(Bloomberg Opinion) -- President Donald Trump’s Twitter feed was unusually disruptive to healthy democracy on Thursday, beginning with speculation about delaying the election — something he doesn’t have the authority to do, and which even Republicans pushed back hard against — and eventually getting to this gem:
This is ahistorical and anti-democratic nonsense. Before modern communications, presidential elections always required some time for the winner to emerge, even if all the local counting was done immediately. More recently, it’s not been unusual at all in close elections for the winner to be uncertain until the day after election night. That was true in 1960, when Vice President Richard Nixon didn’t concede to Senator John Kennedy until the next day. It was true in 2004, when Senator John Kerry waited until the next day to congratulate President George W. Bush on his re-election.
And of course it was true in 2000, when it took weeks to resolve an election in favor of George W. Bush that for all practical purposes was a tie with Vice President Al Gore. Whatever one thinks about the way the count in Florida was conducted that year, and the legal maneuverings around it, there was simply no way that the race could have been decided in one week, let alone one night.
Indeed, since by federal law overseas military absentee ballots can come in after Election Day, even if every state was able to count every ballot on election night the final count would have to wait until later. Which means in a close election, the final result would have to wait. As it is, some states also allow absentee votes to be postmarked by Election Day, which means those ballots, too, can’t be counted until later.
On top of that, the main reason that a delay can be expected this year is that the dramatic increase in voting by mail caused by the coronavirus pandemic will slow the count even for those ballots that are received by Election Day, Nov. 3. Those ballots take a lot more time to count than in-person polling-place ballots precisely because of all the protections against fraud that Trump either doesn't know about or pretends don't exist. Signatures have to be checked, and in many areas bar codes have to be matched.
It’s normal for several House races to take time to be resolved. In 2018, the Florida and Georgia gubernatorial elections took several days. So did the Arizona Senate race, in which the lead changed and the candidate trailing on Election Day wound up winning. None of that was a problem. It wasn’t going to be a problem in 2020 until Trump tried to make it one.
Trump continues, by the way, to claim that absentee voting is fine but that voting by mail invites fraud, despite the fact that they are different names for the same thing. Many states run by Democrats and Republicans have switched to mainly absentee balloting without any sign of fraud.
It’s possible that Trump is deliberately attempting to destroy confidence in the integrity of U.S. elections because he thinks he’ll lose. It’s also possible that he’s aware that in many states, Democratic votes tend to be counted more slowly than Republican votes and is eager to cast doubt on changes in the Democrats' favor after Election Day. (There's nothing suspicious or fraudulent about that pattern, which has been recorded in both Democratic and Republican states; it’s probably just a consequence of older Republican voters sending in their ballots as soon as they get them while younger Democratic voters tend to wait until the last minute.) It's also possible that Trump was just trying to stir up trouble on a day filled with bad economic news, bad pandemic news — and rave reviews for three of his predecessors for their speeches at the funeral of Representative John Lewis, the civil rights hero. Or maybe he just saw something on Fox News and repeated it.
It doesn't really matter why Trump is doing it. What matters is that he's wrong. There's no theoretical or practical need to deliver a result on Election Day. There are strong theoretical and practical reasons to count ballots accurately and completely.
If Trump really did care about potential vote-counting problems, there's actually something he could do about it. The coronavirus economic relief bill passed by the House of Representatives in May, now being negotiated with the Senate, would send money to the states to cope with the stresses on election administration caused by the virus. The bill backed by Senate Republicans and the White House has no such funding. Democrats aren't asking for an entirely vote-by-mail election. They just recognize, as academic experts and election administrators from both parties have said, that holding an election during a pandemic is difficult and needs federal assistance even though it’s normally a state and local government job.
The biggest assistance Washington could provide would be support for an accurate count and the integrity of the process. Demanding an impossibly quick count and undermining confidence in elections by repeatedly making wild, evidence-free charges of fraud is the opposite of helpful. A president who fully supported the process of democracy would come to the aid of state election officials. Trump is not that president.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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