U.S. elections are never a quiet affair. Yet the unprecedented circumstances in which this year’s takes place has generated a new kind of noise. Postal voting has grown in prevalence, and Trump is determined to delegitimize it.
Postal voting has long been possible. During the American Civil War, U.S. soldiers were granted the right to mail their votes in from the battlefield to fulfill the democratic function of widespread representation. States have since retained this method as a mandatory voting option for ‘absentees,’ for whom voting in-person would be difficult or cumbersome.
The 2016 election suggested that mailed votes have even hit the mainstream: 1 in 4 U.S. voters posted their preference by ballot.
A persistent pandemic has popularized postal voting once more. U.S. citizens are grappling with a similar COVID-19 death rate to that which they saw in June 2020, reflecting a stagnation in the country’s efforts to contain the disease. They have lost 240,000 fellow citizens (and counting). Why risk joining that statistic by going to a voting booth full of strangers?
Not everyone is on board. Trump has been sowing seeds of mistrust for months, alleging that “Mail-in ballots are very dangerous – there’s tremendous fraud involved.” He claims that postal voting enables forgery and vote-suppression in accordance with the preferences of postmen.
There is truth to his thinking. It has happened before: in Wisconsin, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania—letters containing vote submissions were found dumped or destroyed. But these fringe incidents, involving tens of votes in a country of 328 million, do not constitute the ‘tremendous fraud’ Trump fretted about. Nor do they mitigate the benefits of opening upvotes to the millions forced to isolate at home.
Still, his words have divided the nation on the legitimacy of the method. In summer 2020, a Pew Research Poll found that Democrats were 3x more likely to plan on voting by post than Republicans.
Early results from this year’s election have thus accentuated the ‘red mirage, blueshift,’ a phenomenon first observed in 2013. Republicans are more likely to vote in-person because they mistrust the mail, meaning their votes get tallied sooner. This gives them an early lead on counting day, a ‘red mirage.’ But as mailed votes—mostly stamped blue—are processed, the Democrats claw back lost ground, a ‘blue shift.’
Trump has continued blasting the postal process, tweeting today (Nov. 4th) that ‘in many key states,’ his lead seemed to ‘magically disappear.’ He also claimed that “They are working hard to make up 500,000 vote advantage in Pennsylvania disappear — ASAP.” Twitter has covered both tweets on the grounds that their content is “misleading about an election or other civic process.” Trump, they argue, has no proof, and thus, no right to undermine confidence in democracy.
His tweets could still wreak havoc. Anyone who shares his unfounded belief in widespread corruption may revolt against the alleged democratic perpetrators or simply against common democratic citizens. It is hard to quantify the risk of such revolt. But ideologically-motivated murder is common in the states, and Trump’s tweets are amassing likes.
Trump’s game borders on tyranny. His tweets are threatening one of the cornerstones of democracy—citizens’ trust in its robustness—for his personal gain. The country’s only hope for a trustworthy election result is by doing as Twitter has done: blocking out Trump’s noise.