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Trump, GOP working to tamp down voting as a path to victory

Residents wait in line to vote at the

Residents wait in line to vote at the Wicker Park Social Center in Highland, Indiana, on Tuesday. Credit: Getty Images/Scott Olson

For all the "get out the vote" messages this election season, there’s another effort to discourage people from casting a ballot.

Lawsuits to thwart mail-in ballots. Threats to send law enforcement to polling sites. Disinformation campaigns to blur deadlines and threaten voters with arrest.

Through a raft of tactics, President Donald Trump and some Republican allies are taking steps to try to decrease turnout for the election, experts say, a move that renders a stark contrast to others fighting to try to make voting easier amid the pandemic.

Trump sees a low turnout as a path to victory and it may make strategic sense in the short run, analysts say, but it comes across as "anti-voter" and even "corrosive." The president also frequently makes unsubstantiated claims about voter fraud and voting-by-mail that serve to undermine the system, they said.

"He sees shrinking the electorate as key to his success," said Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California at Irvine. He said Trump is ramping up his attacks on voting, seeking to make it harder to vote.

"If you are pro-voter, you want to make it easier to vote amid a pandemic," Hasen said. "Which is why you see voting rights groups pretty much lining up with Democrats."

Republicans contend their efforts are about preventing illegal voting, although experts say voter fraud is extraordinarily rare. A recent analysis found Americans are more likely to be struck by lightning than commit voter fraud.

"I disagree with the premise that anyone can do anything to decrease the turnout. If you want to vote this year, it’s never been easier," New York Republican chairman Nick Langworthy said, citing expanded options to vote by absentee or early or on Election Day.

"There’s going be a ton of votes cast and any discussion of suppression is nonsense," the Republican said.

Experts say the tamp-down strategy goes back to Republicans rejecting a strategy outlined after Mitt Romney’s defeat in the 2012 presidential election. That strategy called for broadening the party by appealing to nontraditional constituencies, such as Latinos. Under Trump, they've gone in the opposite direction. They've sought to harden the party base and discourage opposition voting.

That strategy took hold "because of the nature of how Trump campaigns and how Trump acts," said Kevin Madden, who was a spokesman for the Romney campaign.

"He’s trying to squeeze out a greater margin out of a shrinking base," Marist College pollster Lee Miringoff said of Trump. "There was a time in presidential elections where the thought was you have to appeal to swing voters … But now it’s all about turning out your base."

The reason for working to tamp down voting, especially absentees, is "they are behind now and they know the early vote tends to favor Democrats," Miringoff said. "So anything that can change the way the mail is sped along or any court challenges to slow it, makes sense from their perspective."

Trying to demobilize an opponent’s voters isn’t all that new and was often deployed in 2016, said Cornell University government professor David A. Bateman. Every negative ad is an effort to demobilize.

"But there is a distinction to be made from trying to demobilize your opponent’s supporters and actually trying to prevent them from casting a vote," said Bateman, author of "Disenfranchising Democracy." "And what is new in this particular election is how it intersects with COVID-19 and the efforts to increase voting by mail in a time of COVID."

And with the increased polarization of American politics, Bateman said, "you see an increased effort to suppress the vote" — in a variety of ways.

The Trump campaign has intervened in more than 10 legal cases, fighting against actions to ease ballot access during the pandemic. They’ve sued states such as Nevada to try to prevent them from mailing absentee ballots to all voters.

In Pennsylvania — a key swing state — Republicans have asked courts to prohibit drop boxes for depositing ballots. They've been unsuccessful so far.

All told, more than 200 lawsuits are going nationwide over pandemic voting.

This week, two GOP operatives were charged with felonies for allegedly making "robocalls" to minorities in multiple states — including New York — spreading falsehoods about absentee voting such as telling people they could be subjected to arrest, debt collection and forced vaccination.

Beyond the courtroom, Trump has threatened to send law enforcement to polling sites — recalling a specter of Jim Crow days in the Deep South — and recruiting "poll watchers." Trump also repeatedly has sought to cast doubts on the security of mail-in voting and admitted earlier this year that making it easier to vote would hurt his party.

"You'd never have a Republican elected in this country again," Trump said about Democrats’ proposal to widely expand mail-in voting.

Langworthy said he sees the issue this way: "I believe the best way to vote is either early in-person or on Election Day and that’s the best way to prevent some lawyer from stealing your vote."

The New York chairman said local boards of election have struggled with the volume of mailed ballots and the "minutiae" of reviewing the validity of ballots. Langworthy said: "I think there’s a lot of appetite of other party to change the rules on the fly and that erodes confidence in the security of our elections."

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