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Editorial: Election, census comments undercut core U.S. institutions

President Donald Trump is never shy about stirring the pot or sending out over-the-top tweets.

But recent statements and actions undercut two of the nation’s core institutions: its election system, including the peaceful transition from one administration to the next, and its decennial census, which determines political representation as well as the amount of federal money states receive for everything from hospitals to schools.

Late last week, Trump suggested delaying the Nov. 3 election due to the pandemic “until people can properly, securely and safely vote.”

The United States has held a presidential election every four years since 1788. Even as battles raged during the Civil War, a presidential election was held.

Trump sometimes draws comparisons between himself and President Abraham Lincoln. But Lincoln, who also assumed the presidency with less than a majority of votes, understood the credibility a reelection victory would give him, and he needed an election mandate to finish the war. In 2020, to even suggest delaying the election (P.S. — it also requires an act of Congress) usurps public trust in the process and could discourage voters from participating. And in an earlier interview on “Fox News Sunday” Trump tap-danced around questions about accepting the election results. Trump said mail-in balloting would cause the election to be rigged and “No, I’m not going to just say yes. I’m not going to say no, and I didn’t last time either.”

The obvious correct answer was “Of course.” Some version of mail-in balloting, including absentee, is all but a certainty across the nation due to the pandemic. And yes, New York is still having issues counting the deluge of mail-in ballots it received in its June primary. But absentee balloting worked well in New Mexico in the June primary with minimal result delays and no issues of voter fraud. And states can still learn lessons before the November general election.

Trump should be pushing for funding for poll workers and the U.S. Postal Service to expeditiously deliver ballots, not undermining the results before a ballot is cast.

The president has also targeted the census. A memo he signed July 21 seeks to have the U.S. Department of Commerce count only U.S. citizens and certain immigrants for divvying up the 435 seats in the House of Representatives. Trump lost a similar fight last year when he tried to add a question about citizenship and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the effort violated administrative law. The White House says states should not be rewarded for welcoming immigrants illegally and the Constitution doesn’t define who must be included for the purposes of apportionment. Whether undocumented immigrants should be included is a valid constitutional argument, but changing the rules during counting could exacerbate the predicted undercount, and thus have long-lasting financial ramifications. One estimate says New Mexico would lose $780 million if just 1% of the population doesn’t participate – money we could not afford to lose even pre-pandemic.

New Mexico had the nation’s second-lowest participation rate last census at 60%. Reasons include rural, hard-to-reach areas and reluctance by many undocumented residents to participate. Add the pandemic and Census Bureau’s decision to end 2020 counting efforts early, on Sept. 30, and undercount is not only possible, it’s probable.

Instead of muddying the waters, Trump should be sending a clear message to Americans: Get counted and vote.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.