In the months since Covid-19 swept the globe, leaders the world over have been accused of exploiting the pandemic for political gain while laying waste to democratic norms. Few, if any, have gone as far as to reveal those plans publicly.
A notable exception is President Donald Trump, who has openly admitted that he is trying to block much-needed funding for the US Postal Service because he wants to limit the number of Americans who can vote safely by mail in November’s election.
The reason? Trump says postal ballots will hurt his campaign, and has repeatedly made the unfounded claim that widespread mail-in voting will result in the “most fraudulent election in history.”
By refusing to take steps to allow as many Americans as possible to participate in the election – and by openly casting doubt over the legitimacy of the poll – Trump is embracing tactics used by authoritarian leaders in countries with compromised democratic institutions, experts said.
“On one hand, he is claiming that postal voting could delegitimize the election while openly admitting that he opposes funding the post office to suppress the vote,” said Nic Cheeseman, professor of democracy at the University of Birmingham. “It’s a move from the populist playbook: blame someone else for the thing you yourself are doing.”
Trump’s moves also come at a time when some countries are expanding the availability of mail-in ballots and other early voting initiatives in an effort to allow people to take part in elections without risking their health at polling stations.
South Korea allowed coronavirus patients to vote by mail in April, and more than a quarter of the country’s 44 million voters cast their ballots before election day – a record figure. And in June, Poland held its first election in which wide-scale postal voting was allowed.
As Cheeseman points out, in the case of the US election, Trump is “picking the postal service as an enemy while installing an ally to run it, meaning Trump himself is the person in the best position to manipulate it.”
Of course, postal votes are inherently more vulnerable than in-person voting. “The two main vulnerabilities are how do you know people are not filling in ballots under duress, and how do you know that the vote is getting to the place it needs to be counted,” said Cheeseman. But he added that mail ballots “are secure if the institutions are secure and impartial,” and that there was “very little evidence of the postal vote being manipulated in the past.”
Postal ballots and other alternatives to in-person voting have previously been deployed successfully in other countries too, from Australia to the United Kingdom.
Katya Andrusz from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, which will be monitoring the US election, points to Switzerland, where it is estimated that this method is used by 90% of voters.
Her organization’s report on the 2019 Swiss election explains that this was possible because voters “must send their voter identification card, using a double envelope system, along with the ballot to prevent the possibility of voting additionally at a polling station.”
Trump has also linked his unfounded claims about mail-voting fraud to his explosive suggestion last month that the US election be delayed until the pandemic had subsided. Only Congress can delay a presidential election, but his comments still sparked nearly universal condemnation.
Elections have been postponed in dozens of countries since the pandemic started. In some of those nations, critics believe the pandemic is being exploited by politicians wishing to avoid the electorate.
Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam last month announced that the city’s elections were to be delayed for a year because of a second spike in the virus. But opponents claim she used colonial-era emergency laws to delay the vote in order to avoid an embarrassing political defeat, following Beijing’s imposition of new security laws on the semi-autonomous city.
In Bolivia, an interim government has repeatedly delayed presidential elections, sparking protests and accusations from the opposition that it is seeking to remain in power indefinitely.
There are examples of nations where elections have been delayed to less controversy – most recently in New Zealand. However, in those cases there has been broad agreement from all parties that this was the correct course of action.
Clearly, that is not the case in the US, where Trump is not only discrediting the democratic process but meddling in it. Experts said his moves could have ramifications beyond America’s borders.
The long-term risk, Cheeseman said, is that Trump “undermines confidence in the electoral process, risking political violence and seeking alternatives to democracy. And if that happens in America, it could easily have a ripple effect around the world.”
And that could have even bigger consequences than copycat behavior from other leaders. “There is a connection between domestic policy in the US and the credibility of US foreign policy,” said Andreas Bummel, executive director of Democracy Without Borders. “Seeing Trump claim that the election might be rigged while seemingly trying to rig it himself through the postal service makes it harder for America to call for democracy in other countries.”
And if he continues to sow mistrust in American democracy at home, that could taint the democratic model elsewhere.
“Public trust is vital to the functioning of any democratic election process, and for that reason it’s an area we always pay close attention to in our election observation,” said Andrusz. “A significant level of mistrust in any part of the system can undermine public confidence in the whole process.”
Trump seems unlikely to change tack as November 3 approaches. But the damage being done to the cause of democracy at home and abroad could last far beyond election day.