WASHINGTON  — Virtually everything President Trump says or does includes a calculation of its impact on his re-election chances. On Monday Trump told the co-hosts of “Fox and Friends” that proposals by House Democrats to make it easier for Americans to vote during the coronavirus outbreak would harm Republicans at the polls. “They had things, level of voting that if you ever agreed to it you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again,” Trump claimed.

Those proposals included billions in funding for states to be able to carry out mail-in voting systems as Americans are urged (and in some states, required) to stay home to prevent further spread of the virus. Characterizing Trump’s comments on Fox as “sad,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi countered that America needs to move toward a “vote by mail” system to give citizens a safe way to elect their lawmakers while the coronavirus makes it dangerous to congregate. Pelosi said Trump lacks the “confidence that Republicans can convince the American people about a path to go forward.”

Last Friday, Trump was asked about vote-by-mail. “I think a lot of people cheat with mail-in voting," said Trump, who has levied accusations with no proof about voter fraud that he claims was responsible for losing the popular vote by three million in 2016. "I think people should vote with ID, voter ID. I think voter ID is very important, and the reason they don’t want voter ID is because they intend to cheat. It shouldn’t be mail-in voting," he added. "It should be you go to a booth and you proudly display yourself. You don’t send it in the mail where people can pick up — all sorts of bad things can happen … by the time it gets in and is tabulated."

Trump is alarmed that the coronavirus crisis is prompting both Republican and Democratic officials in many states, including Indiana, to set aside long held differences on election reform issues to push for an expansion of absentee ballot or mail voting. Trump opposes expansion of vote-by-mail because it could result in high voter turnout. States like Colorado, Oregon and Washington that are all vote-by-mail have the highest voter turnout in the country. Trump is in effect sending a warning to GOP legislatures to back off of expansion of mail voting.

Many Republicans have long believed that their candidates do better when fewer people vote. Paul Weyrich, the founding father of the modern conservative movement, explained this in a 1979 speech: “I don’t want everyone to vote. Elections are not won by the majority of people. They never have been since the beginning of our county. As a matter of fact our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”

That view has been the basis for GOP efforts over the past several decades to restrict voting, including voter ID laws and attempts to limit early voting, voting registration drives and provisional voting.   

There have been clear indications before the coronavirus overwhelmed country’s politics that Republicans were organizing a massive voter suppression campaign to reduce turnout of likely Democratic voters in the 2020 presidential election. A political advisor and senior counsel to President Trump’s re-election campaign — Justin Clark — is caught on tape discussing 2020 voter suppression efforts while at a Wisconsin chapter meeting of the Republican National Lawyers Organization. “It’s going to be a much bigger program, a much better funded program,” Clark said as reported by the AP. “(Trump) believes in it and he will do whatever it takes to make sure its successful.”

Especially concerning, 2020 will be the first presidential campaign since 1980 that the Republican National Committee will be free from a court order prohibiting them from engaging in voter intimidation and other “ballot security” measures including “dirty tricks.”  Universal or heavy reliance on mail voting would eliminate the kinds of Election Day systematic shenanigans that Republicans were found by a federal court to have engaged in.

In the wake of the corona virus pandemic, Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) began pushing a bill in the Senate to expand voting by mail through November. Twelve states still don’t allow voters to vote by mail without an excuse. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is blocking the legislation in the Senate. 

The stage is set for a showdown in the next round of coronavirus relief legislation.

The $2.2 trillion stimulus bill passed by Congress last week and signed by President Trump included just $400 million to help states grapple with 2020 voting amid the coronavirus pandemic. The funds would allow states some ability to increase vote by mail, and expand early voting and on-line voter registration. But election experts argue the money in the bill is insufficient. The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU estimates it will cost $2 billion to cover “equipment, supplies, staffing, training and other costs of adapting our voting process to withstand the coronavirus,” according to its president Michael Waldman.

Most states are currently not set up to handle large scale mail voting. Many states, for example, do not have the high speed scanning equipment used by those states that do large scale centralize counting of mail ballots but instead rely on slower and smaller machines used by Election Day voters that are at the precincts. In addition, most states that allow considerable mail voting have additional postage costs and make efforts to make it easier for voters to get their ballots turned in.

Some states have already moved toward reliance on mail-in ballots. An April 28 special election in Maryland to fill the seat of the deceased Elijah Cummings will be conducted by mail with no in-person voting at the polls. Georgia has announced it would send absentee ballot requests to all registered voters ahead of its May 19 presidential primary that was postponed from March 24, allowing all ballots to be cast by mail.

The bi-partisan Indiana Election Commission voted last week to allow voters to vote by mail in the June 2 primary without having a specific excuse. At this time in-person early voting and traditional voting on Election Day at local polling places will still be available. Voters desiring to vote by mail must submit an application by May 21 either by mail, email, fax, or hand-delivery, if the office is open to have a ballot sent to them. But the decision falls short of containing the kind of efforts as with Georgia to ensure that all voters have a realistic opportunity to participate.

What is emerging is a hodgepodge of rules and procedures that will almost guarantee that states have different levels of voter participation depending upon the difficulty to vote under such rules. So far the pattern is that some Republican controlled states have obstacles to full participation while Democratically controlled states are moving toward expansive vote-by-mail procedures.  Meanwhile, the courts rather than legislatures will increasingly play a role as most legislative bodies are adjourned, postponed or suspended. 

Sautter is a Democratic media consultant.