Myth of Voter Fraud.
But that isn’t stopping Trump and the Republican Party from going on the offensive. Trump officials argue that Democrats are using COVID-19 as an “excuse and pretext” to rush through drastic changes like universal vote-by-mail that are intended to benefit their candidates and that would inject more uncertainty into our elections. “President Trump will not stand by as Democrats attempt to tear apart our entire election system just months before votes are cast,” Clark, the Trump campaign lawyer, said in a statement to Rolling Stone.
In February, the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee announced that they would spend $10 million on voting-related lawsuits in 2020 — a figure that has since doubled to $20 million. The RNC has so far filed lawsuits in more than a dozen states, including the battlegrounds of Colorado, Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Florida. These suits are a mix of offense and defense: Some attempt to block litigation brought by Democratic groups to expand mail-in voting in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Others seek to invalidate state-level policies by saying that expanding access to mail-in ballots invites fraud. But the uniting theme of the RNC’s suits, says Rick Hasen, a University of California, Irvine law professor and author of Election Meltdown, is simple: “Casting doubt on the legitimacy of the election. Raising spurious fraud claims.”
In Pennsylvania, for instance, the RNC is suing the state government and election boards in all 67 counties to ban the use of secure drop boxes for submitting take-home ballots and to eliminate the requirement that poll watchers can only serve in the county where they live. In Florida, Republicans have sued to block efforts that would make the state pay for postage on mail-in ballots, would change state law so that any mail-in ballot postmarked by the date of the election (as opposed to received by Election Day) will be counted, and would allow paid organizers to gather and submit completed absentee ballots.
It’s a sign of how aggressive and deep-pocketed the GOP legal strategy is that the party is waging legal battles in states that Trump has no chance of winning. In May, the RNC and two other groups sued California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, over a newly announced plan to mail absentee ballots to all eligible voters in the nation’s most populous state.
“That would be like me waking up one day and saying, ‘I’m going to file a voting-rights lawsuit in’ — I don’t even know what the equivalent is — ‘Wyoming or South Dakota,’ ” says Elias, the Democratic Party election lawyer. The RNC’s suit against California “suggests to me that their $20 million is only a small tip of the iceberg,” he adds.
The funders of the RNC’s 2020 legal war chest are a who’s who of plutocrats and industry titans for whom a $100,000 check to the president is pocket change. According to an analysis of election records by Rolling Stone, these funders include L.L. Bean heiress Linda Bean, private-equity magnate Stephen Schwarzman, Johnson & Johnson heir Ambassador Woody Johnson, Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.), the Ricketts family that founded TD Ameritrade, coal barons Joe Craft and Robert Murray, billionaire financiers John Paulson and John W. Childs, financial executive Charles Schwab, Madison Square Garden owner James Dolan, and Marvel Entertainment chairman Ike Perlmutter. “It’s no surprise to see that the list of wealthy people bankrolling the RNC’s attack on voting rights includes some of the biggest benefactors of the Trump administration’s economic policy,” says Morris Pearl, chair of Patriotic Millionaires. “They don’t want to protect our elections — they want to protect their positions of privilege.”
The Trump campaign has a deep-pocketed ally in its attack on mail-in voting: the Honest Elections Project. Funded by undisclosed dark money and linked to Leonard Leo, the conservative activist who helped put Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court and steered more than $250 million for conservative judicial causes between 2014 and 2017, the organization says on its website that voter suppression is a “myth.” The group has run ads that warn against “risky new methods” like mail-in ballots, and accused Wisconsin Democrats of sowing election “chaos” after the state’s Republicans refused to send every voter an absentee ballot or delay its April primary election because of COVID-19. The group has hired the same law firm spearheading the RNC’s massive litigation campaign, Consovoy McCarthy, to pressure election officials in battleground states to purge their voting rolls, threatening to sue them if they don’t comply.
The group’s executive director, Jason Snead, is a former Heritage Foundation scholar who has argued that felons “should be required to prove that they have turned over a new leaf” before they can vote again and that “fraudulent” voting behavior is “deeply ingrained in certain regions of the country.” Earlier this year, Snead told Breitbart News that the “greatest danger” facing American elections amid the COVID-19 crisis wasn’t the risk of illness or death, but Democratic proposals for reforming the voting process to meet our pandemic moment. (Snead did not respond to a request for comment.)
