Democrats are bracing for potential chaos on Election Day, fearing that the combined force of President Trump’s warnings of voter fraud and the expected influx of absentee ballots will lead to a bitter and protracted fight over the election’s results.
The party has been concerned for months about Trump’s efforts to sow doubt in mail-in and absentee voting amid the coronavirus pandemic. But two developments this week renewed and worsened those fears.
A top Democratic digital firm warned of a potential “red mirage” on Election Night, in which in-person vote tallies show Trump in the lead until mail-in ballots counted after Nov. 3 swing the race in the direction of former Vice President Joe Biden.
And on Wednesday, Trump suggested that supporters attempt to vote twice — by mail and in person — to test the ability of election systems to detect fraud, prompting an outcry from state officials who warned that casting more than one ballot is illegal.
Taken together, the concerns add up to what Democrats fear will be an election mired in confusion and potential uncertainty.
“I don’t think people have fully grasped how difficult and challenging the Trump campaign is going to try to make the administration of this election,” Guy Cecil, the chair of the largest Democratic super PAC, Priorities USA, told reporters in a video briefing this week.
Democratic operatives and officials in some battleground states are already taking steps to reassure voters that their election systems are up to expectations.
After Trump suggested this week that his supporters try to cast two ballots, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson released a statement emphasizing that the state’s election system has already been “stress-tested” and includes protections to “ensure that each person gets only one vote.”
North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein, a Democrat, called Trump’s remarks on voting “troubling,” accusing him of trying to “undermine people’s faith in the integrity of our elections.”
There are also fears among Democrats that Trump may try to call the vote count itself into question, given the expected surge in mail voting this year and the possibility that many ballots may not be counted on Election Day.
More Democrats are expected to cast their ballots by mail this year than Republicans, given concerns about the coronavirus pandemic and Trump’s previous claims that mail-in voting is rife with fraud. A Quinnipiac University poll released this week underscored the difference between voters, with 51 percent of Democrats saying they plan to vote by mail and 64 percent of Republicans saying they will vote in person.
In an interview this week with “Axios on HBO,” Josh Mendelsohn, the CEO of the Democratic data and analytics firm Hawkfish, warned of a situation in which the vote count on election night could show a massive victory for Trump. But after mail-in and absentee votes are counted, he said, it will show that Trump’s election night lead was “a mirage.”
"We are sounding an alarm and saying that this is a very real possibility, that the data is going to show on election night an incredible victory for Donald Trump," Mendelsohn told Axios.
“When every legitimate vote is tallied and we get to that final day, which will be some day after Election Day, it will in fact show that what happened on election night was exactly that, a mirage," Mendelsohn said. "It looked like Donald Trump was in the lead and he fundamentally was not when every ballot gets counted."
A poll released this week by The Guardian and Opinium Research underscored the extent of Democrats’ fears that Trump could refuse to accept the outcome of the November election if it’s not in his favor.
Three in four respondents who support Biden in the presidential race said they are worried about the possibility of Trump rejecting the election results, compared to only 30 percent of Trump’s supporters, the poll found.
Thea McDonald, a spokesperson for the Trump campaign, said that the president is “fighting for a free, fair, transparent election in which every valid ballots counts – once,” and accused Democrats of trying to create a pretext for rejecting the election results themselves.
“Rather than peddling conspiracy theories and paving the way for Joe Biden to refuse to accept the results when President Trump wins, just as Hillary Clinton did four years ago, Democrats ought to take responsibility for their attempts to throw our electoral system into chaos 60 days out from Election Day,” McDonald said in a statement to The Hill.
Democrats say that Trump has already laid the groundwork for questioning the election’s legitimacy, pointing to his rhetoric around the gubernatorial and Senate elections in Florida in 2018.
That year, the Election Day vote count showed Republicans Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis leading their Democratic opponents. But the results narrowed in the days that followed as more absentee ballots were counted, prompting Trump to cry foul play and demand that the races be called based on the Election Day vote.
“The Florida Election should be called in favor of Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis in that large numbers of new ballots showed up out of nowhere, and many ballots are missing or forged,” Trump tweeted. “An honest vote count is no longer possible-ballots massively infected. Must go with Election Night!”
Ultimately, Scott defeated former Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) by about 10,000 votes, while DeSantis beat Democrat Andrew Gillum in the governor’s race by roughly 32,000 votes.
The 2020 presidential race is also shaping up to be a close one. Several public polls released this week showed Biden with a sizable national lead over Trump. But the margins separating the two candidates in key battleground states are tightening.
A Quinnipiac University survey of Florida, for instance, placed Biden only 3 points ahead of Trump. In Pennsylvania, a Monmouth University poll showed the former vice president with a scant 4-point lead. And in North Carolina, another Monmouth poll put them within 2 points of one another.
“Everybody’s asking me: ‘Do you trust the polls, do you feel confident about Biden’s chances?’ " one veteran Democratic operative in Florida said. “I keep saying, yes, I trust the polls. What I don’t trust is the president.”