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More peril ahead

By Jules Witcover

One unanticipated product of the coronavirus pandemic has been a mushrooming of voting by mail, as citizens around the country shy away from long waiting lines at fewer and fewer polling places.

Early into the 2020 presidential primary election cycle, many states were obliged by the crisis to delay the voting for weeks or months. Among Republicans, the hiatus caused no difficulty, inasmuch as President Trump had no challenges to his bid for reelection. But among the Democrats, the delay hampered for weeks the eventual frontrunner, former Vice President Joe Biden, from nailing down the nomination.

Nevertheless, Biden’s surge in the South Carolina primary and in subsequent state contests persuaded rival Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont to concede and endorse Biden. As primary state voting resumed, Biden eventually accumulated a winning majority, as voters increasingly took to proffered mail-in ballots.

But the rush has been taxing the ability of state and local election officials to sort out and tabulate the results, with varying restrictions on when and how such ballots can be handled. Often the process must be delayed until the actual Election Day, Nov. 3, or soon thereafter to allow for uncertain postal deliveries.

With a likely avalanche of voting by mail approaching that day, preceded in some states by a requirement to apply for such ballots, fears are spreading that neither Trump nor Biden may be a clear winner on election night, or for days or even weeks thereafter.

For that reason, many observers in political punditry will hope for a clear landslide on election night to make their task much easier, thus avoiding a repetition of the 2000 presidential cliffhanger between Republican candidate George W. Bush and Democratic candidate and former Vice President Al Gore. It went eventually to the Supreme Court, which awarded, contested ballots in Florida to Bush more than a month after Election Day.

On election night, Gore at first prematurely conceded to Bush but quickly withdrew the concession on hearing of late returns, to the anger of his foe. Gore finally conceded again and wished Bush well, but the fiasco was remembered long afterward.

This time around, Biden has already warned in a radio interview that that Trump “is going to try to steal this election,” and Biden aides have peddled a scenario whereby a defeated president would refuse to leave the Oval Office and have to be evicted by federal marshals.

Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh has labeled Biden’s remark “just another brainless conspiracy from Joe Biden as he continues to try to undermine confidence in our elections.” Trump himself, while alleging widespread fraud in mail-in voting, told Fox News earlier this month: “Certainly, if I don’t win, I don’t win.” But turning the other cheek in a fight has never been a notable characteristic of the man known for relishing power.

In a Monday tweet, he declared, “Because of MAIL-IN BALLOTS, 2020 will be the most RIGGED Election in our history-unless this stupidity is ended.” In yet another tweet, he added: “MILLIONS OF MAIL-IN BALLOTS WILL BE PRINTED BY FOREIGN COUNTRIES, AND OTHERS. IT WILL BE THE SCANDAL OF OUR TIMES!”

All this banter assures a most lively exchange if or when the two men face each other in at least three televised debates conducted by the Commission on Presidential Debates, starting on Sept. 29. Murtaugh has said, “An earlier and longer debate schedule is necessary so Americans can see the clear difference between President Trump’s vibrant leadership an Biden’s confused meandering.”

The former vice president’s campaign manager, Jen O’Malley Dillon, has said the debates should follow tradition in format and content, adding: “Nothing should prevent the conduct of debates between Joe Biden and Donald Trump on these dates; again, we do not want to provide President Trump with any excuses for not debating.”

So the stage seems to be set for now for a lively and informative encounter, conditioned as ever on this calculating president’s willingness to play by rules not of his own choosing.

Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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