Voting-rights activists say Snead’s comments are typical of a conservative movement that wants to make it harder for people of color, ex-felons, and college students to vote. Lauren Groh-Wargo, CEO of Fair Fight Action, founded by former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams and funded by major liberal donors, says Snead is “directly dog-whistling around this racist idea that there are these droves of illegal voters, which is not true.”
On November 3rd, 1981, Lynette Monroe, who lived in northwest Trenton, headed out to her polling place. It was Election Day in New Jersey. When Monroe, a Democrat, arrived at the polling site, she was stopped outside by a member of a group called the National Ballot Security Task Force. Monroe was asked if she had her voter-registration card with her. She said she did not but that it didn’t matter — she was a registered voter. But the National Ballot Security Task Force members “turned her away, preventing her from casting her ballot,” according to a lawsuit later filed by the Democratic Party, Monroe, and several others.
When she was turned away, Monroe had no way of knowing that the National Ballot Security Task Force was a massive voter-suppression project funded and carried out by the Republican National Committee and the New Jersey Republican Party. Republicans hired county deputy sheriffs and local policemen with revolvers, two-way radios, and “National Ballot Security Task Force” armbands to patrol predominantly black and Hispanic precincts in New Jersey. They posted large warning signs outside polling places saying that it was “a crime to falsify a ballot or to violate election laws.” The signs omitted any mention of the GOP’s role in this egregious intimidation scheme, but the intent was obvious: “to harass and intimidate duly qualified black and Hispanic voters for the purpose and with the effect of discouraging these voters from casting their ballots,” the lawsuit stated.
The result of the suit was a 1982 consent decree between the Democratic and Republican parties. Even though the RNC refused to admit wrong-doing in New Jersey, the group agreed to stop harassing and intimidating voters of color, including by deputizing off-duty law-enforcement officers and equipping those officers with guns or badges. Over the next three decades, Democrats marshaled enough evidence of ongoing Republican voter suppression to maintain the consent decree until 2018, when a federal judge lifted the order.
The 2020 presidential election will be the first in nearly 40 years when the RNC isn’t bound by the terms of the 1982 decree. Clark, the Trump campaign lawyer, told the group of Republicans at the private meeting last November that the end of the consent decree was “a huge, huge, huge, huge deal,” freeing the RNC to directly coordinate with campaigns and political committees on so-called Election Day operations. The RNC is sending millions of dollars to state Republican parties to vastly expand these measures, which include recruiting 50,000 poll observers to deploy in key precincts. Josh Helton, a lawyer who has advised the National Republican Senatorial Committee, has described Philadelphia, where black people make up 41 percent of the population, as “probably the epicenter for voter fraud in this country” and a likely target for the GOP’s 2020 poll-watching efforts.
Depending on the state, poll watchers enlisted by political parties can challenge a voter’s eligibility based on their address, citizenship, and even the date they registered to vote. Michigan law, for instance, says poll watchers need only “good reason” to pull a prospective voter out of line and challenge their eligibility. North Carolina allows anyone registered to vote with “good moral character” (whatever that means) to work as a poll watcher. Even in Oregon and Washington state, where elections are conducted by mail, poll watchers can observe county clerks count mail-in ballots and make challenges when they see fit.
Here again, outside groups seem to be drafting off of the Trump campaign’s aggressive plans. Catherine Engelbrecht, founder of True the Vote, a group that spreads misinformation about “voter fraud” and has accused “globalists” of exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic to “finance a massive push to ‘vote at home,’” laid out at a closed-door conference in February a plan to enlist Navy SEALs to monitor polling places in 2020. “You get some SEALs in those polls and they’re going to say, ‘No, no, this is what it says. This is how we’re going to play this show,’” Engelbrecht said, according to a recording obtained by The Intercept. “That’s what we need. We need people who are unafraid to call it like they see it.”
To voting-rights advocates, the RNC and True the Vote’s poll-watching plans, if realized, are nothing more than a blatant voter-intimidation strategy. “Their program is based on a false premise that Americans, and especially Americans of color, are breaking the law when it comes to voting, so their poll monitors become de facto policemen and serve no purpose but to intimidate voters, because fraud is so rare,” says Groh-Wargo of Fair Fight Action. “They’re aiming to pack monitors into polling places to disrupt voting from within, but they’re also hoping that the existence of their massive program creates an aura of intimidation that deters eligible voters from participating in the first place.”
