Letters From An American, Heather Cox Richardson

November 1, 2020

There are two big stories this weekend: voter intimidation and the Trump campaign’s attempt to game the election by convincing people that the president should declare victory on Tuesday night.

There have been flashes of voter intimidation all along, with pro-Trump supporters blocking a poll entrance in Fairfax, Virginia, in September, for example. But that intimidation escalated yesterday when a caravan of trucks and cars sporting Trump flags surrounded a Biden-Harris bus in Texas, forcing it first to slow to 20 miles an hour and then forcing the campaign to cancel the rest of the day’s campaign events out of safety concerns. One of the trucks sideswiped a car as the two drove down the highway. 

After the encounter, Trump cheered on the perpetrators, retweeting a video of the vehicles swarming the bus with the words “I LOVE TEXAS!” Last night, he retold the incident to his rally in Montoursville, Pennsylvania, suggesting it showed how popular he really is. 

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Also yesterday, Alamance County sheriff’s deputies and city police officers in Graham, North Carolina, abruptly pepper-sprayed about 200 people who were marching peacefully to the polls. The crowd included children and disabled people and, in what will likely turn out to be a problem for the officers in court, political pundit David Frum’s children, who filmed the encounter. The sheriff’s office said it attacked the march out of “concerns for the safety of all,” but Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson has such a record of racism and intimidation that the Department of Justice sent election monitors to the county in 2004, 2008, and 2012. 

This afternoon, the FBI confirmed in a short, nonspecific statement that it is investigating the incident. After all, voter intimidation is a federal as well as a state crime. 

Tonight, Trump tweeted: “In my opinion, these patriots did nothing wrong. Instead, the FBI & Justice should be investigating the terrorists, anarchists, and agitators of ANTIFA, who run around burning down our Democrat run cities and hurting our people!”

Today, Trump supporters are building on yesterday’s disruption, but with little obvious purpose. They shut down the northbound side of the Garden State Parkway and the Mario Cuomo bridge over the Hudson River. Tonight, another Trump group appears to be disrupting traffic at Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. Writer Rebecca Solnit noted, “Reminder: They’re doing crazy s**t because they can’t win by the rules.”

Indeed, Americans continue to turn out to vote in record numbers. As of early this afternoon, voters had cast 93 million early ballots, almost twice as many as were cast in 2016. That’s about 68% of the total votes counted in 2016. Hawaii and Texas have already seen more votes cast than were cast in total in 2016. People newly engaged in the political process are turning out to vote, including young people, who are voting in record numbers. In Georgia, the voter rights organization Fair Fight, started by Democrat Stacey Abrams in 2018, has registered more than 800,000 new voters. If those people show up to vote, University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock told NBC News, “it would be game over.”

As the tide appears to be running strong against Trump, he and his surrogates are trying to lay the groundwork to claim a victory before the actual votes are counted. Repeatedly, Trump and his people have insisted that the election should be called on Tuesday night, and that if it is not, as Trump adviser Jason Miller said on ABC this morning, the Democrats are “going to try to steal it back after the election.” 

But you can’t win an election before all the votes are counted. As the New York Times put it tonight, counting all the votes by the evening of November 3 is “not possible and never has been. No state ever reports final results on election night, and no state is legally expected to.” It is the states that certify the final votes, and none of them does so on Election Day. They have to take time to count all the ballots, and always there are late arrivals, such as those from deployed military personnel. 

Ohio’s Secretary of State Frank LaRose, the swing state’s top election official, is already warning people that it is unlikely Ohio can call its election results on November 3. “That’s not the way elections work. It’s just simply not, it’s not the way elections work in Ohio or most any other state election night is a snapshot in time,” he told CNN. “Every legally cast [ballot] deserves to be counted and will be counted by our boards collections and reported as part of our final certified result at the end of the month.”

Presidential historian Michael Beschloss pointed out today that we did not have a certain presidential winner on the night of the election in 1960, 1968, 1976, 2000, 2004, and 2016. It would not be unusual at all not to have one this year, either.

The way it works is this: Each state has its own procedures for counting ballots. Some count early ballots when they come in, others alongside the ones cast on Election Day, still others put them off until after in-person ballots are counted. Because early voting this year has skewed to Democrats, people watching this election expect that the in-person voting will be heavily Republican. So in Arizona, for example, where officials count ballots when they come in, it is likely that the first reports on November 3 will lean Democratic. Then the in-person ballots will be counted, shifting the state into the Republican column, then the late arriving ballots might well shift the state back to the Democrats. 

Trump is hoping to call the election at the end of the evening, after the in-person ballots have been counted—meaning a shift to the Republicans– but before the mail-in ballots which will likely favor Democrats have all been tabulated. He and his campaign are especially interested in getting things settled before results come in from Pennsylvania, a key swing state where Biden is leading, and which doesn’t count its mail-in ballots until Election Day. Picking a moment at the end of Tuesday night would let him capitalize on the high water mark for his campaign, but it would mean ignoring legally cast ballots. It is rather as if a soccer team captain got to choose to call a game at the precise moment her team was ahead.

Three sources close to Trump told Jonathan Swan of Axios that Trump indeed plans to declare victory if he appears to be ahead. Tonight the president told reporters: “I think it’s a terrible thing when ballots can be collected after an election. I think it’s a terrible thing when states are allowed to tabulate ballots for a long period of time after the election is over.” He added: “I think it’s terrible that we can’t know the results of an election the night of the election. … We’re going to go in the night of, as soon as that election’s over, we’re going in with our lawyers.” 

His campaign appears to be hoping to convince followers that Democrats have stolen the election if the results change after Election Day. At the same time, his lawyers will throw around lawsuits in key states. If the vote is close, these two things could create enough confusion that the election drags out until it ends up either in the House of Representatives or before the Supreme Court. This is highly unlikely, but it might be a way to game the system for a victory, and Trump’s campaign needs scenarios that do not depend on winning the election fair and square.

Tonight NBC News White House correspondent Geoff Bennett reported news from a federal law enforcement source: Starting tomorrow, “crews will build a ‘non-scalable’ fence to secure the WH complex, Ellipse and Lafayette Square. 250 National Guardsmen have been put on standby, reporting to Metro Police officials.” 

One astute reader commented: “You might be forgiven for thinking he’s planning on doing something that will be bringing mass protests to Washington & the White House.”

~~~ WATCH ~~~

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