A Socially Distanced Franchise?

While I was phone banking in Texas, Nevada, and other states in months before the 2020 election, I fielded a surprising number of questions of access to absentee ballots and mail-in voting, as well as being assured by many voters that they had refrained from mailing in ballots, and were planning to drop their ballots off directly in polling stations, or brave the lines, to ensure their votes counted. I’d like to think they did. (The woman I reached in Texas who had moved from Nevada and was awaiting an absentee ballot to arrive two days before the election, past the deadline of registering in Texas, may have not.)

Even as we repeatedly review”Trump’s final days of rage and denial,” and charges of fraudulence and the robbery of red states from the Grand Old Party’s self-appointed King haunt public White House pronouncements and social media posts, the electoral map that provide the formal reduction of how votes were tallied is cast as a contested ground, questioned on the basis of voting machines, absentee ballots, and socially distanced voting practices, as if these inherently distance the franchise and undermine democratic practice. Donald Trump invites the nation to squint at the map, examine its mediated nature and instability, querying the resolution of any election as, shockingly, only a handful of congressional Republicans admit he lost a month after voters cast seven million votes for his opponent, whose victory 88% of Republicans in Congress refuse to acknowledge.

Unlike other elections, for a month after Election Day–November 3, 2020–the nation waited in eery limbo, uncertain about the legitimacy of the election so that even by December 2, CNN was projecting victors in several “swing” states. Although the New York Times and AP projected the conclusion of the election on paper, announcing late-arriving news of electoral victory almost a full week after Election Day, seeking to invest a sense of conclusion in a protracted debates–if oddly channeling “Dewey Defeats Truman.”

New York Times, November 8, 2020

The inset map still indicated three states still “not called.” But the new President Elect appeared boosted by the classic alliance of Democratic voters that Donald Trump saw as unlikely, and had failed to align in 2016.

Months after Election Day, CNN was still “projecting” Biden’s surpassing the electoral vote threshold of 270, shifting two midwestern and one southern state to the Democratic column, with Arizona: the delay of verification in a range of legal gambits still being followed by the Trump campaign, which raised over $170 million to press its case for recounts, investigations into allegations voter fraud through the Save America PAC, disorientingly stubbornly refusing to admit the validity of the electoral map, and even repeating, into December, hopes that  an opening for a Trump victory materialize if one state select electors, to reassemble the swath of red that flooded the national map back in 2015 as if playing a puzzle: “If we win Georgia, everything falls in place!” The electoral map was something of an idol of the Republican Party, as Donald Trump’s hopes for electoral victory faded, but refused to recede into mid-December.

CNN, December 2 2020

Weeks after Election Day, we entered into a weirdly protracted attempt to game the electoral map, long after the initial tallying of votes had ceased. A range of recounts, hand-counts, investigations of absentee ballots and even querying of the legitimacy of voting machines have been launched to challenge the representational validity of the electoral map in ways that should give us pause for how it aimed to undermine the representational value of the voting practices. In querying the functions of the map as representation–by querying the tabulation of votes that comprise the electoral map–Trump has stoked tensions in representational democracy. With unsettling abandon, Trump stoked national tensions by refusing to acknowledge he did not win the election, as if determined to break with Presidential decorum for a final time, as if seeking to leave a legacy of disruption in his wake.

To be sure, gaming the electoral college has emerged as a recognized campaign strategy in 2020, increasingly distancing the franchise of the nation, as campaigns focussed with assiduity on the prospect not of “swing state” voters as in the past, but in flipping or holding a slate of states, that left the electoral map rendered as a sort of jigsaw puzzle that would add up to 270 votes from the electoral college, as the Wall Street Journal reminded us by mapping the Republican “game plan” that Donald Trump long knew he faced for holding onto tot the states where often slim majorities put him in office, as Democrats aimed to flip states to their column: the rhetoric of “gaming” the map to create the victorious outcome was echoed in the news cycle,–and not only in the Journal–in ways that seemed to have dedicated the distribution of public rallies that Donald Trump held long before announcing his candidacy officially, almost as soon as he entered office, in an attempt to solidify the bonds of the red expanse he celebrated as America’s heartland with his political charisma.

