A former top Justice Department official told Yahoo News she is deeply worried that President Trump could “delegitimize a lawful election” this November “and not cede power.”
Vanita Gupta ran the civil rights division at the Department of Justice from 2014 to 2017 and is now part of an informal, bipartisan group that has spent the past year preparing for Trump to potentially contest the results of the election. She argued the president’s attacks on vote-by-mail programs signal that he intends to say the election was unfair and should not be considered legitimate if he loses.
“He's already talking about how this will be a rigged election and saying if more and more people are voting using these so called mail-in ballots, that the election will be rigged,” Gupta told Yahoo News’ “Skullduggery” podcast. “This is out of a playbook.”
Gupta said she believes that while some people might consider her fears a “cuckoo crazy conspiracy theory,” she says the group she is working with anticipated Trump’s attacks on vote-by-mail programs. She sees those attacks as a deliberate attempt to undermine the election well in advance of voters casting ballots.
The coronavirus pandemic makes the possibility of Trump disputing the election results all the more likely, Gupta said, and the media and other observers should resist the urge to call the election quickly. As Yahoo News has reported, the expansion of vote-by-mail in the coming months — an effort driven largely by the coronavirus outbreak, which may make in-person voting risky — could mean that results are delayed by a week or more due to the time it takes to count those ballots.
“In a country where the media wants to be the first to call the election, there's breaking news alerts at every moment, we may need to educate ourselves and the media and resist the urge to be the first out of the gate to call the winner because we aren’t going to be able to call the winner on election night,” Gupta said. “It’s going to take days ... so we’ve got to be setting the tone and the culture right now to anticipate that in order to have every ballot counted.”
Gupta predicted that this year’s election could be decided by the Supreme Court, which is what happened in the 2000 election, which pitted Republican George W. Bush against Democrat Al Gore. That election eventually hinged on a recount in Florida, with Bush eventually being declared the winner weeks after Election Day.
“It’s going to be more complicated even than a Bush vs. Gore because this will be nationwide,” Gupta said. “The need for election officials to be able to count these ballots, to litigate in possibly many, many states around the country around how these ballots are being counted — it could be even more complex.”
Gupta was quick to add that her worst fears may not materialize, but she warned that it is critical for voters, election observers and members of the media to be ready. She said litigation is now under way to “preemptively take charge of this and to set the rules around how voting by mail systems are set up.”
She pointed to the recent elections in Wisconsin as an example of how easily elections can be manipulated by partisan actors. Republicans refused calls to postpone that election when it was held at the height of the pandemic last month; Democrats believed their insistence that the election be held amid the crisis was driven by their interest in maintaining control of the state’s Supreme Court.
Gupta called the events in Wisconsin “a wake-up call for all of the work that’s needed to actually run a smooth general election in November.”
She added: “We’re building the infrastructure to be ready to protect the right to vote because the forces that exist to make voting difficult, to suppress the rights of voters — historically disenfranchised black voters, Native American voters, voters with disabilities, all of this — are also hard at work.”
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