Trump vote by mail rhetoric further poisons already toxic Texas attitudes toward elections

For all the attention paid to President Trump’s now-infamous Tweet asking, “Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???," the predicate of the rhetorical qustion (and its repetition in all the ensuing media coverage) – that voting by mail is inherently fraudulent – will ultimately resonate more enduringly with his loyalists, and to do more long-term damage to the discourse around elections, than the question itself. The crack about the election seems to have ended up being largely considered some combination of an ill-conceived trial balloon and, mostly, a diversionary tactic on a day with a lot of bad news, and was mostly walked back later that same day. But Trump is much more likely to hold the line against expanding access to voting by mail, even amidst a pandemic that makes crowded polling places potential health hazards, than he is to try to delay Election Day. (He demonstrated this in his July 28 interview with Jonathan Swan of Axios, which was actually recorded two days before the Tweet and released August 3 on Axios HBO show, though the release likely was pre-arranged.)

Trump’s assertion that “Universal Mail-In Voting” will make 2020 “the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT ELECTION in history” was certainly well-received in corners of the Texas Republican Party that Trump needs to mobilize to remain competitive in November. He has Republican allies in state government that have succeeded in blocking the expansion of voting by mail in the courts, and voters who support such efforts: In the June 2020 Texas Politics Project poll, 72% of Texas Republicans opposed allowing all Texans to vote by mail in response to the pandemic; only 21% of Texas Republicans favored it, with 7% on the fence. 

GOP opposition to expanding voting by mail has increased even as the pandemic has worsened. The discussion of mail-in voting among elected officials and opinion leaders in Texas is now fueled not only by the usual Republican opposition to easing barriers to voting, but also by pandemic politics in which any acknowledgement of the need to adjust to the spread of COVID-19 is presented by GOP opinion leaders in the White House and in conservative media as part of anti-Trump hype. So as the pandemic worsened in the early summer, opposition to voting by mail increased 13 points among Texas GOP voters between April and June, as support decreased by 8 points. 

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Don't know/No opinion5%23%7%

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Don't know/No opinion7%24%11%

In another question on the June Poll, most GOP voters also rejected using the mail-in option if it was made available: 54% said they would vote early in person, and 28% said they would cast their votes on election day in person; only 13% said they would vote by mail. (By contrast, 52% of Democrats said they would vote-by-mail if allowed.) skepticism about the seriousness of the virus, which grew among a significant minority of Texas Republicans between June and April (as described in an earlier post), further fed negative associations with mail-in voting among Republicans, even as Democrats appear eager to embrace a more cautious voting option.

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In-person early29%41%54%
In-person on election day14%15%28%
By mail52%34%13%
Don't intend to vote0%2%1%
Don't know/Unsure6%8%4%

Texas GOP voters’ skepticism of voting by mail is also being reinforced by Texas Republican elected officials’ opposition to any expansion of vote-by-mail eligibility. This opposition fits into a familiar pattern of opposing any lowering of barriers, like online voter registration, and instead imposing measures large and small that complicate the process of qualifying to vote and casting a ballot, from Texas baroquely stringent voter id law eventually substantially rolled back by the courts, to reducing the number of polling places, to elaborate voter registration procedures and practices, all instituted and defended (frequently in court) in the name of protecting the integrity of the process. 

Given this history, his rhetoric rang familiar when Attorney General Ken Paxton claimed a direct connection between mail-in voting and fraud in a statement released prior to a May court filing attempting to block the expansion of mail-in voting. “The integrity of our election process must be maintained...,” read a Paxton statement published in a large font on the official page of the AG’s office, continuing,  “Unlawful expansion of mail-in voting, which is a special protection made available to Texans with actual disabilities, will only serve to undermine the security of our elections and to facilitate fraud.” Neither the statement nor the filing offered any evidence to buttress these predictions. The tone of both was very urgent, though.

Both Paxton and Trump are preaching to a choir whose members were very familiar with the hymnal well before the onset of the plague. A brief reprise of partisan patterns in attitudes toward the electoral system, drawn in part from an Texas Politics Project analysis in May, spans the last four years of University of Texas/Texas Tribune polling:

  • 30% of Republicans said that voters knowingly break election laws “frequently” in June 2019, compared to 9% of Democrats.
  • 42% of Republicans said that non-citizens vote in Texas elections “frequently” in June 2019, compared to 6% of Democrats.
  • 31% of Democrats said that eligible voters are prevented from voting “frequently” in June 2019, compared to 5% of Republicans.
  • 77% of Democrats supported online voter registration in June 2018, compared to 41% of Republicans.

Perhaps more directly expressive of the dark suspicions of fraud and threats to election security fed by Trump and Paxton, Trump supporters in the October 2016 UT/Texas Tribune Poll (before they were ostensibly surprised to have Trump awarded the White House fair and square) were consistently far more likely than Clinton supporters to think a set of possible problems in the electoral process would be “extremely serious” in the 2016 election. As the following graphics illustrate, between 60% and 77% of Trump supporters considered votes being counted inaccurately, people voting multiple times, and, at the top of the list, people voting who are not eligible, to be “extremely serious” problems. (The same responses to the same items among Clinton voters were significantly lower, ranging from 18% to 29%. Trump and Clinton supporters were identified by their preference in the presidential trial ballot on the same poll.)   

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categoryNot supporting Donald TrumpSupporting Donald Trump
Extremely serious25%60%
Somewhat serious20%25%
Not too serious21%12%
Not serious at all29%3%
Don't know4%2%

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categoryNot supporting Donald TrumpSupporting Donald Trump
Extremely serious18%64%
Somewhat serious10%25%
Not too serious17%8%
Not serious at all51%3%
Don't know4%1%

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categoryNot supporting Donald TrumpSupporting Donald Trump
Extremely serious18%77%
Somewhat serious11%18%
Not too serious19%3%
Not serious at all48%1%
Don't know3%0%

As Josh Blank and I wrote in the earlier analysis, “Republicans’ emphasis on isolated prosecutions for voter fraud may enable talk of a 'zero tolerance' policy among defenders of election integrity, but the incidents of voter fraud and non-citizen voting are at best infinitesimal as a share of the Texas electorate.” Trump’s most recent insistence that mail-in voting is inherently fraudulent thus lands amidst a Republican electorate with an established penchant for taking Tweets about threats to democracy presented in maximum all-caps hyperbole seriously – even if the evidence to back them up is decidedly lower-case.

It’s a safe bet that last week’s activation of Republicans’ suspicions of the system is not the last such provocation we’ll hear from the President between now and November. Nor should we expect the intensity of the fears of a rigged system, and the anger these fears feed, to become any less intense. These attitudes predate Trump, and, having been fed by him and his allies, will continue to burn hot when he’s gone, whether his departure is four months or four years from now. 

Whether Trump loses the election and accedes to exiting the White House on the same terms in which he was greeted when he entered – via a peaceful, orderly succession, with respect for the election’s outcome no matter how unpleasant – can’t be known until November. Even should Trump lose and decide to accept an election result requiring him to exit the White House without a fuss – it wouldn’t be the first time his bluster turned out to be an empty threat – expect the suspicions that the system was rigged against him to be one of the enduring and dangerous problems facing his successor. Trump won’t be able to claim the decay in legitimacy as a legacy all his own, but he’ll have done his part – with plenty of help from his allies in Texas.

Slightly updated August 4th at 8:18 am to reflect release of the Axios Trump interview.