If Trump may have wished he didn’t take the southern states so much for granted, he had targeted Pennsylvania, Florida, and Montana–as well as Arizona and Nevada–by staging rallies, in those pre-COVID years, as if to shore up his support as if investing in the electoral votes of 2020.


If that map from National Public Radio, based Cook’s Political Report and the White House, only takes us through 2019, the campaign stops of Biden and Trump show a density to Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida, and North Carolina that suggest the depths of commitment to the gaming of the electoral map, and a deep battle in Arizona between the population centers in Phoenix and its suburbs and more rural regions.

The metaphor of “gaming” the map was hard to stop, and its logic seems to have inevitably led to the endless endgame that may result in clogging the nation’s courts with suits about the circumstances of mail-in voting in multiple states. Trump’s insistence in claiming the election not “over,” as if unfamiliar with someone else setting the parameters for television attention, speechless at the unfolding of a narrative shattering conviction of his inability to lose–that “in the end, I always win“–is not only a deepest reluctance to admit losing.

The logic of the gaming of the electoral map clearly has him and his campaign in its sway. The deeply personal sense of the election as a referendum on him and his family may have been rooted in a sense o the legal difficulties that his loss might pose: among the many emails that were sent to his base, pleading for campaign donations to the “Save America” PAC, which seemed the last line of defense to Make America Great Again,” supporters were begged to do their part in “DEFENDING THE ELECTION” and hope they hadn’t “ignored Team Trump, Eric, Lara, Don, the Vice President AND you’ve even ignored the President of the United States” given how much was on the line. The sense of impending alarm reminds us of the confidence that Trump lodged in preserving the red electoral map of 2016, a confidence that seemed almost born from his ability tot game the electoral map yet again, and overcome the polls even after they pollsters had tried to recalibrate their predictive strategies and demographic parsing of the body politic.

1. The very close margins voting margins suggest we narrowly escaped an alternative history of a second Trump term, and can explain the tenacious grip that Trump seems to have had on an alternative outcome, an outcome that he has tried to game in multiple ways and strategies that eerily echoes with the strategies of gaming the electoral map that seems to have occurred through the orchestration of telling postal delays, delayed returns of absentee ballots, and the strategic gaming of the distribution of a distanced franchise. It forces us to contemplate the counterfactual history of the far darker reality of a scenario where his expectations came true. Indeed, it should make us consider the closeness of overturning democracy. In was as if the reporting of the timestamped electoral map of Saturday, November 7 that was an inset of the Times only encouraged resistance to admitting the failure of Trump to preserve the “red swath” of 2016 across what coastal elites long bracketed as “flyover country,” where the effects of economic recession had never stopped.

New York Times, November 8 2020, “Results as of Saturday at 10:30 Eastern/ Map Shows Maine and Nebraska statewide vote

It had almost happened. In Trump’s White House, a boisterous watch party was underway, crowded with FOX anchors, watching the big screen that FOX results showed to the audience, anticipating the reality of a second Trump term. But all of a sudden, Trump was so incredulous he refused to admit seeing Arizona called at 11:20 as a Biden victory, shouting to no one in particular, “Get that result changed!” Hoping to calm her triggered boss, who must have been catapulted into alternate scenarios of having to leave the White House where he had expected to encamp, former FOX employee Hope Hicks fretted about the newsfeed.

Could the map be changed? Trump was frustrated at his in ability to manipulate the news, and already apprehensive at what endgame was in store. At this point, it seems, Trump’s every-ready servile son-in-law, Jared Kushner, hurriedly placed a direct call to Rupert Murdoch to rectify the call, assuring better data would arrive from Arizona’s COVID-denying governor, Doug Ducey (R), to restore the state’s redness on the electoral map, in desperate hopes of jerry-rigging his electoral fortunes. Back in 2016, Trump had indeed only won Arizona by the narrowest of margins–by about half of the margin by which Romney won in 2012–and only third-party candidates’ popularity concealed that Democrats boosted margins of victory in precincts beyond Republicans, flipping seventy precincts to their column–perhaps as Maricopa County featured a PAC that attracted millions of dollars to defeating Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s bid to consolidate an anti-immigrant agenda.

