If you’ve paid any attention to the news over the past few days, you might come away with the impression that Michigan is where President Donald Trump’s hopes for reelection will rise or fall on November 3.
On Wednesday, the Great Lakes State was one of two he targeted with threats over election officials’ decision to mail absentee ballot request forms to every resident of that state.
“Michigan sends absentee ballot applications to 7.7 million people ahead of Primaries and the General Election. This was done illegally and without authorization by a rogue Secretary of State. I will ask to hold up funding to Michigan if they want to go down this Voter Fraud path!” Trump tweeted that afternoon, having been shamed into deleting a previous tweet which falsely claimed that actual ballots had been mailed out.
It’s not the first time Trump has made baseless assertions about the integrity of American elections. Since winning the 2016 election, he has made innumerable false claims about “voter fraud,” including suggesting that more than 3 million voters making up Hillary Clinton’s popular vote margin of victory had voted “illegally”, as well as claims about nonexistent Democratic malfeasance during the 2018 midterms (in which the only documented case of absentee ballot fraud was committed by a North Carolina Republican candidate for Congress).
And given Michigan’s importance as a potential source of electoral votes for former Vice President Joe Biden — Trump’s presumptive opponent — it’s no surprise that he’s a bit fixated on it.
After all, Michigan is one of the three states that handed Trump electoral votes that had gone to Democratic candidates for decades, and in doing so delivered the presidency into his hands. It’s also one of the states into which his campaign is pouring inordinate amounts of effort and resources, in hopes of keeping enough Michiganders in his corner to equal — or improve — his 10,704 vote margin of victory from four years ago.
Michael McDonald, a University of Florida professor who studies elections, said spurious claims about election results are par for the course for Trump.
“This is a pattern that we've seen throughout his presidency where he, even after winning, wanted to throw down on the fact that he had lost the popular vote and made allegations about non-citizens voting that would explain why he had lost the popular vote,” McDonald said, though he took care to note that such allegations were “of course, completely unfounded”.
He added that Trump appears to be engaged in “a similar pattern of throwing down on the electoral system, where it may either in the future or afterwards adversely affect him”.
While McDonald noted that Trump and Republicans in Congress have little power to push back on election results once they have been certified and the electoral college has met, he suggested that the greater risk to a legitimate election comes not from Republicans in Washington making baseless claims about fraud in Michigan, but from those in a neighboring state with a notoriously gerrymandered legislature: Wisconsin.
“The larger threat … is a scenario where a state like Wisconsin is pivotal in the election results and the electoral college, and Biden has won Wisconsin, but the Republican legislature decides to override the results from the election and award the electors to Donald Trump,” he said adding that the Supreme Court’s majority opinion in Bush v. Gore noted that state legislatures have plenary power to decide how electors are appointed.
“If you're looking for a scenario where the results are somehow reversed from a Biden victory by allegations of irregularities in the election, that's probably the scenario you're looking at,” he added.
While McDonald posited that Michigan could also play host to such a scenario because of its “heavily gerrymandered” legislature, he stressed Wisconsin is the most likely candidate for such a power grab because of the lengths Republicans there have gone to stymie Democrats in the past, most recently by forcing voters to cast their ballots in person during the April primary election.
It’s also a state where Republicans have made no secret of their belief that voters in cities are illegitimate.
After Wisconsin Republicans maintained their margins in the state legislature even as Democrat Tony Evers defeated then-Governor Scott Walker in 2018, Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos defended the gerrymandering that led to the GOP’s lopsided majority by suggesting that the state’s two largest cities — Madison and Milwaukee — don’t really represent the will of the people.
“If you took Madison and Milwaukee out of the state election formula, we would have a clear majority,” he said while speaking to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. “We would have all five constitutional officers and we would probably have many more seats in the legislature.”
Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a New York University history professor who studies fascism and authoritarian leaders, concurred with McDonald’s assessment that Wisconsin Republicans could find reasons to overturn a narrow Biden victory, especially if his margin was based in heavily Democratic cities. She said that the steps Wisconsin Republicans took to strip Evers of a number of powers before he took office are a good indicator of how they might react to a Biden victory.
“Today's GOP has a political culture that's quite anti-democratic, so in terms of measures… to keep power from Democrats and avoid losing all the gains that they've made under Trump, they will feel the need to do anything possible,” she said. “If it’s legal, then it's certainly not out of the realm of possibility because the GOP has gone to extreme lengths for years.”
Ben-Ghiat said it would be within the realm of possibility for Wisconsin Republicans to take their cues from Trump’s rhetoric and seize on nonsense claims of fraud or the fact that Biden’s margins rely heavily on voters in urban centers as an excuse to throw out the results.
“There [in the GOP] you have a culture of lawlessness which Trump inculcates and embodies, that makes people who may hesitate to do something like that with a national election feel more empowered. Because what we've learned is that far from punishing wrongdoers, the Trump-era GOP rewards them, pardons them, and legitimizes them,” she said. “Corruption is like a contagion, it's a cultural shift. And so people who might have hesitated to do those things… will perhaps tip over and feel that they can get away with it.”
Tom Palzewicz, a Wisconsin Democrat who is running to replace retiring Representative James Sensenbrenner, said his colleagues are taking measures to ensure that should Biden win the Badger State, his margin of victory will be unambiguous.
Governor Evers, he said, is using some federal coronavirus relief funds to ensure that enough equipment exists to count absentee ballots on election night, and the Wisconsin Democratic Party is working to educate and encourage voters to request absentee ballots.
“We had a massive campaign in order to make sure people understood how to get a ballot,” he explained, adding that the efforts to encourage absentee voting in the April primary “worked wonders”.
“They’ve got a great digital campaign and they're already on top of it,” he said of state party officials.
But Palzewicz warned against underestimating Republicans’ lust for power and the lengths they will go to to protect the Trump presidency.
“They have proven over and over again that it is all about party over country, and whatever thing they can do to make sure they can hold on to power — be it through gerrymandering, be it through making people go to the polls on Election Day in the middle of a pandemic, be it striking down the governor's ‘safe at home’ plan — they will try to find a way,” he said.