President Donald Trump raised the prospect of delaying the November election, repeating unsubstantiated claims that the vote would be marred by fraud due to increased mail-in ballots, but Republican leaders in Congress immediately rebuffed the idea.
Mr Trump does not hold the power to delay the election and any delay would have to be approved by both the Senate and Democratic-controlled US House of Representatives.
“With Universal Mail-in Voting (not Absentee Voting, which is good), 2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history,” Mr Trump tweeted on Thursday morning. “It will be a great embarrassment to the USA. Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???”
Republican congressional leaders, including Mitch McConnell in the Republican-controlled Senate and Kevin McCarthy in the Democratic-controlled House, quickly rejected Mr Trump’s suggestion.
“Never in the history of the country, through wars, depressions and the Civil War, have we ever not had a federally scheduled election on time, and we’ll find a way to do that again this November 3,” Mr McConnell told Kentucky’s WNKY.
The president’s threat has underscored deep concerns about the president’s message on the validity of the election and mail-in voting and has provoked pushback from lawmakers in both parties.
Lindsey Graham, Republican senator of South Carolina and Trump ally, told CNN he did not believe Mr Trump’s suggestion was “a particularly good idea”.
Adam Kinzinger, a moderate Republican House member, wrote on Twitter: “Reminder: Election dates are set by Congress. And I will oppose any attempts to delay the #2020 Election.”
“There is no ability for a president to delay an election,” Senator Tim Kaine, a Democrat who was Hillary Clinton’s running mate in 2016, said during a Senate hearing on Thursday, citing an 1845 law that gave Congress power to determine the date of US elections.
At the same hearing, Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, said he would not “enter a legal judgment on [delaying the election] on the fly”, but added that the election should happen “lawfully” and that changing voting rules so close to an election was a “difficult task”.
Facebook added a link below Mr Trump’s message — which was also posted on its platform — with information about how to vote in the November election.
Some election scholars have argued that the president could use a high preponderance of mail-in voting to dispute an electoral loss and refuse to leave office, throwing the country into a constitutional crisis.
Asked in a Fox News interview on Sunday whether he would accept the November result, Mr Trump replied: “I have to see . . . I think mail-in voting is going to rig the election. I really do.”
Lawrence Douglas, an Amherst law professor and author of the book Will He Go? Trump and the Looming Election Meltdown in 2020, said the president’s latest tweet was both “ominous and misplaced”.
“Trump himself is powerless to delay the election — only Congress could do that — but the fact that he would urge this shows that he has mastered the authoritarian playbook of ‘how to subvert a democracy’,” Mr Douglas said.
Rebecca Green, a professor at William & Mary law school, said: “It’s a desperate tactic for someone down in the polls to try and delegitimise an election months before it takes place. If the president cared about democracy, he would be marshaling federal resources to help states ensure every voter’s voice is heard.”
Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate, warned earlier this year that Mr Trump might seek to delay the election as the prospect rose of a largely mail-in election.
Mr Trump has promoted the issue of electoral fraud since the 2016 electoral contest when he claimed that he would have won the country’s popular vote were it not for millions of fraudulent ballots cast by non-US citizens.
Early into his first term, he created a commission on “election integrity” to re-examine the results. However, the commission was ultimately disbanded without any findings.
His tweets come as states scramble to prepare for voting during a pandemic, with many polling places no longer suitable, given the lack of social distancing, and many states bracing for a surge in mail-in ballots given the health precautions.
The rise in mail-in ballots is likely to lead to a delay in states reporting their results, because mail-in ballots may arrive after Election Day and take longer to count, and because of the expected deficit in poll workers — a job historically filled by retirees, many of whom are likely to sit this year out due to health concerns.
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In an interview with the Financial Times earlier this month, Jocelyn Benson, the Democratic secretary state of Michigan, said it would likely be a few days before Americans saw results from her state.
Meanwhile, some Republicans have expressed concerns that Mr Trump’s rhetoric would depress turnout among the party, with many Republican voters less likely to vote by mail given the president’s repeated claims on the subject.
“One of my concerns is that my fellow Republicans are going to read [the president’s tweets] and say: Well then I don’t want to vote by mail. Well, what they’re doing is hurting themselves,” Frank LaRose, Ohio’s Republican secretary of state, told the FT.
An ABC News-Washington Post poll this month found that 78 per cent of Trump supporters said they believed mail-in voting was vulnerable to fraud, compared with just 28 per cent of Biden supporters.
Additional reporting by Katrina Manson in Washington