May 26, 2020

The controversy over mail-in ballots.

The controversy over mail-in ballots.

Plus, some big Tangle news.

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Today’s read: 8 minutes.

Mail-in ballots, some big Tangle news, a chance to win a prize and a story about the gig economy.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who drew President Trump’s ire last week for a mail-in ballot push, at a campaign rally. Photo: WikiCommons


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What D.C. is talking about.

Voting by mail. Over the last few weeks, with the coronavirus pandemic at full throttle, several states have expanded mail-in voting. In normal times, voters can submit an absentee ballot if certain conditions are met. It varies state to state, but common conditions include illness, age, or being out of the country. Before COVID-19, 16 states required voters to have an excuse for absentee ballot voting, 34 states (and Washington D.C.) offer no-excuse absentee voting. Restrictions have been relaxed in all but seven states: Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee and Texas.

The charge to expand mail-in voting, largely led by Democrats, has caused a lot of pushback. In California, the Republican National Committee and two other Republican groups sued Gov. Gavin Newsom for executive orders to use mail-in ballots in November. California had committed to sending ballots to all registered voters.

Last week, President Trump threatened to withhold federal funding from Michigan and Nevada after both states said they planned to increase voting by mail to reduce exposure to coronavirus (note: Trump inaccurately claimed Michigan was sending mail-in ballots to all voters — it was sending absentee ballot applications to all voters. Nevada, however, did send ballots to all active and inactive voters.). This morning, Trump tweeted critically of mail-in voting again. But it’s not just battleground or Democratic-led states: Georgia, Iowa, Nebraska and West Virginia, all decidedly red states, also sent absentee ballot applications to every voter.

What the right is saying.

It’s mixed. Trump and his allies are saying they’re worried about voter fraud. In Nevada, the state sent mail-in ballots — not just applications — to every active and inactive voter. That means bad actors could potentially obtain ballots sent to voters who have moved or died, then fill them out and vote with them. But Nevada’s secretary of state, who allowed the push, is Barbara Cegavske, a Republican.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board didn’t harp on fraud but instead warned that “it’s worth keeping in mind what can go wrong” with mass mail-in voting. Nearly 1% of absentee ballots were rejected nationally in 2016, half of which were because the voter’s signature was missing or didn’t match the one on file. Another quarter of the votes got in too late. 319,000 total votes were thrown out. Worse, the rejection of mail-in voters was higher for black and Hispanic voters in Florida than whites, according to an ACLU study.

Imagine a tight election with a million mail-in ballots tossed out. “Mr. Biden files a lawsuit pointing to higher rates of ballot rejection in areas with more black voters,” the WSJ hypothesized. “Mr. Trump accuses Democratic activists in Wisconsin of mass ballot harvesting.” Then what?

Meanwhile, RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel pointed to South Carolina, where ballots ended up in Baltimore, and Philadelphia, where an election judge just plead guilty to stuffing ballots for Democrats, as proof there are mail-in ballot problems and voter fraud. RNC spokesperson Steve Guest said Republicans are simply defending the laws on the books. “We are not proactively going after states for making changes,” Guest said. “Democrats are suing states to force them to violate the laws that are on the books, and we are stepping in to defend those state laws.”

What the left is saying.

The left says mail-in voting is reliable and Republicans are hypocrites. Many have been quick to note President Trump voted by mail in 2016 and, in many states, Republican secretaries of state are helping organize the expansion of mail-in voting. “As they [Republicans] ramp up their own absentee ballot programs, aimed at their base, state and national Republican committees have sued to stop states from making vote-by-mail easier,” Dave Weigel wrote in his campaign newsletter.

The Daily Beast’s Sam Stein summed up the perceived hypocrisy with a photo of a Republican mailer in South Carolina that says “I will NEVER support universal vote-by-mail” but then adds “sometimes conservatives have legitimate reasons to vote absentee.” And includes instructions on how to vote by absentee ballot.

