At first, it sounded like a joke: Did you hear that President Trump is urging his supporters to commit the very kind of voter fraud he says he fears so much?

Yet there it was on the videotape: the president in North Carolina encouraging his voters to test the system by first casting an absentee ballot and then going to the polls to vote in person, to see whether the second ballot gets caught before it gets counted. (And then again on Twitter the next day, and in Latrobe, Pa., Thursday night.)

It’s essentially an orchestrated form of ballot-box stuffing. Every extra vote that makes it through would be improper.

Although Trump and his staff attempted to walk his words halfway back, they still leave the idea dangling out there for his supporters: Go ahead and try it, and see what happens.

Where does that leave the American electorate, for whose benefit – not Trump’s, not Joe Biden’s, not any politician’s or party’s – the election is held?

Voters will have to rely, for better or worse, on the decentralized nature of the nation’s electoral process. The casting and counting of ballots are not in the control of the White House or a Cabinet department, or even a so-called “independent” federal administrative agency, but instead in the hands of myriad state and local election officials dispersed coast to coast. It makes for a more chaotic show, but at least it avoids the problem of an incumbent president directly manipulating the process to his own advantage. (Indirectly manipulating the process through control of the U.S. Postal Service is another matter – and something to remain concerned about.)

With respect to the specific problem of double voting, different states handle it in different ways. That’s the benefit – and burden – of the decentralized system that the United States has. Many states require any in-person ballot to be provisional once a voter is recorded as having requested an absentee ballot. Some states discard the provisional ballot once the absentee vote is counted. Other states permit counting the provisional ballot as long as the absentee ballot never is received or is successfully voided. All states endeavor to make sure that no voter gets two successful bites at the apple.

States’ track record on this is generally pretty good. Yes, in every election, some mistakes are made, and a few unlawful double votes escape detection and are counted. The number is almost never enough to affect an election’s outcome. Occasionally, it can happen in a small-town race; it’s unheard of in a major statewide election. (Because of the Electoral College, the presidential election is really a collection of 50 statewide races plus one in the District of Columbia.)

But never before has a sitting president of the United States so openly signaled a willingness to cheat to win. We simply don’t have a precedent for what happens if a president’s supporters attempt to flood the system with two ballots from each voter, one by mail and a second in person. The best guess is that the consequence would be a major administrative headache for election officials having to snare all these extra invalid ballots. If people do what Trump suggests, it would also raise a serious risk of exacerbating the problem of long lines at polling places on Election Day. Poll workers would need to take extra time to put previous voters in a separate queue for casting provisional ballots. In all likelihood, though, the fundamental integrity of the election would not be impaired, despite the extra administrative burdens and delays.

Still, that is only an educated guess – because the norm of respecting the basic rules has never been flouted before in this brazen way. And it also assumes that local officials will follow existing rules. One of the most disturbing reports of recent days was that officials in Detroit abandoned verifying the eligibility of absentee ballots in the August primary because they were overwhelmed by their volume.

Trump is correct about one thing: There will be an unprecedented number of absentee ballots cast this November. It’s not because, as he seems to think, states have changed their rules in response to the pandemic. Instead, it’s mostly because voters, to a much larger degree than ever before, want to take advantage of the option of “no excuse” absentee voting already available, rather than risk waiting in long lines or gathering in crowds to vote in person. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it does mean that the country is in uncharted waters in terms of administrative capacity for absentee voting.

We will have to wait and see whether election administrators are capable of pulling off a free and fair election given all the stresses they face this year – stresses exacerbated by a lack of sufficient funding to meet the extra needs induced by the coronavirus crisis. There is no guarantee that the system will fail, collapsing under the extra pressure that the pandemic combined with hyperpolarization has produced. But there is no guarantee that it won’t fail, either, and it doesn’t help to have the president toying with ways of taxing the system deliberately.

After the nation gets through this year’s election, we’ll need to take another look at some of the voting rules. Both “no excuse” absentee voting and provisional voting are reforms introduced since 2000, and their interplay hasn’t been entirely smooth everywhere.

But this election is essentially already underway, with North Carolina sending absentee ballots out this week. So voters themselves will have to take on some responsibility for giving the system the best chance to succeed. In this case, that means they should ignore the president’s suggestions for gumming up the process.

— Special to the Washington Post

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