World / Politics

Trump floats delaying the election, but lacks the authority

Bloomberg

U.S. President Donald Trump raised the notion of delaying the Nov. 3 election until after the coronavirus pandemic eases, something he cannot do without the consent of lawmakers who have already rejected the idea.

In a tweet, Trump asked if the election should be delayed “until people can properly, securely and safely vote,” suggesting without offering evidence that mail-in voting will be subject to fraud. The president’s comments come as his poll numbers continue to sink against rival Joe Biden, who is leading nationally and in battleground states.

“With Universal Mail-in Voting (not Absentee Voting, which is good), 2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history,” Trump tweeted. “Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???”

Trump later said that he didn’t intend to change the date of the election, but he also sought to cast doubt on the vote by saying it would be days “or even years” until the nation knew the outcome if mail-in balloting was used.

”Do I want to see a date change? No. But I don’t want to see a crooked election,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “This election will be the most rigged election in history, if that happens.”

Biden said Trump’s comments were meant to be a distraction from the funeral in Atlanta on Thursday of civil rights icon John Lewis.

“He called for not having the election on November 3. He wants to postpone the election. Well, that’s for two reasons: One, he believes it, but two, he doesn’t want you to focus on what’s going on today,” Biden said at a virtual fundraiser.

Although terminology differs state by state, there is no difference between mail-in voting and absentee voting. Elections officials have stopped using the latter term as most states no longer require an excuse, such as being absent on Election Day, to request a mail-in ballot.

“Universal” vote-by-mail generally refers to the policy of sending every registered voter a mail-in ballot automatically. Only six largely Western states plan to do so in November.

The Trump campaign quickly began to offer explanations for the president’s remark. Spokesman Hogan Gidley said in a statement that the president was “just raising a question” — but that question got a swift and uncommonly bipartisan answer from Congress: No.

House Democrats, whose support would be needed to pass a law changing Election Day, said it was a nonstarter. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who will also be on the ballot in November, told a local reporter in Kentucky that the date was set in stone. Other Republicans, including Sen. Ted Cruz, also rejected the idea.

If Trump’s goal was to change the subject from Biden’s widening lead in public opinion polls and the economy, he got his wish. His question overshadowed headlines about the U.S. passing 150,000 coronavirus deaths and the gross domestic product shrinking at an annualized rate of nearly 33 percent to the date of the election.

Trump tied his call for an election delay to his concern over vote-by-mail. As voters worry about contracting the coronavirus at a polling place, most states have made it easier to request a mail-in ballot in recent months. Trump has repeatedly claimed, without evidence, that vote-by-mail is rife with fraud and primarily benefits Democrats and sought, unsuccessfully, to curb the practice.

Although it will make voting easier, a largely absentee election could also mean delays in counting the results, and Trump’s ire will almost undoubtedly lead to legal challenges from either side after the election.

“I don’t want a delay,” Trump said at the White House. “I want to have the election. 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.”

The president has often floated unusual ideas when faced with political difficulties, suggesting that he might not accept the results of the 2016 election, alleging he could pardon himself during the Russia investigation and theorizing that the Supreme Court could somehow stop his impeachment trial.

With 96 days until the scheduled election, he is again in political hot water. Polls show Biden ahead nationally as well as in the six battleground states, with voters losing confidence in his handling of the economy, the one policy area where he consistently led Biden.

Trump’s tweet came minutes after the Commerce Department reported the economy shrank at a record 32.9 percent pace in the second quarter, and Labor Department figures showed increasing numbers of Americans claiming state unemployment benefits.

The dollar dropped briefly following the Trump tweet, with the U.S. currency hitting its low for the day against the euro and falling against the yen. U.S. stock futures and yields on 10-year Treasuries also touched session lows.

One of the first sections of the Constitution lays out that only Congress can determine the dates the Electoral College meets, and the law setting elections for early November was passed in 1845. Federal elections were held on time during the Civil War, the Spanish flu pandemic and World War II, among other crises.

Even if Congress were to somehow agree, an effort to change the election date would run into a cascade of deadlines, as dates for certifying election results, sending them to Congress and approving the Electoral College count are all tied to the election and must be completed ahead of Inauguration Day in January.

“At best, they could maybe delay it a week,” said Matthew Weil, elections director at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

This was not the first time a delay for the election has come up.

When Biden suggested in April that Trump might seek to delay the election, a Trump campaign spokesman called it “incoherent, conspiracy theory ramblings” and the president said he’d “never even thought of changing the date.”

But in a May interview, Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, refused to rule it out, saying he couldn’t “commit one way or the other.” And during a House hearing Wednesday, Attorney General William Barr also wouldn’t commit, saying he hasn’t “looked into that question under the Constitution.”

But a March report from the Congressional Research Service said that while some governors have the power to postpone elections during emergencies, “neither the Constitution nor Congress provides any similar power to the President or federal officials to change this date.”

While Trump’s talk of delaying the elections was quickly rejected by leaders in both parties, his talk of safety issues with voting could bolster a Democratic push to send aid to states to help secure the election. Senate Republicans didn’t include fresh election aid in their $1 trillion package, but Senator Roy Blunt, a member of the GOP leadership, has said he would favor giving states funding for elections in a final deal.

“I’m certainly in favor of adding some money, assuming the case can be made for some more reasonable number than $3.6 billion, which is a totally indefensible number,” he said earlier this week.

He said that states should get discretion to use it for election security or administration of elections, which could include expanding vote-by-mail.

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