Trump quickly recognized the danger a flipped state posed to hopes for another red swath, as the contestation over the state that he had hoped to pry from the Democratic map was a poor omen of the election, and needed to be stayed.

In 2017, Trump was so enamored of the expanse of his electoral victory to given paper copies to White House visitors–until he framed a version for the West Wing, five months after the election. And if the state is visibly fragmented in an identical mosaic in the map that Trump framed in the White House, the brilliant red of nearby Nevada and bright red diagonal suggest the state was more firmly in Republican hands than we might remember. After hoping that The Washington Post might celebrate his hundredth day in office by featuring the “impressive” the electoral map on its front page, his pride in the map led it framed the map in the West Wing, a reporter from One America News Network obligingly showed.

This alternate world of electoral victory created what must have been a prominent counter-factual map that had dominated the Trump team’s plans for victory in 2020. The White House watch party must have been haunted by the very same map of which Trump was so proud.

Trey Yingst (ONN), May 11, 2017/Twitter

Despite distorting the popular vote–obscuring the large number of coastal voters in blue states–in the electoral map, the red heartland shimmered as a mandate, but threatened to fragment as flatscreen monitors tuned to FOX painted the state blue as the 2020 election results came in on November 2.

The failure in Arizona to respond to Trump’s attention to the building of the Wall in a fragment from Yuma, AZ that he had sought to celebrate before the election was tough to Trump’s image of what would create a sense of support. The loss of a state that he had won in the past disrupted the illusion of consensus of the Trump years, and a belief that what he had done in office had truly spoken to the red states that elected him. The actual support that he had received financially in the 2020 election from donations reported to the Federal Elections Commission suggested a strong belt of support in Arizona, and a broad distribution, as well, outside the metro areas, in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, as well as Florida and Georgia–save, again, for those nasty metro areas as the blue ball of greater Atlanta and the blue streak of Miami, Tampa, and Gainesville. But those dots, he seemed confident, would be swamped by the red tide after devoted rural voters turned out.

Reported Campaign Contributions, 2020 Election (as of October, 2020)

Trump’s outrage reflected the proprietorial relation Trump long cultivated to Arizona in particular in the 2016 electoral map–Trump had after all only recently boasted to Arizonans of the benefits of two hundred and twenty miles of “wall system” of enhanced surveillance capabilities, spending billions on preventing a flow of immigrants from entering Arizona, the state went blue. To be sure, the polls of possible voters predicted two weeks out from Election Day, in a projection from Josh Putnam that reflected the fissile nature of the State of the Union as Election Day 2020 approached.

With the benefit of hindsight, we would do well to distance our mapping of the results of the election in ways that might better map the State of the Franchise than the State of the Nation as an electoral mosaic: long a fan of the purple map, rather than a sharp contrast between red and blue, The Decolonial Atlas took to social media reminding us how the nation might be better understood not only on isolated counties, but by attending to the ludicrously close margins of the vote.

All the better to dismantle the mediated conceit of “blue” and “red” states, a better map revealed a nation not riven by dissensus but “just a bunch of purple states full of people who don’t know their neighbors.” The map of margins among votes cast reveals not a divide magnified by electoral votes, but the number of voters whose ballots were effectively distanced from the franchise—distanced not by COVID-19, but rather by several”battleground states” where the election was waged in 2020, with margins not only of less than 5% of the electorate, but indeed less than a single percentage point.

This was the landscape in which the votes can be gamed, Trump hoped, and where the absence of consensus could be manipulated and exploited. As the Decolonial Atlas put it blithely in the legend to another map, the dark purple mediated how Trump viewed the electoral map: Trump voters living in a swing state popped out, and needed to be reclaimed in the electoral college: rendering all voters in blue states as pragmatically irrelevant as Trump voters red states could be taken granted, although the anti-American regions of deep blue counties were sites of resistance. However, the targeted audience was clear: red states where rural areas would be counted on to swamp the blue cities which must be silenced in the final results.

For all the concerted phone-banking that I did in Nevada, Arizona, Florida, and Texas, the Decolonial Atlas revealed in “The Electoral College according to Trump,” a concerted strategy underlay the quite targeted slew of emails, visits, text alerts, and triggers by which Trump’s campaign had targeted the electoral bounty of Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan and Wisconsin–the new “red wall” to defend his sovereignty.