Several states have been running mail-in elections for decades, including Oregon, and voters love it while fraud is non-existent or minimal. In fact, most issues related to mail-in voting haven’t been fraud, but the struggle to get enough ballots out to enough voters that everyone has access to the practice.

My take.

As usual, far too many people are getting out over their skis and making broad claims that are not backed up by any evidence. The best case I’ve read that made me concerned about mail-in voting was the Wall Street Journal piece, which raises legitimate points about how often mail-in ballots are thrown out. In today’s environment, I think the scenarios it raises are entirely plausible and, in fact, likely: a tight election swung by hundreds of thousands of votes being thrown out based on mismatched signatures.

The result of that, regardless of how it swung, would be absolutely catastrophic. And it’s scary. Liberals who seem to assume that mail-in voting would be seamless or fraud-less are also being a bit naive. The president’s hypocrisy and hyperbole aside, it’s not difficult to imagine how — in states like Nevada — an organized group could collect and fill out hundreds or thousands of absentee ballots that don’t belong to them.

There are also the courts to think about. That’s where much of this will be settled. Most states have absentee ballot laws on the books, and they will need to be changed, updated, challenged or circumvented for a huge mail-in push to be allowed. Some courts have already ruled that fear of COVID-19 is not a legitimate excuse for under-65 voters to vote by mail, a conclusion that is frightening for a huge chunk of the population.

Ultimately, though, there is a distinction that’s worth making here: Democrats seem to be pushing to make voting in 2020 more accessible and safer while Republicans, and more specifically the Republicans close to Trump, seem to be selectively doing the opposite. With federal funding, we could safeguard a huge mail-in election, but Republicans in Congress have not yet backed that idea. This is head-scratching when you consider they could just as easily leverage more mail-in voting for election gains in 2020 — especially considering their fundraising advantage.

While Trump kicks the hornet’s nest on this, it may not be as partisan of an issue as it looks. As Weigel reported, Former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (a Democrat) and former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge (a Republican) just launched a VoteSafe group with Michigan’s current Secretary of State (who Trump attacked) and Georgia Republican secretary of state (who the president did not attack), both of whom are expanding mail-in voting in their states.

Their goal is to expand absentee ballot options nationally and to do it without making a partisan fuss. “This is not a partisan issue,” the former governors said, “and not a time to play politics.” With any luck, they’ll get some traction.

Quick hits.

  1. President Trump is framing himself as the candidate fast-tracking a “return to normal,” a sale that started this weekend when he declared houses of worship essential services.
  2. The World Health Organization paused a study on hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19 patients, saying the drug increased mortality rates amongst patients who received it.
  3. Former U.S. Senator Jim DeMint made waves with an editorial in Newsweek saying he was wrong to push for China’s entry to the World Trade Organization, saying China has “betrayed that good faith and abused that privilege. They lie. They cheat. They steal.”
  4. The Justice Department is preparing litigation for antitrust lawsuits against Google, with a focus on the company’s total ownership of the online advertising business.
  5. Joe Biden appeared in public yesterday for the first time since mid-March, donning a black face mask that was seemingly ridiculed by Fox News reporter Brit Hume and the President.

Your questions, answered.

Reminder: reader questions are one of my favorite parts of Tangle. If you have something you want to see in the newsletter, simply reply to this email and write in. I’ll try to get to it as soon as I can.

Q: I see all these clips of Trump doing seemingly crazy things in press conferences. Like yesterday when he called on somebody, then seemingly realized who it was and tried to claim she was too slow, and then just walked out of the press conference, all while complaining about the nasty/unfair questions he got. Which got me wondering — have any other presidents had similar press conferences? I'm sure that given the uniqueness of the situation, there hasn't been anybody doing them daily or as many as we've had in the last couple months, but I do wonder if other presidents had multiple press conferences in certain times of crisis. If so, did they also get similarly tough questions? During the days following 9/11 or the Ebola outbreak or whatever, were Obama and Bush getting the same "tough" questions or were they getting softballs?

