A Coincidence?

Candidate Donald Trump asking Russia in 2016 to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails

It started in July 2016, a little over three months before the November presidential election, when then-candidate Donald Trump said, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing” from Hillary Clinton’s private account that she used while secretary of state. The same day, the Russians broke into the servers Clinton used. A coincidence?

Eight weeks before the 2020 presidential election, a new intelligence bulletin issued by the Department of Homeland Security accuses Russia of seeking “to undermine public trust in the electoral process” by spreading false claims about possible fraud in mail-in voting that echo similar public statements by President Trump and Attorney General William Barr. Both Trump and Barr say voting by mail is not trustworthy and warn of the possibility of widespread fraud in the coming November elections. Another coincidence?

The DHS document says Russian actors “are likely to promote allegations of corruption, system failure, and foreign malign interference to sow distrust” in democratic processes and the results of elections. These false claims are spread through an interlocking network of Russian state-controlled media, proxy websites, and social media trolls. According to The Washington Post, the intelligence behind the bulletin has been assessed as credible. The information was deemed important enough to share in an unclassified form last week with state and local officials as a warning that they should take measures to protect the coming elections from manipulation.

DHS does not cite any particular comments by Trump, Barr, or other officials alleging that mail-in voting is not safe, but it notes that Russia is “amplifying” claims of mail-in fraud made by Republicans. Trump has claimed for months that mail-in voting is prone to manipulation and recently urged voters of North Carolina to vote twice, by mail and in person, to guarantee that their votes are counted. Intentionally, voting twice is a felony in North Carolina and many other states.

Attorney General William Barr

Barr said last week, “Elections that have been held with mail have found substantial fraud and coercion.” The attorney general cited a Texas case in which the United States indicted someone who collected 1,700 ballots from eligible voters and filled “them out and voted for the person he wanted to.” A scary story, if true, but federal prosecutors brought no such indictment. 

While several states have conducted elections by mail for years and many Americans have cast absentee ballots in the past, the coronavirus pandemic understandably has heightened interest in voting by mail. Tens of millions of Americans who previously would have voted in person are now deciding not to risk their heath by going to crowded polling sites on Election Day. Studies indicate that Democratic voters are likely to vote by mail in significantly higher numbers than Republicans this fall. One recent study showed that 48 percent of voters who plan to vote for Democratic nominee Joe Biden are likely to use a mail-in ballot, while only 23 percent of Trump supporters will vote by mail. 

Trump gave a nod to the discrepancy when he admitted in a tweet that his opposition to mail-in voting is predicated on the assumption that it “doesn’t work out well for Republicans.” Other Republicans have conceded as much over the last decade. Even without such admissions, it would be obvious that partisan fears of losing motivate Republican attacks on mail-in voting since mail-in voting fraud is exceedingly rare in American elections. Billions of votes have been cast in all American elections — in person and by mail — since 2000, and the number of cases of fraud is so infinitesimally small that it could not come near influencing the outcome of any one election. Mailed ballots are safe because they are signed by the voter — and accepted only after the signature on the ballot matches the one on file — and have a barcode printed on them to insure that a voter does not vote twice.  

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy

Trump’s continual broadsides against mail-in voting have begun to worry his Republican allies. Kevin McCarthy, the usually sycophantic House Republican leader, told Axios that he is encouraging voting by mail and has warned the president that Republicans could be “screwed” by his attacks on mail-in voting. McCarthy says he has spent hours trying to convince Trump that his focus on voting by mail harms both the president’s electoral chances and those of Republicans running for Congress. “I tried to show him… who is most afraid of COVID. Seniors. And if they’re not going to vote, period, we’re screwed,” McCarthy said in the Axios interview.

McCarthy is not the only Republican worried that Trump’s drumbeat against mail balloting will discourage supporters from adopting the practice key to voter turnout this year. Trump’s constant refrain that mail voting is “rigged” and “fraudulent” may work too well — discouraging his own supporters from voting. And, as McCarthy told him, if seniors are too afraid of getting sick to go the polls, Trump may be hurting himself with a core constituency. Granted, seniors are polling in higher numbers for Biden than voted for Democratic nominees in recent elections and Democrats are more likely than Republicans to vote by mail. But, if turnout drops by even a point or two among Republicans, that could be serious for Trump’s chances, especially in key battleground states. 

Speaker Nancy Pelosi

It would be ironic if Trump were to lose because his falsehoods worked too well. Still, all Americans have to be worried about the conjunction of Trump’s attacks on voting by mail with the Russian disinformation campaign against the practice. As House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in July, with Trump “all roads lead” to Russian President Vladimir Putin. In attempting to undermine confidence in the American electoral process, it can be no coincidence that both Trump and the Russians are speeding down the same highway — sowing distrust in a result that is likely to go against Trump.

Posted on September 8, 2020

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