President Donald Trump’s call for “getting rid of ballots” so “there will be no transfer” of power to former Vice President Joe Biden should he lose the election could end up backfiring on him by motivating Democratic turnout and alienating key voting blocs in must-win states, election experts and insiders say.
Trump has, on numerous occasions, railed against the possibility of letting Americans vote by mail without going through the often complicated process of requesting an absentee ballot. He frequently claims without evidence that voting by mail is rife with fraud, often by citing anecdotal evidence to suggest that the push for more mail-in voting — which is meant to mitigate the risk of voters contracting Covid-19 — is a Democratic plot to commit election fraud.
Asked whether he’d commit to a peaceful transfer of power should he lose the election this week, Trump declined to do so and instead began renewing his baseless complaints about voting by mail.
“I’ve been complaining very strongly about the ballots. And the ballots are a disaster. We want to have — get rid of the ballots and you’ll have a very trans- — we’ll have a very peaceful — there won't be a transfer, frankly; there'll be a continuation. The ballots are out of control,” he said while addressing reporters in the White House briefing room.
Surprisingly enough, this kind of talk could end up giving his opponents a boost heading into the election.
Rachel Bitecofer, a political scientist whose voter turnout modeling gained significant attention in the wake of 2018’s “blue wave” election, said Trump’s attacks on voting by mail — including his handpicked Postmaster General’s push to slow down mail service in key swing states — has already caused Democratic grassroots groups to begin to pivot to early in-person voting, and predicted this latest attack will only accelerate that trend.
“You know, we're already seeing conversations happen … due to the sabotage of the post office … in the grassroots groups and within the more engaged part of the electorate,” she said. “I think there's going to be a greater intensity now, of people pushing voters away from vote-by-mail.”
And Trump’s latest foray into authoritarian language could be even more costly when it comes to his chances of winning a second term.
In must-win states like Arizona, Florida, and Texas, Trump’s re-election campaign has put significant effort into engaging with Latin American voters, and has seen that effort rewarded with strong poll numbers especially among Florida-based Latinos.
But veterans of Florida politics and Latino political outreach say Trump very well may have undone all that effort, and given those voters who were on the fence between him and Biden a reason to cast their lot with the Democrat in 40 days.
“This is one of those statements that, for voters who are still open to both candidates, could really be a difference maker,” said ex-Florida Republican Representative Carlos Curbelo.
Curbelo, the Miami-born son of Cuban exiles, opined that Trump’s vow to “get rid of the ballots” would not play well with Latin American voters whose families fled places where leaders did exactly that.
“This is something that could push a lot of these centrist or center-right, younger Hispanic voters away from the President — because they are familiar with the history of the type of regimes out there that their parents and grandparents fled, and they take very seriously the issue of having free and fair elections,” he said.
“The people who will decide the election are still movable a few weeks out, and it's those kinds of voters that could say: ‘Wait, hold on a minute, this is a bridge too far — I may not be thrilled about Joe Biden, but we need to have free and fair elections in this country,’” he continued, before adding that people “who either fled authoritarian regimes or are the children and grandchildren of those people” are “very sensitive” to hints of authoritarianism because many of them — including him — had relatives imprisoned arbitrarily.
“The absence of the rule of law — of what we call in Latin America ‘the democratic order’ — is very scary, very ugly, and it's the reason why so many people found a happy home here in the United States,” he said. “So for the President to raise this possibility at this juncture is very risky.”
The bad news for Trump does not end there.
Mike Madrid, a California-based Republican political consultant and co-founder of The Lincoln Project who specializes in outreach to Latino voters, said the President’s rejection of a peaceful transfer of power has given his group an opening to reverse all the Trump campaign’s gains with Latino voters with what he described as “some really harsh pushback”.
“They [the Trump campaign] are running against socialism, but the real threat here is a dictator,” he said.
Madrid explained that exploiting Latino voters’ — particularly Cuban Americans’ — concerns over “socialism” has always worked because many of the extant authoritarian regimes in Latin America stemmed from left-wing governments.
“But that [socialism] doesn’t mean being a caudillo, or a strongman,” he said. “That’s what they’re concerned about — they’re not concerned about the ideology, they’re concerned about dictatorship, they’re worried about government control and intrusion, and its ability to do things like remove elections — not just take your property, but take your right to vote away.”
Trump’s push against mail-in voting and frequent baseless claims of “voter fraud” will also hurt him in Arizona and possibly even Texas, Madrid predicted.
“Mexican Americans are going to respond to the idea that ballots will be tossed because it's an inherently believable idea and message with Republicans, and with Donald Trump specifically,” he said, recalling how Orange County, California Republicans’ obsession with “ballot security” “really catalyzed the collapse of the Republican Party in California”.
“When you hear Republicans saying this, especially a Republican like Donald Trump, who has been for years saying things that the community responds negatively to, it's a very believable argument,” Madrid said. “He's been claiming voter fraud in California since the day he got elected. Mexican Americans, they all know who he’s talking about when he says illegal aliens are voting.”