The first results appeared to be loud and clear, early in Election Night, as non-metro votes seemed to flow in on election night. Before votes were fully tallied in western states, a reassuringly familiarly red landscape seemed to unroll, casting the bulk of the heartlands of narrow margins red–big prizes like Georgia, Florida, Wisconsin, and Michigan, going red. Rudy Giuliani claimed to have turned in for the night, assured to sleep soundly, all but assured of a repeat of 2016, based on initial electoral returns.

First states called in 2020 Election, according to Politico Map/New York Times

Rudy described it as if he had only stayed up later, the results would have been preserved: he more likely prematurely beleived in success, before battleground states tilted blue later that night, as folks in western states were pleased to learn before they turned in for the night–if able to get any needed shut-eye amidst tense electoral tallies.

And if Rudy imagined that he could stop time, to prevent the “stolen” election from occurring later in the night, with the passage of time and a growing tally of votes and absentee ballots not allowed to be tabulated or opened in several of those battleground states until Election Day by law, the alternative newspaper of unclear consensus, The Epoch Times, did him better and tried to turn back the clock, and adding their own symbology to the electoral map as it stood at eleven o’clock Pacific Time, introducing icons that suspended the arrival of information, by adding icons to designate sites of recounts–Wisconsin and Georgia–and contestations yet to occur in court–Michigan; Pennsylvania; Arizona–to blanket the map with uncertainty, and create the unprecedented additional map signs in an electoral map affirming an alternate reality where the red expanse seemed to dominate the country, and Trump have more electoral votes than Biden, to achieve the desired outcome by suspending time, Miss Havisham style, to the better world “before the lying media called it for Biden”: “recount” and “lawsuit” subtracted four states from Biden victories, literally distancing the franchise further than one ever expected mail-in voting would achieve.

Epoch Times, on Facebook, via Politifact

Rather than declaring its results in a declarative fashion, the map seeks to suspend any results rather than presenting the resolution that comes with a new consensus. Trump supporters as Echo Times sought to qualify Biden victories in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania already declared by AP and other outlets, by adding a new legend and symbology suspending all sense of any conclusion in light of three lawsuits and two recounts, holding out hope that once “all the votes are counted” a swath of red states might reemerge. The meaning of the election was already long understood to lie in the same states in late October, as the “top prizes in 2020” that would “decide the election” as their larger populations gave them sway of electoral votes–

Voice of America, October 23, 2020

–and that four had now become contingent on lawsuits or recounts paid for by the Republicans seemed only to defer the conclusion of the election.

Trump pressed his case in hopes to generate consensus for a narrative of the “stolen” victory, constructing alternative narratives about for the next two weeks to boost belief in a “stolen” election, refusing to concede, that revealed him to live in a series of counter-factual histories.

2. The stubborn resistance to accepting the map led to an attempt to rewrite the electoral distribution from a direct rendering of popular concuss, or at least consensus among the states. The refusal to admit to the electoral map that showed hi with a viewer number of electoral votes to his opponent led him to resist the declarative function long given to the electoral map as a declaration of the victor of the Presidential election. Moreover, the attempts to gloss and qualify the results of the election that were recorded in the electoral map openly threatened to undercut the representational nature of the map: the way that the transparency of the electoral map was undermined by Trump and his circle echoes the belief of the Trump administration to rewrite the census, and indeed the gerrymandered redistricting of many states. The undermining of any true representational function of the electoral map is the subject of this post, which examines how the electoral map was long tried to be gamed, and sees the “frozen” electoral maps as interventions seeking to dislodge the actual vote, delegitimizing this electoral map’s representational function.

The contested nature of the franchise can hardly be seen in the map of how voters’ preferences translated into electoral numbers, or an electoral mosaic salutary in abandoning a national dichotomy of red versus blue.

This was a new narrative in the electoral map, unpredicted in many ways. But it was also a vindication of a representational system, in a sort of teaching moment for the nation, that reaffirmed the representational nature of the electoral map. But the fear of subverting the representational function of the map of the election was so strong, and indeed so tangible for the Trump campaign, that the persuasiveness of the scenario of a “stolen election” incorrectly called by Associated Press seemed all but the logical conclusion of a presidency committed to calling out the Fake News.

