Panic Over Mail-in Voting Only Feeds Trump’s Chaos, Says Top Pennsylvania Democrat

Voters in the Keystone State who request an absentee ballot but decide to vote in person are playing into Trump's hands, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman warns.

A voter drops off his mail-in ballot at West Oak Lane Library in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
A voter drops off his mail-in ballot at West Oak Lane Library in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on Tuesday, June 2, 2020. Photo: Hannah Yoon/Bloomberg/Getty Images

President Donald Trump spent a decent portion of his stage time during Tuesday night’s debate raising questions about the integrity of the voting process in general, but zeroed in on one of his must-win states: Pennsylvania.

A U.S. prosecutor working under Trump had already generated confusion in the state with a wildly inappropriate press release suggesting Trump ballots were being discarded in Pennsylvania. Then, a Trump poll watcher attempted to come inside an early-voting site in Philadelphia, which isn’t allowed. She was refused, and Republicans are using the refusal as evidence of conspiratorial activity. During the debate, Trump weaponized the U.S. attorney’s bogus claims, urged his supporters nationwide to monitor the polls, and singled out Philadelphia for particular scorn. “Bad things happen in Philadelphia,” Trump said.

National Democrats have framed this attack on the voting process as an effort to steal the election — to create enough chaos that Trump can go to court and be declared the winner by a Supreme Court stacked with six conservatives, three of them put there by Trump himself.

But there’s a step in between there that Democrats are missing, argues Pennsylvania’s Democratic Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman. Trump’s sowing of doubt in mail-in voting could leave him with more votes in Pennsylvania, well before a court would need to intervene. In other words, if Democrats fall into his trap, he could win outright.

More than two million absentee ballots have been requested in Pennsylvania, and more than 70 percent of those are by Democrats. The Republican hope, said Fetterman — who’s a popular statewide politician with a reputation for speaking his mind — is that enough of those Democrats, having heard of all the chaos around absentee voting, will be convinced to scrap their plan to vote by mail and instead head to the polls in person. If they do, they’re walking right into a trap, because by Pennsylvania law, a voter who requested an absentee ballot must bring that ballot — including the envelope it was mailed in — or else they cannot vote in person.

Any voter can at that point demand a provisional ballot, but that’s a win for Republicans too, because casting a provisional vote is a time-consuming process. Election precincts will already be short-staffed due to the coronavirus, and poll workers distracted by handling provisional ballots won’t be able to keep the line moving. And that leads to hourslong voting lines, especially in Democratic strongholds. Out in the vast conservative parts of the state, voting centers rarely have lines of more than a few people.

The two things opponents of Trump can do to counteract his strategy of victory-by-chaos, Fetterman said, are to not panic and to not feed into the panic. Pennsylvania pulled off its June primary with record turnout and no evidence of fraud. Just follow the instructions on your mail-in ballot, he said, and either turn it in early at a county board of elections office or drop it in the mail. If you requested an absentee ballot, he said, don’t switch and vote in person on Election Day, but if you do, make sure to bring your absentee ballot and your envelope with you.

“I’m getting people saying, ‘Screw it. I don’t want to vote by mail anymore. I want to do it in person.’ That’s what [Republicans] want,” he said, because now you can’t vote normally at your precinct, because you don’t have your mail ballot to turn in.

“It’s truly diabolical. And I choose that word very deliberately. It’s diabolical. They know that you’ve got to bring everything: your ballot, the envelope, everything. If you don’t, you can’t vote. And most people don’t know that you can demand a provisional ballot. And if you do, that’s going to blow up the lines and create chaos.”

City Commissioner Al Schmidt, who, as a Philadelphia Republican, is not aligned with the more conservative, tea party-driven elements of the Republican legislature, said that Fetterman is right about absentee voting. “Absentee and mail-in voting is safe,” he told The Intercept. “People should tune out all the noise and efforts to dissuade people from voting by mail, if they choose.”

The two things opponents of Trump can do to counteract his strategy of victory-by-chaos, Fetterman said, are to not panic and to not feed into the panic. 

A recent controversy in Pennsylvania over “naked ballots,” Fetterman said, is contributing to the decision by people to vote in person, even if they requested absentee ballots. In Pennsylvania, election law requires voters to put their mail ballot in a redundant sleeve. Without that extra sleeve, it won’t be counted, leading to fears that tens of thousands of ballots or more will be discarded. Courts have declined to eliminate the need for the extra sleeve, and the GOP legislature has refused to fix the problem. But the issue, he said, was blown way out of proportion. “That whole naked ballot freak-out was alarming. Putting an envelope in another envelope is not a bridge too far. I don’t agree with that ruling, I want to be clear, but just because you don’t agree with the rule doesn’t mean that’s not how you have to play the game,” he said, arguing that following the instructions is not that hard. “Stick the goddamn envelope in the other envelope.”

The debate on Tuesday night, he said, should leave little doubt that Trump’s strategy is to scare voters into creating chaos, and that Democrats need to stop helping him. Every time Trump opponents pour gasoline on the fire Trump is trying to start, or panic over stories like a recent one on missing memory sticks, Fetterman warned, more and more Democrats decide that voting by mail is a bad idea.

Other irregular voters, warned Anat Shenker-Osorio, a top progressive researcher, can be dissuaded from voting when they hear so much talk about the illegitimacy of the election and Trump’s plan to steal it, in a recent interview with Rolling Stone. “It affects the people who don’t routinely vote,” she said. “My conclusions are based on a body of research, almost all of it proprietary, into perception and motivation among a really challenging target, which is people who don’t regularly vote.”

“Stick the goddamn envelope in the other envelope.”

Michael Podhorzer, a strategist with the AFL-CIO, recently laid out a similar warning in a memo to Democratic allies, as Michelle Goldberg, a New York Times columnist, recently reported. “We cannot allow Trump’s constant threats to undermine voters’ confidence that their ballots will be counted or discredit the outcome in advance,” Podhorzer wrote, saying that the polling he had analyzed suggested that “this close to the election, we do Trump’s work for him when we respond to his threats rather than remind voters that they will decide who the next president will be if they vote.”

Still, Democrats have work to do in their own circles. “Some people try to take me to task and say, ‘You’re trying to shut me up,’” said Fetterman. “No! I’m not trying to shut you up. I’m trying to say: This is what they want you to do.”

The strategic response to chaos, Fetterman said, is not more chaos, but order. “They say chaos. We say order,” he said. “And by order, I’m very clear: Vote either in person or by mail. Follow the instructions.”

Fetterman made an analogy to Dracula. Imagine, he said, there are three simple steps you know you can take to kill Dracula. “If you follow that, you can kill him. You don’t have to be afraid of Dracula. But now everyone’s like, ‘Dracula’s coming, Dracula’s coming!’ I’m like, ‘No, this is all you gotta do!’” he said. “The bitter irony in all of this is that if you just do the simple, easy thing, it makes it all go away.”

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