The Symposium: Does Your Mail-In Vote Count?

The Symposium is a column by Leland Culver ’24 intended to act as a forum for the Amherst community to engage in dialogue together about current issues. If you would like to contribute to the Symposium, whether with suggestions for a topic, your opinion on this week’s topic or by guest-writing an installment yourself, you can submit by clicking this link. This week’s topic is the legitimacy of mail-in voting.

On Tuesday, October 29, I joined 73 million of my fellow Americans and took some time to watch the first presidential debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. I only caught the last 30 minutes of it, but I was particularly struck by one line from the president on the subject of mail-in voting. He said, “They’re being dumped in rivers,” referring to the ballots. I have heard the president’s divisive rhetoric before — I’m sorry to say that I’m almost desensitized to it at this point — but that line made me do a double-take.

The claim is just…so outlandish. It sounds like something out of a movie. Like we’re supposed to imagine Alexandria Ocasio Cortez is maniacally rubbing her hands together in some secret Deep State bunker saying, “Ah-ha! I know what to do! We’ll dump them in rivers!” 

So one might ask why Republicans, especially President Trump, continue to repeat false and eccentric claims about voter fraud. The Heritage Foundation, a pro-Trump, conservative think-tank, maintains a database of voter fraud that has just under 1,300 confirmed cases — spanning almost 30 years of American elections at every level. Only about 200 of those are related to mail-in voting. The Washington Post found only a handful of cases of voter fraud in the 2016 election, and Trump himself disbanded the commission he organized to find evidence of fraud in that election in 2018.

I could go on if I wanted to, citing example after example to demonstrate how voter fraud is truly a non-issue, but here’s the thing: Trump isn’t making these kinds of ridiculous claims because he believes them. He isn’t making these claims to convince centrists. Rather, he’s building an argument to his base for contesting the results of the election. And we have to stop him.

In general, the rhetoric Trump used at the debate is telling. Not just “they’re being dumped in rivers,” but also statements like “they sent out a thousand ballots. Everybody got two ballots,” (claims that, incidentally, were quickly debunked) and, most disturbingly, “I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully.” This last quote, asking his supporters to take monitoring the election into their own hands, seems just one step away from an overt call for violence and voter intimidation on Election Day.

Trump has been building this case ever since the spring lockdowns, when, incidentally, John Oliver of Last Week Tonight noticed those early warning signs. There are radical violent groups and conspiracy theorists, like QAnon, who are inching toward the belief that they have to take decisive, violent political action. All this points toward the possibility of a scenario where Trump declares victory on November 3, either without all the votes counted or even having clearly lost, especially if it ends up being by a narrow margin. This is an eventuality anyone who believes in the integrity of our democratic institutions, let alone who opposes the president, needs to prepare for.

So, what might that preparation entail? How do we handle the possibility that the most powerful man in the U.S. will attempt to blatantly defy the Constitution in order to hold on to power?

The easiest thing to do is vote. The less narrow the margin, the less likely it is that Trump will feel empowered enough to declare a mis-election. There are numerous resources on- and off-campus to help you cast your ballot safely and legally.

Barring that, the territory gets a bit murkier. Some may advocate the violent defense of our democracy, and while that violence may become a reality, the only thing it will truly accomplish is the further destabilization of our democratic norms. So, at least for now, violence should be off the table.

That leaves, broadly speaking, protest and direct action. Protest is, to an extent, an effective tool, as has been shown time and again (although, as I stated in my last column, violence is an inevitable part of the protest ecosystem, both civilian and state). Marching in the streets for democratic norms is also likely something that Americans would at least theoretically be more in support of, since upholding them is not usually framed as an advantage to either party.

Direct action would amount to things like government strikes, a long-term sit-in in Washington, D.C. or otherwise disrupting the general flow of government. It’s more difficult and dangerous, but it may indeed become necessary.

There is one other way to protect our democracy before the election, however, that isn’t any of these options. 

It’s to get as many officials on-board with accepting the election results, and the possible delay in a final tally stemming from the wait for mail-in ballots, as possible. I urge you to look up the position of your representatives, especially if they are Republican, and ask them to make a public statement that they will accept the results of the general election and the time it will take to get those accurate results. The one thing that does seem to stop Trump is when his friends don’t stand by him, and he already seems to be largely alone in this push to derail the legitimacy of the election — although that could change quickly. If we can show our representatives that we want them to honor our democracy before he turns them with his rhetoric, we may never need to see such a doomsday scenario play out.