Just as racism and xenophobia have always been essential to Trump’s political DNA, so, too, have nonstop, evidence-free claims of “voter fraud” and “rigged” elections. Even after he defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016, he claimed — with zero evidence — that 3 to 5 million noncitizens had voted, and that was why he lost the popular vote, thus surely becoming the first presidential victor to allege historic levels of “illegal” voting … in the election he just won. Now, with COVID-19 ravaging the country and disproportionately afflicting people of color, Trump has found a way to attack the democratic process that combines his Stephen Miller-inspired racist agenda and his deranged voter-fraud obsession.
Vote-by-mail didn’t used to be a partisan idea. Before COVID-19, five states, led by Democrats and Republicans alike, conducted their elections entirely by mail — Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, and Utah — and 29 more states plus D.C. permitted “no excuse” absentee voting, meaning voters can request absentee ballots without having to provide any reason why. U.S. service members have long mailed in their ballots from overseas, and until recently both political parties have touted its benefits.
But suddenly Republican elected officials, from Trump on down to local lawmakers, are blocking efforts to make it easier to vote by mail. Consider Iowa. In response to the pandemic, Secretary of State Paul Pate, a Republican, extended early voting and sent an absentee ballot application to every voter. Turnout in the state’s June primary elections surged and the vast majority of people voted absentee. Iowa Republican legislators responded by hastily passing a law to limit the secretary of state’s emergency authority.
“Mail-in voting wasn’t created in this pandemic,” says Janai Nelson, associate director-counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “It’s only when we see the expansion of access to this very practical tool that we see the casting of votes being subjected to such scrutiny and malignment.”
The naked hypocrisy of the Republican Party’s newfound antipathy toward mail-in voting is all the more glaring considering that Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, AG Barr, and many other senior Trump administration officials have voted absentee repeatedly in the past. And as an actual strategy, Trump’s attacks on mail-in voting could even turn out to be self-destructive if you account for the fact that Republican voters have long been avid users of mail-in voting. In Florida, absentee voting is widely popular among the state’s Republican voters. In Arizona, where the Republican presidential candidate has won every four years since 1972 with only one exception, the GOP initiated and perfected the use of mail-in voting. Chuck Coughlin, a consultant who advised Sen. John McCain, calls it “a very effective way of letting people participate” with few incidents of fraud.
The real threat to the 2020 elections is not what Trump, Barr, and their allies want you to believe. It’s the funding and readiness crisis facing thousands of election jurisdictions trying to shift to a hybrid in-person/vote-by-mail model in a few months’ time. In California, where 72 percent of voters mailed in their ballots in the most recent primary, the transition won’t be as hard. But Pennsylvania, where the percentage of mail-in ballots is in the single digits, faces a daunting task. Coughlin, the Arizona consultant, says it took years and many elections for Arizona to master the use of widely adopted mail-in voting. Underfunded election operations are a perennial issue, but with state budgets facing dramatic cutbacks due to COVID-19, the funding shortfall could be worse than ever. “My usual election-cycle comment is that we’re trying to find enough duct tape to cover the holes in the bucket,” says Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School and voting-rights expert. “This time, we’re trying to make the bucket out of duct tape.”
Civil-rights groups have asked Congress to approve $4 billion as soon as possible for election funding. (So far, Trump has signed off on just $400 million, one-tenth of the recommended amount, and local officials have already spent most of that initial money.) House Democrats included that funding in a coronavirus relief bill, the HEROES Act, but Senate Republicans, led by Mitch McConnell, blocked the bill and Trump called it “dead on arrival.”
How to explain this? It’s possible that voter suppression isn’t the only goal — it’s also about creating chaos and confusion before, on, and after Election Day. Perhaps Trump’s assault on voting in our pandemic election year isn’t a “strategy” at all but rather a kamikaze mission aimed at the heart of American democracy. The way Coughlin sees it, the ultimate goal of Trump’s criticism of mail-in voting is “to sow doubt in people’s minds about the process, which validates any view of his unless he wins.”
By beating the drum about “massive fraud and abuse” and spreading misinformation about the integrity of the election, Trump could be laying the groundwork to challenge or outright deny the results. And if the RNC were to follow his lead and file lawsuits challenging the vote count, we could wind up in dangerously uncharted territory for American democracy. Picture Bush v. Gore on steroids. “We’ve never had a president delegitimize our democratic process intentionally,” says Rachel Bitecofer, a senior fellow and election forecaster at the Niskanen Center. “It is the kind of behavior you would not see — and should not see — in a healthy democracy.”