This was not only a “what if” map of conjectural history but the landscape that was supposed to be. For the map was not supposed to break as it did, given the attention that members of the Trump cabinet had so energetically devoted to shoring up electoral votes of battleground states, and indeed the careful protection that voter turn-out ensure a commanding lead, the night of the election, that allowed the American public to have their president on election night. Trump had of course prioritized border security and cautioned the state about the dangers of an illegal vote: but rather than touching on the question of illegal voters, so central to GOP claims of dangers of election fraud in earlier years, a narrative Trump returned to in tweeting “IF YOU COUNT THE LEGAL VOTES, I EASILY WIN THE ELECTION!” a few days later, he argued the data had been manipulated or was wrong: many wanted to turn back to that world of initial electoral returns showing Trump ahead; Trump seems to reveal his data illiteracy in arguing that late votes were improperly skewed Democratic–an argument that effectively destabilized the tabulation of votes and voting process.

Arizona Called on Fox News with 84% Vote Counted

The relation to Arizona was particularly sensitive for Tump. He promised packed arenas of megachurches in that state he would prioritize hard-line border security, as if to ensure a lynchpin to his electoral strategy. Trump seemed to exercise his proprietary relation to the electoral maps, which had served as props for his rule: after passing out copies of the maps to all visitors to the Oval Office, it was a prop for his Presidency.

The distillation of the electoral map was a sort of alchemy that Trump treasured as confirming what he called a “landslide” drew on fewer votes. But the disinformation around the tallying of votes, their arrival, and the counting that created their tabulation was more than dangerous: they were intentionally nontransparent. Trump’s public comments on the election seem intended to bait and energize his base. But as much as cultivate his audience, in ways that emulated his pre-election “call-ins” to Fox Mondays, they give life to a candidacy at is not over–or “un-dead”–and never has to end, suggesting a means to generate funds and contribution for an ambition for “legal defense,” no matter how immaterial was his actual case for fraud.

The results suggest the fragility of elections and democracy, that effectively push the franchise farther and farther from the election, and the election farther from conclusion. For even weeks after the election, strategies were rolled out to reclaim the electoral map, as if it were the property of Team Trump, and had no business turning blue. How to explain the tenacity of the pursuit of this illusion but that Trump was convinced he had gamed the map fully, as best he could, and that the red states would reassemble at his command, ensuring the second term of a man who looked longingly at the title President for Life, mid-way through his first term, in March 2019, and then made it something of a stock line on social media, after conceding that maybe he’d just stick around for six years?

Trump’s taunts have had a way of revealing dark specters in national politics, and the notion of stepping aside so that the nation would get used to a robotic Vice-President Pence, or give space to Don, Jr., might have had some appeal. But the lust for perpetuity led him to view the map as a bedrock of Trump’s support on which he could surely game a sense of victory. There is a sense that this deep sense of being haunted by dreams for a red expanse turned into the horror film as Rudy Giuliani held it up as a model for the nation, in almost apocalyptic terms, just days before Georgia declared its electoral votes would be for Vice President Biden. But Rudy Giuliani appeared before the television cameras, before a slew of American flags, perpetuating the image of four states to turn red, describing, even after Pennsylvania had certified its vote, the four states where he would sustain legal challenges to the tally of votes, before a map trumpeting “MULTIPLE PATHWAYS TO VICTORY” in increasingly desperate tones before Thanksgiving, as any road to victory seemed long closed.

Trump’s Personal Lawyer Rudy Giuliani Manufactures Four Red States to Press His Client’s Case, November 19, 2020

The press conference in Washington, DC seemed an apt end to the Trump administration, if a determined attempt to win back a “stolen” election, was also a swan song of Donald Trump’s longstanding dangerous attempts to game the electoral map, often by true fraudulence, while raising charges of fraud, corruption, and Democratic “crooks” located in “corrupt” cities that the President’s legal fixer promised to unveil to America; Giuliani, in what might be his last pubic appearance, stood mournfully beside the map of states he still believed could reconfigure a red victory, highlighting tstates Trump had courted so openly from 2017.

