President Donald Trump and his allies have been waging a disinformation campaign about mail-in voting, aggressively trying to delegitimize the practice that has a history in the United States dating back to the Civil War. The plan, as I’ve argued, seems to be to lay the groundwork for challenging mail-in votes or stopping them from being counted if it looks like he’s ahead with in-person ballots on Election Day.
But on Tuesday afternoon, the president suddenly changed his tune on the matter in one key state: Florida. He sent the following tweet:
Whether you call it Vote by Mail or Absentee Voting, in Florida the election system is Safe and Secure, Tried and True. Florida’s Voting system has been cleaned up (we defeated Democrats attempts at change), so in Florida I encourage all to request a Ballot & Vote by Mail! #MAGA
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 4, 2020
The tweet references a dubious distinction that Trump has himself been trying to draw between absentee and mail-in ballots. In many jurisdictions, they’re the same thing, though absentee ballots can refer to a subset of mail-in ballots that require the voter to provide an excuse for not voting in person, such as being out of town on Election. But any concerns about mail-in ballots would apply to absentee ballots, so the president’s attempt to draw a distinction makes little sense.
It made even less sense in Florida — where, as it happens, the president votes by mail under suspicious circumstances — because Florida doesn’t have a special category of “absentee” ballots. Anyone who wants to vote by mail can do so.
So why has the president changed his tune and given the green light to mail-in voting in Florida? MSNBC’s Chris Hayes had a plausible answer:
Allow me to translate: someone told him that he's scaring his elderly supporters in Florida away from vote-by-mail and it's gonna hurt him so hence this. https://t.co/mPAlUlfpiV
— Chris Hayes (@chrislhayes) August 4, 2020
Brian Beutler of Crooked Media added:
1) Florida is fast at counting mail ballots.
2) Florida is filled with seniors.
3) If Trump discourages Republicans from voting absentee there during a pandemic, Biden wins the state, and thus the whole election, ON ELECTION NIGHT.
4) Ergo, the below tweet. https://t.co/Uben7QTbs8
— Brian Beutler (@brianbeutler) August 4, 2020
As NPR reported Monday, Joe Biden’s prospects in Florida look promising. If Trump loses there, he’s almost certainly lost the entire race:
…Biden has gone from a 49% to 48% polling advantage in early February to 50% to 44%, with some reputable surveys showing Biden with a double-digit lead. This is one state we expect to snap back to toss-up, but right now it’s leaning in Biden’s direction.
So abandoning the supposedly principled objection he’s had to mail-in voting for months, Trump has decided to encourage his voters to drop their ballots in the post. It may be the tactically correct move — it just comes at the cost of completely undermining his attempt to delegitimize the process. He began with such little credibility outside his support base that he may not care.
But the Washington Post’s Greg Sergent noted that Trump’s tweet almost certainly doesn’t signal an end to his war against mail-in votes — at least not in any state where he thinks it works to his advantage. Republican lawyers will continue to fight to restrict access to mail-in voting on his behalf:
Please don't be lulled by this. Even as Trump tells his own voters to vote by mail, GOP lawyers are fighting in court to ensure that mail ballots that arrive after election day are not counted in all the swing states: https://t.co/QwC9ed16cv https://t.co/nplB5OUz96
— Greg Sargent (@ThePlumLineGS) August 4, 2020
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