WASHINGTON -- Don't waste time and energy fretting over President Donald Trump's self-important threat not to accept a defeat in November. Worry instead that he and the Republican Party will try to steal the election through a multifaceted campaign of voter suppression.
When Fox News anchor Chris Wallace asked Trump in July if he would commit to accepting the result of the coming vote, Trump's answer was typically full of bluster and divorced from reality. "I have to see," he said. "No, I'm not going to just say yes. I'm not going to say no."
Those nonsensical words prompted a wave of needless angst over how the president might behave if voters give him the boot. It's safe to assume, given what we've seen over the past four years, that Trump will react to losing with the emotional maturity of a bratty toddler at bedtime. But it's also safe to assume that whatever tantrum he throws will be a meaningless sideshow.
Trump has many powers as president, but accepting or rejecting the outcome of a national election is not one of them. That responsibility falls to election officials in the 50 states and the District of Columbia. They will certify the winner in their jurisdictions; the electoral college will meet and vote accordingly; and the nation will choose a president -- preferably a new one. If Joe Biden wins at least 270 electoral votes, he will be sworn in by the chief justice of the Supreme Court next Jan. 20.
Trump can -- and probably will -- spend the intervening time fuming, fulminating, howling at the moon. He can further strain the ties that bind our fragile democracy. But if he loses, and polls predict that's likely, then he's outta here. Look for him on Trump TV, I guess.
The thing to watch is what Trump and his enablers do before and during the election. If there is to be an attempted heist, that's when it will take place.
Actually, this caper has been underway for some time. For more than a decade, the GOP's consistent strategy has been to identify citizens who tend to vote for Democrats and deny them the right or the opportunity to vote. Republican-controlled state legislators have passed voter-identification laws known to have a disparate impact against African Americans and Latinos. GOP secretaries of state (such as Brian Kemp, now governor of Georgia) have purged voter rolls in ways that disproportionately disenfranchise minorities. Too few polling places are set up in minority neighborhoods, with the result that it takes a substantially greater investment of time and patience for African Americans to vote than for whites.
What we need is new federal legislation to outlaw and police such abuses nationwide: an updated Voting Rights Act to supplant the landmark 1965 legislation that the Supreme Court's conservative majority gutted in the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision. But there will be no such law passed and implemented before Nov. 3.
The COVID-19 pandemic provides a new opening for Republican attempts at voter suppression. In states where they have the power to do so, GOP officials can further limit the number of polling places in heavily Democratic areas by claiming that they are short of poll workers or acting in the interest of public health. In the April 7 primary in Wisconsin, the city of Milwaukee, with a population of nearly 600,000, managed to staff and run just five in-person voting sites.
Yet turnout in that Wisconsin vote was still decently high, given that both the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees had already effectively been chosen. Roughly 80% of those who participated did so by casting absentee ballots. In this COVID-warped year, this looks like the new normal.
That is why Trump is squawking so loudly, and so untruthfully, about purported "fraud" in mail-in and absentee balloting. And it is why guaranteeing a fair voting process -- one in which in-person voting, in many places, will be the exception rather than the rule -- is the paramount task that lies ahead for the Democratic Party at all levels.
It should, of course, be a goal for the Republican Party as well. Historically, absentee voting has been as much of a plus for GOP candidates as for Democrats. And mail-in voting is a long-accepted practice in some ruby-red states such as Utah. Republican strategists understand this dynamic. Trump, apparently, does not.
At this point, Democratic voters are not likely to pay much attention to the president's bleating. But what if Trump's loyal base takes him seriously? What if his legions shun absentee and mail-in voting as inherently fraudulent and decline to cast their own? Then the president and his party will have succeeded in massively stealing votes - from themselves.
Focus, Democrats. Don't get distracted. You can do this.
Orangeburg native and Pulitzer Prize winner Eugene Robinson's email address is email@example.com.