WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump on Thursday raised the idea of delaying the November election because of issues stemming from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
The suggestion came from a tweet where he said universal mail-in voting would cause the most “fraudulent election in history.”
“It will be a great embarrassment to the USA. Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???” Trump tweeted.
What followed was a day of reactions from legal experts, political allies and rivals, and a press conference where he appeared to take back some of his earlier statements.
Here is what you need to know about Trump’s tweet, the reaction and some of the legal conversations that took place as the day unfolded.
Trump later claims tweet was to start discussion
Trump tweeted later Thursday, writing, “Glad I was able to get the very dishonest LameStream Media to finally start talking about the RISKS to our Democracy from dangerous Universal Mail-In-Voting (not Absentee Voting, which I totally support!).”
“Do I want to see a date change? No,” Trump said during the press conference Thursday, “but I don’t want to see a crooked election.”
Sen John Cornyn, R-Texas, told reporters on Capitol Hill earlier Thursday that Trump’s election-delay tweet was a joke so “all you guys in the press, your heads will explode and you’ll write about it.”
Some users on twitter have pointed out that the suggestion may have been a distraction from two grim milestones: the sharpest economic contraction in modern American history and more than 150,000 deaths caused by the coronavirus.
Pete Buttigieg, the former South Bend, Indiana, mayor, and a Democratic presidential candidate, tweeted, “The USA held an election during the Civil War, and we will hold one in 96 days. No distractions—let’s get to work.”
Just minutes before Trump’s morning tweet, news broke that stocks slumped on Wall Street after the U.S. posted a record economic contraction in the second quarter as the coronavirus pandemic battered the economy, leading to widespread business shutdowns.
The U.S. economy shrank at a 32.9% annual rate in the April-June period, its worst quarter in history by far. Also adding to pressure Thursday, another 1.4 million laid-off Americans applied for unemployment benefits, which will formally expire Friday.
Chris Lu, a former Obama administration cabinet secretary, tweeted,” What Trump is suggesting is dangerous, but it’s also an intentional distraction.”
MoveOn, a progressive public policy advocacy group, tweeted that “Trump’s outrageous suggestion that the election be postponed is just a distraction from today’s disastrous economic news. Don’t fall for it — and make a plan to vote!”
Former Vice President Joe Biden told Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., at a virtual fundraiser that Trump’s election-delay tweet was an attempt to distract from the funeral of the late Rep. John Lewis, saying Trump “doesn’t want to focus on what’s going on today with our buddy, and your close friend, Jim, who you just buried.”
Mail-in ballots vs. absentee ballots
Trump and others in his administration have repeatedly railed against mail-in ballots specifically heading toward November, calling them unsafe and untrustworthy as COVID-19 forces many Americans to stay and vote from home.
Trump and Republicans have sought to draw a distinction between absentee voting – offered to seniors, the military, disabled people and others who are unable to vote in person on Election Day – and universal mail-in voting, where ballots are mailed to all registered voters. Only a few states historically have utilized universal mail-in voting.
According to election experts, absentee and mail-in voting are fundamentally the same thing – voting from home.
And while there were bumps in the presidential primary elections regarding voting-by-mail, there is little to no evidence that mail-in ballots in November would lead to widespread voter fraud.
The president tweeted earlier in July, that mail-in ballots are “Just a formula for RIGGING an Election” but “Absentee Ballots are fine because you have to go through a precise process to get your voting privilege. Not so with Mail-Ins. Rigged Election!!!”
However, as David Becker, founder of the nonpartisan Center for Election Innovation and Research explained to USA TODAY, “There is essentially no difference between absentee and mail-in voting” and that for both absentee and mail-in ballots, there are several identifying features included to protect the integrity of the ballot, including matching a voter’s signature.
Becker also pointed out voter fraud is not be one of the biggest potential problems with mail ballots, but rather, the “confusion about requesting a ballot, filling out the ballot or envelope, or returning the ballot could all lead to some voters not having their votes counted.”
As a response to the ongoing pandemic, states have loosened rules and restrictions on how citizens can receive postal voting ballots, with some proactively sending ballots to all registered voters due to the pandemic.
“About 1 in 4 voters voted by mail in 2016 including, more than 1 in 4 in Florida, where the president now votes,” Becker continued.
Trump has voted by mail several times, including in Florida’s March 17 presidential primary.
Delaying election faces constitutional issues
The date of the presidential election is set by federal law, meaning Congress, not the president, has the power to change it, according to Edward Foley, a law professor from Ohio State University and an election law expert.
Delaying a presidential election would be unprecedented – the nation did not do so even during the Civil War and World War II.
Even if the president and Congress wanted to delay the election, it would be very difficult legally. The Constitution requires congressional elections every two years. To hold congressional and presidential elections together, a delayed presidential election would still need to take place in 2020.
Regardless, the four-year term of a president, in this case Trump, ends at noon on Jan. 20, according to the 20th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Therefore, if the presidential election were somehow not held, Trump would not simply continue to hold office, according to Foley.
The president later tweeted, “Must know Election results on the night of the Election, not days, months, or even years later!”
This is not a requirement for any election in the United States.
He also reiterated this point several times during the press conference, saying the results may be delayed by “weeks and even months.”
Even some of the president’s most loyal supporters pushed back on the idea that the election would be moved.
New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican and Trump supporter, tweeted, “Make no mistake: the election will happen in New Hampshire on November 3rd. End of story. Our voting system in NH is secure, safe, and reliable. We have done it right 100% of the time for 100 years – this year will be no different.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, cited the Constitution, and said “we’re a country based on a rule of law. No one is going to change anything until we change the law.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who is a vocal Trump supporter on Capitol Hill, said the president’s call to delay the election is not “a particularly good idea.”
Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., dismissed Trump’s idea in an interview with WNKY television, saying, “Never in the history of the country, through wars, depressions and the Civil War, have we ever not had a federally scheduled election on time, and we’ll find a way to do that again this Nov. 3.”
Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida, who both represent critical states in the 2020 election, dismissed the idea that the election could change.
Rubio stated, “We’re going to have an election, it’s going to be legitimate, it’s going to be credible, it’s going to be the same as it’s always been,”
Cruz agreed, saying “I think election fraud is a serious problem, but, no, we should not delay the election.”
To the left of the aisle, Democrats expressed their stern disapproval with the suggestion.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., tweeted language from the U.S. Constitution in response: “The Congress may determine the Time of choosing the Electors, and the Day on which they shall give their Votes; which Day shall be the same throughout the United States.”
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., who has been raised as a top contender to run as presumptive nominee Biden’s running mate, tweeted, “Donald Trump is terrified. He knows he’s going to lose to @joebiden.”
“We will see you at the ballot box on November 3rd, @realDonaldTrump,” she continued.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., expressed disbelief that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – a Harvard educated lawyer – refused to refute the idea that Trump could delay the election during a Senate hearing Thursday, noting it is clearly established that Trump does not have that power.
“I don’t think it’s that hard a question … that should lead to any equivocation by somebody who’s fourth in line of succession to be president of the United States,” Kaine said.
Andrew Bates, Biden’s director of rapid response, tweeted an article from April where Biden said Trump would try to delay the election.
“Phone home,” he quote-tweeted in response to the Trump campaign then stating such a suggestion from Biden “fuels election conspiracy theory while the media keeps quiet.”
Contributing: David Jackson, Joey Garrison, John Fritze, Nicholas Wu, Courtney Subramanian, Bart Jansen, USA TODAY