In what sure sounds like a rehearsal for contesting an election loss in November, President Trump is squawking loudly about (undocumented) voter fraud in advance of a May 12 special congressional election in California. In part he’s just following up on his recent (evidence-free) tirades about voting by mail — California’s increasingly predominant method of voting in recent years — being somehow inherently fraudulent and/or unfair to Republicans. Even as Trump rages, political scientists have been touting massive evidence that on average voting by mail benefits the GOP in some states and overall has no net effect on partisan turnout.
It’s hard to avoid the impression that Trump simply wants to undermine confidence in any election Democrats might win. That’s particularly true in the run-up to the special election in California’s 25th Congressional District, where the president’s complaints are contradictory, as Dean Obeidallah points out:
Last month, President Donald Trump told us that voting by mail is rife with fraud, tweeting, “Mail in ballots substantially increases the risk of crime and VOTER FRAUD!” But then on Saturday, Trump slammed efforts to make in-person voting easier in advance of Tuesday’s special election for California’s 25th congressional district as a “SCAM!”, demanding that “These votes must not count.”
Does Trump support any type of voting? After all, if you rule out in person and by mail, what’s left?
Like in most states that have been moving toward universal voting by mail, there’s a backup in-person voting system for voters in areas with poor mail delivery or who have requested but not received ballots. (In California, the rising majority of voters registering to vote by mail are automatically sent ballots as long as they keep voting, a procedure Governor Gavin Newsom temporarily expanded to include all registered voters in this pandemic-haunted cycle.) There aren’t remotely as many polling places as in an old-school Election Day system, obviously, but county election boards typically open them up if local officials make a case they need then. In California’s 25th District, the Republican mayor of the majority-minority town of Lancaster requested the addition of a polling place and got it, triggering a Trump temper tantrum:
In-person voting centers were earlier set up in Republican-leaning Ventura County, which didn’t seem to bother the president. Generally, California consistently errs on the side of expanding, not contracting, voting opportunities, which is precisely what upsets Trump and his allies: Making it easy to vote just isn’t fair!
There is one partisan difference in Californians’ voting behavior that we may hear more about when the returns from the 25th District come in: The younger and minority voters who tend to vote Democratic typically send in mail ballots later than the older white voters who lean Republican. Since mail ballots are counted in order of receipt, with many meeting the Election Day postmark requirement but arriving days later, Republicans tend to do better in Election Night returns in California than in the final results. In 2018 House Republican leaders found something sinister in the fact that several candidates in Orange County who led in early returns later (predictably) lost. So if, as is likely, GOP candidate Mike Garcia leads Democrat Christy Smith in early returns in the 25th District, you can expect Republicans from Trump on down to claim victory and scream to high heaven if the lead doesn’t hold up.
Garcia may win anyway. Hillary Clinton narrowly won California’s 25th District in 2016, and Democrat Katie Hill won easily in 2018 over incumbent Republican Steve Knight before resigning last fall in the wake of a messy sex scandal. Garcia’s Latino identity is helpful (the district is nearly one-third Latino), and his attacks on Smith’s support for state legislation aimed at making employers give gig workers benefits (which wound up affecting a broader swath of “independent contractors” than intended) seems to be gaining traction. Going into the special election, registered Republicans have returned more mail ballots than Democrats — though again, that could change at the last minute. Certainly a Garcia win would be hyped to high heaven by win-starved Republicans, although Smith could easily take the seat back in a higher-turnout November regular election.
But all the before-the-fact shrieking by Trump is a very bad sign of how he might approach his own reelection bid in November, by claiming the election is “rigged” in advance in order to rile up his base and delegitimize any possible adverse results in advance. It’s actually what he did in 2016 even in victory, claiming he was robbed of a national popular vote win by “millions” of illegal votes in — you guessed it — California. It’s a heads-we-win, tails-you-lose kind of proposition, in which there is only one legitimate outcome: MAGA!