— Joe, Cleveland, Ohio

Tangle: This is an awesome question, mostly because I think it brings up a lot of fun U.S. history. The overarching response is twofold: pressers under Trump are unlike anything we’ve ever seen, and a continuation of a long history of contentious relationships between presidents and the White House press corps.

Probably the most in-depth, hard data, analytic exploration of your question came from the American Presidency Project, which looked at 6,091 transcripts from 13 press secretaries beginning in the Clinton administration and ending in September of 2018, when Sarah Sanders was still Trump’s press secretary.

Quantitatively, the data was pretty overwhelming on the following things: Sanders held shorter briefings than most of her predecessor, fewer briefings than all of them, responded to fewer questions than almost all of them, and had some of the most contentious briefings (characterized by deflection, the press questioning her honesty bias or completeness) ever.

Interestingly enough, Josh Earnest, Obama’s last press secretary, had the longest and most contentious briefings on record of any press secretary since the Clinton administration. Meaning the press challenged his honesty and Earnest deflected more than any other press secretary ever. This actually shoots holes through some of Trump and Sanders’ claims that the press was “easy” on Obama or his staff.

Quantitatively, again, Trump was holding a fairly normal number of press conferences and had been pretty accessible to White House scrums before the pandemic. Now, he is out almost daily in front of the cameras. And while his treatment of the press corps has been outwardly far more abrasive (Trump frequently calls the media the enemy of the people and attacks reporters), Obama also excluded Fox News journalists, obtained phone records from reporters and tried to force James Risen to reveal his sources in court. Again, the contentious nature goes back across administrations.

And yet… there is something qualitatively that we’ve never seen before Trump. The example you alluded to is one of dozens of Trump-journalist interactions that have been unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I can’t recall Obama ever telling a reporter they were terrible or that they ask a lot of stupid questions.

Anyway, I could drone on and on about it, but CNN actually did the work for me, and put together a video of historically contentious press conferences (below). I think what you’ll see is the press has, for decades, pressed presidents on really sensitive and difficult topics, but Trump has “punched back” much harder than any other president before him.

So, again, in some ways we’ve seen it all before — in other ways things are really unique.

A story that matters.

Desperate workers are taking delivery app jobs and being treated unfairly, The Washington Post reports. 38 million people have filed for unemployment while hundreds of thousands of gig jobs are becoming available at companies like Amazon, DoorDash, Instacart and Shipt, which have all seen huge bumps in usage during the pandemic. Without jobs where they can work from home, many laid off or furloughed employees are rushing into the gig economy — but quickly finding that the work requires taking on lots of risk, operating with little protection and dealing with sometimes cruel customers. A survey from 2017 found that 25 to 30 percent of all U.S. workers are engaged in “nontraditional or gig work,” either as a primary or supplementary form of income. The Washington Post has more here.


  • 45%. The percentage of the U.S. population that lives in the counties Trump won in 2016.
  • 27%. The percentage of all U.S. COVID-19 infections that have come from counties Trump won in 2016.
  • 35%. The CDC’s “best estimate” of the percentage of COVID-19 infections that are asymptomatic.
  • 0.4%. The CDC’s “best estimate” of the death rate of symptomatic COVID-19 cases.
  • 40%. The CDC’s “best estimate” of the percentage of COVID-19 cases transmitted by asymptomatic people.
  • 57%. The percentage of all voters who say their vote for president will mostly be based on the candidates’ position on issues.
  • 39%. The percentage of all voters who say their vote for president will mostly be based on how they feel about President Trump

Have a nice day.

The lead story in The Wall Street Journal today has the most optimistic outlook from economic reporters yet. “For Economy, Worst of Coronavirus Shutdowns May Be Over,” the title reads. “Truck loads are growing again. Air travel and hotel bookings are up slightly. Mortgage applications are rising. And more people are applying to open new businesses.” There are early signs the U.S. economy is creeping back to life, and while a severe downturn is still hurting Americans, the resumption of professional sports and easing of lockdown restrictions are giving economists hope we may be through the worst of it. Click (subscription).

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