He was, perhaps, the greatest practitioner of misdirection in the pantheon of the world’s greatest magicians. Born Quintino Marucci in Foggia, Italy, in 1901, Tony Slydini elevated the art of misdirection to pure wonderment, i.e., getting his audience to fixate on one thing while the real action took place elsewhere. Slydini, for generations, had no peer.
Enter President Donald J. Trump.
President Trump, however, is no slouch when it comes to the art of misdirection. He’s a master at setting the news-cycle agenda by tweeting or asserting whatever he wants the nation’s focus to be. He has tens of millions of Americans convinced that voting by mail is the greatest hoax, the greatest fraud, the greatest threat, ever perpetrated on the American electorate. And all the while, the real fraud, voter suppression, is taking place before our very eyes, and there is precious little anyone can do about it because it is performed behind a cloak of legal legerdemain. About these voter suppression antics, President Trump is, of course, silent.
The mail vote imbroglio is not hard to understand. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many states have mobilized to make it easier for voters to cast their ballots by mail as an alternative to large gatherings at polling places on election day. That effort is something to be celebrated, but not, apparently, by the White House. Will there be mail ballot voting irregularities? Of course. There always are just as there are always irregularities with in-person voting, but numerous studies have demonstrated that instances of voting fraud, whether in person or by mail are rare and immaterial to the outcome of our elections.
Fearing massive, perhaps historic, voter participation, especially in light of the government’s botched initial response to the pandemic, the President has been trying to misdirect voter attention to a massive imaginary plot by Democrats to steal the election. Meanwhile, the real issue on which the nation should be focused is the concerted effort by attorneys retained by the Republican Party and some Republican governors to suppress the vote; especially in highly Democratic minority communities.
The President was quick to point to an example of so-called mail-vote fraud that actually demonstrated the opposite. As this column reported a few weeks ago, nine ballots were improperly discarded in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania; a county Trump flipped in 2016. A temporary contract employee had discarded nine ballots that he (or she) concluded were “naked ballots,” i.e., they were mistakenly presumed not to have been received in so-called secrecy envelopes. Pennsylvania law requires such naked ballots to be discarded. Local voting officials quickly spotted the error, corrected it, and reported it. The incident turned out to be pretty much a nonevent. It was, nonetheless, reported to the Justice Department where it found its way to Attorney General Barr, who quickly passed the information on to President Trump. Trump then elevated and misrepresented the incident to the entire nation. Nine ballots incorrectly discarded and quickly reinstated suddenly became a presidential cause celebre and a poster-case for mail-vote fraud.
One voter suppression technique that has drawn national attention and condemnation is being attempted in Texas. Governor Greg Abbott had ordered the removal of all but one early-vote dropbox per county. Harris County, Texas, with a population of five million, would have had only one such dropbox. Not surprisingly, Harris County also hosts the largest concentration of black voters.
Late this week, a Texas judge intervened and stopped the removal of voter dropboxes in Texas. The Republican Party has tried the same thing in Ohio and Pennsylvania. However, in Pennsylvania, a federal judge appointed by President Trump has stopped Trump campaign efforts to have the early-voter dropboxes removed. In Ohio, the Democrats have argued to allow public libraries and other available facilities to host early voters’ drop boxes. Still, the Governor has limited drop boxes to one per county.
Louis DeJoy, a Trump donor, installed as the U.S. Postal Service’s chief officer, immediately began implementing sweeping changes he claimed would eventually increase postal service efficiency while causing significant mail backlogs in various parts of the country during the lead up to election day. DeJoy, under widespread criticism and legal challenges, has agreed to pause the overhaul until after the election.
In South Carolina, a red state that could be competitive for Democrats given Joe Biden’s lead in the polls, a federal judge last month removed a requirement that signatures be witnessed. Still, the US Supreme Court has reinstated the measure granting a stay sought by state Republicans. The Supreme Court did not, however, throw out ballots already cast when the signature requirement was suspended.
Following a 65% to 35% referendum margin, Florida granted people who had been convicted of a crime and served their time the right to vote. The Republican-controlled state legislature then quickly enacted a law requiring ex-convicts to pay off any debts before they could vote. Republican-appointed judges have upheld the requirement, even though the Florida government has no central record of the amount that the former convicts may owe from convictions that may be decades old. President Trump appointed five of the judges that made up the majority.
I could go on, but you get the idea. Republican Party attorneys are fighting to suppress the vote in presumed Democratic areas throughout the country. Their efforts and President Trump’s shrill allegations of mail-vote fraud has, however, resulted in a massive in-person early voting turnout. Tens of millions of voters are taking the President at his word when he says the Supreme Court will decide the election, so they are turning out in droves to vote early and in person.
The President’s efforts at mail-vote-fraud misdirection seem to be backfiring. The Great Slydini still reigns.