Let’s get this out of the way: The president doesn’t have the power to postpone an election. The date of the general election – the Tuesday after the first Monday in November – is set by federal law. It’s been that way since 1845; it’s beyond the reach of presidential pronouncements; it would take a new law passed by both houses of Congress and then signed into law for it to change. That’s about as likely as a Midwest blizzard in July, so let’s just leave it there.
While the president lacks the authority to move elections, the office does wield immense power and leverage. That’s why the first part of his July 30 tweet – in which he denigrates vote-by-mail as unsafe and corrupt – is ultimately more harmful to all of us.
Civic Nebraska works to build confidence in our institutions, including faith in fair, transparent elections. Since April, when COVID-19 pushed big majorities of voters to opt for mail-in primary ballots, we’ve worked with state, county, and local leaders as well as everyday Nebraskans to ensure a smooth and safe vote-by-mail process. At the same time, the president has regularly decried the vote-by-mail standard as unreliable, erroneous, and rife with fraud.
That happened again, notably, with Thursday’s tweet. The president’s assertions received swift bipartisan pushback, but the damage was done. This is dangerous rhetoric, and when offered regularly from the president of the United States, it can cause very real and lasting damage to our confidence in democracy.
Regardless of who is in the White House, the president sets the tone for our society. In modern America, the power of the office allows the president to command the country’s attention and shape our national discussion. And when that conversation is injected with unfounded allegations about such a time-honored democratic institution, that should concern every American.
We obviously don’t have a bully pulpit the size of the one at the White House. But we do have the facts on vote-by-mail, which we’ve been sharing for months.
If you need more bipartisan or objective assurance, here you are:
Under the Constitution, presidents come and go, but institutions remain. Unless we defend their legitimacy, damage to them can remain long after a chief executive’s term ends. The biggest threat is not whether this year’s election is delayed, but whether Americans will have confidence in it. And the next election, and the next one. Without that faith, American democracy dies. That is why we all must stand up and say: Not here, not now.