- Trump has been on an assault against the legitimacy of the election, including voting by mail.
- This plays right into Putin's strategy to sow distrust and disinformation.
- Voting by mail is time-tested and secure and is the safest way to vote in November.
- Chris Iovenko is a writer based in Los Angeles.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
Weeks before the final results are released, President Trump is already claiming the 2020 general election will be illegitimate due to massive corruption and fraud. The claims come despite the fact that Trump's own administration is ostensibly charged with overseeing, securing, and honestly brokering the election.
Trump routinely blames others for problems only he is in a position to potentially resolve, but his lies about the 2020 election pose a unique existential threat to American democracy that sets them apart from the prior deluge of fictions that have defined the Trump presidency.
Mail-in ballots will be hugely important
Because of the uncontained coronavirus pandemic, an unprecedented three-quarters of American voters will be eligible to vote by mail in November. So of course Trump's core argument is that vote-by-mail is inherently fraudulent. Trump, of course, votes by mail himself.
Americans have been voting by mail since the Civil War, but in recent years mail-in ballots have become increasingly popular and widespread in America. In 2016, over 20% of ballots cast were absentee and five states have switched to all mail-in ballot elections. As a result, we now have very accurate, reliable data on the efficacy of mail-in voting that factually establishes the extreme rarity of fraud in the process.
The Washington Post analyzed data from the 2016 and 2018 general elections in three states that rely solely on mail-in ballots. Out of the 14.6 million votes cast, officials identified 372 cases of possible double voting or voting for a deceased person, for a microscopic rate of .0025%.
For years Republicans have been howling in harmony about the dangers of voter fraud and used those false claims as political cover to enact a wide array of voter-suppression tactics but the truth is that vote fraud in our system, whether in-person or by mail-in ballot, is very difficult to accomplish and exceedingly rare. But there is another danger lurking in Trump's attacks.
Playing into our enemies' hands
As detailed in a recent State Department report, Russia's propaganda and misinformation campaign is extremely well-developed, far-ranging, and sophisticated. The report highlights how Russia's propaganda efforts' success is based on the amplification and distribution of disinformation by persons and organizations not directly employed by or aligned with the Kremlin.
In a September 3 bulletin, The Department of Homeland Security warned that a central tenet of Russia's propaganda campaign is to spread distrust around mail-in voting and in the overall legitimacy of America's electoral process in advance of the November election. This effort is succeeding chiefly because of Trump and his supporter's relentless promotion of this false narrative, acting in effect as agents and allies, unwitting or not, of the Russian regime.
DHS has been criticized for suppressing intelligence reports in order to downplay the threat of Russian election interference and at this point in time the exact relationship between Russian election disinformation and Trump-branded election disinformation has not been completely exposed, but it's clear that the two forces work in tandem and reinforce each other.
There is a long history, including the events that led to Trump's impeachment, of Russian propaganda being laundered and legitimated both by Trump and his many surrogates in the administration, in Congress, and in the vast conservative media ecosystem.
Right-wing media actively engages in this laundering of Russian propaganda; popular sites such as Gateway Pundit routinely pick up disinformation sourced by Russian media and its associates. This re-branded disinformation then gets fed into the bloodstream of more conventional conservative media outlets like Fox News and often end up on Trump's Twitter feed.
The relationship between Russian propaganda and American right-wing news is complicated and symbiotic. Sometimes right-wing outlets promote wild conspiracy theories and false claims that the Russians find attractively divisive and damaging to American democracy so they happily use their own networks to circulate and amplify this disinformation.
Unfortunately, the so-called mainstream media has been hesitant to speak truth to power and punch back hard in order to fully inform Americans that the subversive lies that Trump and his party are telling about the upcoming election are exactly the same ones our Russian adversaries want us to believe.
Attorney General Bill Barr has adopted the dishonest mantra that it's "common sense" that vote by mail will be wracked with fraud. As is so often is the case with both Trump and his allies, the reverse of what they say is true. The electronic voting systems currently in wide use for in-person voting have been repeatedly demonstrated to be very vulnerable to a wide range of errors, hacks, and cyber-attacks which is why vote by mail is so heavily endorsed by cyber-security experts as the most secure way to vote.
Mail-in ballots automatically create a reliable paper trail that can be recounted and checked to refute any claims of tampering, fraud, or miscounting. Electronic voting machines, on the other hand, sometimes don't create a paper trail at all, and even those that do have been shown to have serious flaws and security vulnerabilities.
With the pandemic set to surge, what's "common sense" is for America to use vote by mail to its fullest extent, that is if your goal is to have both full voter participation without the risk of massive COVID contagion and a reliable hack-proof final vote count.
A dangerous synergy
What's good for Russia may be good for Trump, but the Trump campaign and its surrogates' amplification and weaponization of anti-American propaganda may well spell death for American democracy and the underlying principle of free and fair elections.
We're already seeing how alarmingly successful this campaign has been. According to a recent NBC poll, 73% of Republicans don't believe that mail-in ballots will be accurately counted. Democracy everywhere is predicated on the losers of an election accepting the legitimacy of the electoral process; without the peaceful and orderly transfer of power nations typically crumble into chaos and violence often to become ruled by authoritarian strongmen.
Russia has been aggressively pursuing the destruction of American democracy since the end of World War II. If Trump's strategy of falsely attacking mail-in voting and thereby destroying the perceived legitimacy of the November election in order to permanently consolidate his power proves successful, the mood in Moscow following the election will be just as jubilant as the mood at Mar-a-Lago.
America may have thought it won the Cold War but Trump, with an assist by Putin, could flip that hard-won, multi-generational, and crucial victory into a crushing contemporary defeat all without Russia having to ever sacrifice a single soldier or fire a single shot.
Chris Iovenko is a Los Angeles writer who has published in such places as The Atlantic, HuffPost, the New Republic, The American Prospect, Vice, Slate, The Christian Science Monitor, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and elsewhere.
This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author(s).
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