Trump has been sowing confusion about the veracity of mail-in ballots, and hinting about a delay. What are the chances?
On Thursday, U.S. President Donald Trump caused alarm when he suggested the general election be delayed “until people can properly, securely and safely vote.” Even for Trump, known for his flights of fancy, pondering an election delay was an “extraordinary breach of presidential decorum,” a New York Times analysis reported.
The coronavirus crisis in the United States, a tattered economy and growing social unrest are all putting downward pressure on Trump ahead of the Nov. 3 election. Polls, meanwhile, see him trailing Democratic rival Joe Biden.
As the election nears, Trump has been sowing confusion about the veracity of mail-in ballots, claiming delays in the U.S. Postal Service’s system — and the incompetence of voters — will fudge the results.
“I don’t want to delay, I want to have the election,” he said. “But I also don’t want to have to wait for three months and then find out that the ballots are all missing and the election doesn’t mean anything.”
Behind Trump’s words, what is the reality of the situation? Could he really delay the vote? We take a look below.
Can Trump cancel or postpone the general election?
In essence, no. Under the American system, both houses of Congress — the House of Representatives and the Senate — determine the timing of the presidential election. An 1845 federal law long ago mandated that the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November be election day.
Trump would fare much better in the Republican-controlled Senate but the House, controlled by the Democrats, has already said it would not support any delay in the vote. And he would need both. U.S. law also determines that his term ends on January 20, and Congress must be sworn in on January 3, the New York Times reports. So, there’s really no wiggle room. On top of that, the U.S. constitution would need to be amended to push the vote to 2021, according to experts.
But haven’t states delayed their elections?
Yes, but under the American system, states have broad autonomy. The New York Times reports that sixteen states and two territories, including California, Utah, Colorado and Hawaii, have pushed back presidential primaries or extended mail-in voting deadlines because of the COVID-19 crisis. They want to ensure the health and safety of their constituents by using mail-in ballots, not in-person voting.
The system has not been without incident, though. In June, New York let voters mail in their ballots for the Democratic primary; delays have plagued the counting of ballots, and the results still aren’t in, the BBC reports.
Is it these issues with mail-in voting that Trump has pounced on in recent weeks, with some analysts opining that he is teeing up the election as one in which everything will be skewed against him — in case he needs to contest the eventual result.
A spokesperson for Trump, rowing back on the president’s remarks, said Trump had merely been raising a legitimate question. Writing for the BBC, North American analyst Anthony Zurcher said Trump can’t do anything without Congress, but added that even floating the suggestion was bound to cause alarm.
“If he didn’t already know this (about Congress), someone has certainly told him by now,” he wrote.
“The president also must know that tweeting about a delay — even framed as an ‘I’m just asking!’ question — is sure to ignite a political firestorm, particularly after he has repeatedly refused to say whether he’d accept an adverse result in the upcoming presidential election.”
How are Republicans reacting?
Sen. Mitch McConnell, leader of the Senate, dismissed the idea of an election delay, saying it hasn’t happened before and won’t happen now.
“Never in the history of this country, through wars, depressions and the Civil War, have we ever not had a federally scheduled election on time. We will find a way to do that again this November third,” he told local Kentucky station WNKY.
For Sen. Lindsay Graham, a Trump backer, a delay was “not a good idea.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo refused to comment on Trump’s suggestion.