Mail-in ballots could play havoc on American democracy this year


Democracies have little tolerance for sore losers.
I remember decades ago when a candidate for Moline mayor was defeated, I called him on election night. He was angry and his words were slurred. I could hear the clink of glasses in the background.
He said Moline was an awful town and they didn’t deserve him as mayor.
I typed up the quote and sent it over to the city desk. It was spiked. No one wants to hear from a sore loser on election night.
It is never pretty.
Perhaps the most infamous sore loser speech of the 20th Century was when Richard Nixon lost the California gubernatorial race. Appearing before 100 reporters at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, Nixon lashed out at the media, saying “You don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.”
Nixon, of course, went on to win the presidency in 1968.
But for the most part losing candidates for major offices try to at least appear magnanimous. If they can’t say anything nice about their opponent, they extoll the system and express their support for it.
A good example is Gov. Pat Quinn’s 2014 concession speech to Bruce Rauner:
“It’s clear we do not have enough votes to win the election,” Quinn said at the news conference. “Therefore, we respect the result, we respect what the voters said yesterday, and I look forward to working with the new administration.”
I was sitting in the audience of reporters when he made that statement.  I couldn’t help but think, “He must really dislike Rauner. He didn’t even utter his name.”

But Quinn loved Illinois enough not to undermine its democratic institutions by criticizing the voters or making unwarranted allegations about the system.
I’m not so sure the current occupant of the Oval Office would be so gracious in defeat.
Love him or hate him, one has to admit that Donald Trump is a political brawler.  
Some folks love his unfiltered, unscripted, uncouth style. Others don’t.
One thing that is certain, is he is unlike any president the nation has had in the past century. And there is the rub.  The usual norms of political decorum are an anathema to him.
This is the fellow who led his followers in chants of “Lock her up” during the 2016 race against Hillary Clinton. After losing the popular vote but winning the Electoral College, he claimed millions of votes were cast fraudulently by illegal aliens and that he really won the popular vote.
We are still waiting for the proof of this assertion. And I anticipate it will continue to be a really long wait.
But this election will be different, for one thing the process of casting votes is already being politicized. And it’s anticipated that record numbers of people will vote by mail.
For example, here in Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker recently signed legislation to encourage mail-in ballots by sending applications to anyone who voted by mail in 2018, 2019 or in this year’s primary.
On May 26, Trump tweeted, “There is NO WAY (ZERO!) that Mail-In Ballots will be anything less than substantially fraudulent. Mail boxes will be robbed, ballots will be forged & even illegally printed out & fraudulently signed.”
Ron Michaelson, who led the Illinois Board of Elections under Republican administrations from 1976 until 2003, says there is little evidence to support widespread voter fraud connected with mail-in ballots.”
Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah conduct their elections entirely by mail and have had little to no problem with fraud.
“Democrats seem to have convinced themselves that mail-in ballots benefit their party. And President Trump seems to believe it. That’s why he is fighting this so hard,” Michaelson said. “Personally, I don’t think it benefits one party more than another.”
But Michaelson added the potential for voter fraud increases when ballots are completed far away from the ballot boxes. He noted that 20 years ago absentee ballots sent in from an Illinois nursing home appeared to have been manipulated. Michaelson  added it’s unlikely that fraud could be committed on a broad enough level to influence a national election.
But that doesn’t mean we don’t have the potential for a crisis this year.
Remember 2000, when the nation waited for weeks for the votes to be counted in Florida? If, this year’s election is even somewhat close, things could be much, much worse.
Since so many more mail-in ballots are expected to be cast this year, it may be days after Election Day before the U.S. Postal Service delivers all the ballots to be counted. This means in toss-up states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin we may not know the outcome for weeks.
When one combines this with the fact, that President Trump is crying “fraud” before the first ballot has been mailed in, we have the potential for the republic being thrown into crisis.
What happens if a presidential candidate contends he is the victim of massive voter fraud and instead of conceding chooses to challenge the legitimacy of the electoral process? That has never happened in this country. If it does it will not be just a distraction to democracy, it will have the potential to undermine it.
Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse journalist and a freelance reporter.