There’s a moment in the Orson Welles classic film Citizen Kane when the main character, Charles Foster Kane— based on the newspaper and business tycoon William Randolph Hearst—is running for election as governor of New York. The editor of his New York daily has prepared two early editions, one of which will appear the morning after the result of the election is announced. One reads ‘KANE ELECTED’ the other reads ‘FRAUD AT THE POLLS’. With a long face he is forced to go with the latter when Kane loses (so did Hearst, in 1906).
It appears from his tweet today—the one about the possibility of postponing the November Presidential election, not the 87 other ones—(this was written before midnight so that figure might no longer be accurate!)—that President Donald J. Trump is of a similar mindset. Either he will defeat Joe Biden in November, or he will have been the victim of massive electoral fraud, most of it coming via mail ballots.
So, what does history tell us about a) the postponement of a US Presidential election and b) US electoral fraud.
The first thing to be reiterated is that the President cannot release his inner spider yet again and sign another Executive Order to postpone/cancel/exclude/deport/pardon a Presidential election. He may be able to rename Mars as Planet Trump (I’m not sure if that actually happened but I saw it on Twitter) but according to Article 2 Clause 4 of something called the United States Constitution (apparently we have one too, but the UK hasn’t gotten around to it yet) …
‘The Congress may determine the Time of chusing the Electors, and the Day on which they shall give their Votes; which Day shall be the same throughout the United States.’
Americans seem to have adopted the standardised spelling of ‘choosing’ since the 18th century, so it’s probably only a matter of time before they overcome their loathing of the letter ‘U’ and begin to spell ‘labour’ ‘flavour’ and ‘savour’ properly as well.
As to the date, the American election has not always taken place on the first Tuesday after the 1 November. That practice began on 7 November 1848 when the USA staged the first national election that was held on the same day in every state. Zachary Taylor became President. (Me neither!) The 1848 election date was based on a snappily titled 1845 law – ‘An act to establish a uniform time for holding elections of electors of President and Vice President in all the states of the Union’ which did exactly what it said on the tin and settled on ‘the Tuesday next after the first Monday in November’. That is the way it was been ever since.
Any change would require an amendment to that act, approved by both Houses of Congress. To the Democrats, who have a majority in the House of Representatives, it is an non-runner, dead duck, non-starter, ‘just ain’t gonna happen’ – and even Republicans in the Senate have no stomach for such a move. Trump Enabler in Chief, Mitch McConnell has described the date as ‘set in stone’
And even if it was postponed when would the USA go for a reset? No election (bar the first in 1788) has failed to take place in the final full year of a presidential term. This is not the Olympic games. Any postponement beyond the end of December would require a constitutional amendment. This would have to be ratified by 38 of 50 states! If you’ve been watching Mrs. America on the BBC you’ll have some idea how difficult it is to pass a constitutional amendment. (Spoiler Alert – I’ve probably just given away the fact that the Equal Rights Amendment was never enshrined in the US Constitution. Oops! Sorry).
And it’s not as if American Presidential elections haven’t gone ahead in spite of a few minor difficulties!
In 1812 James Madison and DeWitt Clinton had to face the electorate despite the USA being in the middle of a war with their former colonisers, the British. In 1864 Abraham Lincoln had to fight an election against one of his former Generals, George McClellan even though the Civil War was still raging.
According to Michael Burlingame, Professor emeritus of History, Connecticut College:
‘No other democratic nation had ever conducted a national election during times of war. And while there was some talk of postponing the election, it was never given serious consideration, even when Lincoln thought that he would lose.’ Lincoln’s chances weren’t helped by a rebellion in his own party that threw up a charismatic third candidate in John C. Fremont. But the Lincoln Project was ultimately successful (fnarr, fnarr!)
Not to mention the fact that FDR was re-elected, for the seventeenth time, in 1944 during a global conflict.
Then there is the mail / absentee voting issue.
Is voting by mail more liable to produce a fraudulent result? Well, nearly 1 in 4 voters cast 2016 presidential ballots that way, and Trump won (albeit losing the popular vote by a narrow 3,000,000 margin). Being permitted to post off your ballot in October or November, rather than appearing in person to pull the lever, would make it less likely that electors would be required to die for their country, of Covid-19. It would also be more difficult for Cozy Bears, APT29 or whatever those talented Russian hackers are calling themselves now, to game the system. Not even Vladimir Putin is patient enough to stand over every postal voter and steal their ballot.
They’ve been voting by mail in Oregon since 1998 and out of over 15 million ballots cast the conservative Heritage Foundation detected fourteen cases of fraud. That’s a rate of .0000009%. A study that was funded by by those celebrated bastions of Marxist/Leninism, the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Knight Foundation, found an “infinitesimal” number of fraud cases in elections between 2000 and 2012. They detected a total of 2,068 illicit ballots cast, amounting to one in every 15 million eligible voters. And those were not all mail-in voters, some of the fraud took place at election booths.
If about 150,000,000 Americans vote on 3 November that’s a potential incidence of around 10 fraudulent ballots nationwide. I’m sure the Democrats would be happy to ease President Trump’s mind by giving him a ten vote start? He can even take them all in Wisconsin or Minnesota if that helps.
BTW – President Trump himself voted by mail during New York City’s mayoral election in 2017. He cast an absentee ballot the following year, and again used a mail ballot in Florida’s primary election in 2020. What’s that old saw about sauce, goose and ganders again? So, unless Democratic members of the House of Representatives are accidentally locked in a broom cupboard before a vote on electoral postponement, the poll will proceed as planned on 3 November.
Incidentally, the last time a Presidential election was held on 3 November was 1988, when a Republican incumbent (George H.W. Bush) was defeated after serving a single term in the White House. Just sayin’
Caveat – all sources cited here are, of course, fake news outlets, like Snopes.com, Reuters and NPR. So, you can safely take it all with a pinch of salt.