Press Conference at Republican National Committee Headquarters, November 19, 2020/Drew Angerer (AP)

The mock-up assembled for the occasion revealed the troubling dissonance between the objective truth of the electoral map, usually intended to resolve even the most contentious election, and the polemic function of a map for partisan ends. The map was in a sense a culmination of the deep and immediate anger the Trump camp showed after FOX had called Arizona on Election Night, treating the call as a moment of bad publicity that could be adjusted and contested, unleashing a slew of challenges–legal and by innuendo–without worries that doing so would undermine the objectivity of the map. The declaration of Arizona as a Biden victory that led to a direct phone call to Rupert Murdoch must have seemed a deep personal affront–as well as a terrifying view of an electoral map difficult to push him to a second term. It was striking not only as it came from FOX, but as Trump had long cultivated Arizona, promoting completion of the “most comprehensive border wall structure anywhere in the world” that June in Phoenix, as his opponent called it “expensive, ineffective, and wasteful.” Could these people not have voted for him?

3. Trump’s base-baiting speech acts reveal a determination to create deep divides in the map he could exploit. But they also reveal a dark political reality. For Trump’s s rejection of the current electoral map, and the victory of Joe Biden, has tried to subvert public trust in the very nature of elections, black-boxing voting machines and the tallies of absentee voters’ ballots, as inadequate translations of a popular will that Trump had believed he incarnated. For Trump insisted that fraud led to the suppression of votes, and engineering of an electorate that had rejected his candidacy, he had long been gaming the electoral map to serve his own interests, but his gaming had not paid off.

Although Trump insisted that the his loss was a subversion of voters’ voice, due to voting machines and vulnerabilities to fraudulence of mail-in voting, and early voting, his arguments were so shrill and desperate to be grasping at straws. His frustration was directed to the rise of absentee voting necessitated by COVID-19, but led to an array of charges that the votes counted had not reflected the will of voters that sought to paralyze the election. Charges of tampered ballots; vote harvesting; ballots arriving after the deadline independent of postmarks; votes erased by tampered computer tallies–all sought to raise the specter of impropriety, even as the vote was cast as having been undermined by the very practices of health safety.

Yet while Trump may have viewed the election and the pandemic as small obstacles to a second term, cases of COVID-19 had so rapidly accelerated before the election, after infection had spread in many midwestern states during those hot summer months, that made the electoral map far more difficult to game–not because the franchise was distanced, but because mismanagement of the pandemic had changed the playing ground. Trump had gamed the current electoral map as best he could, loading the dice so the the states might again align in a sheet of red, it may well be that the spread of COVID-19 infections to which he had so brusquely turned the other cheek disrupted gaming in its the virulence of its contagion, even as its spread wrecked a violence on the political body of the nation.

The pandemic provided a disruption Trump could not game even as he sought to focus attention by gaming of the electoral map again by which he hoped to reproduce the red state-blue state divide. If the distribution was glossed, analyzed and discussed since 2016–and of which this blog was also guilty–to seem permanent in the nation, it could not be recreated. Trump had long gamed the system, but was unable to game the electoral map in the face of massively mismanaged disruptions of the coronavirus, often in formerly red states, even as emissaries form his cabinet tried to assure voters he was managing the economy, energy industry, schools or law and order. As the very counties that afflicted with severe job losses due to coronavirus moved away form the red column, areas with high job loss voted for Biden, as the rise of social justice protests and the economic downturn that accelerated reshaped the electoral landscape.

2. Donald Trump has elected, as if trapped in a broken record, to prolong his attempts to game the situation again over the final days of his Presidency, dedicating himself to distorting the tabulation of votes either to save face or to distort the commanding narrative. By deferring concession and tauntingly entertaining his base with images of an alternate reality of his inauguration for a second term by undermining the direct reporting and consumption of electoral maps. Trump delights repeating the potential for alternative outcomes as if this were the script of a new Reality TV show job uncertain ending, of which he was in charge–unveiling votes subtracted or reassigned in Michigan; destroyed ballots in Georgia; corrupt processing of the ballots in battleground states; rumors harvested off the dark reaches of the internet–as if to suspend election night over multiple days, a week, or even more, as if to raise the specter that the conclusion of the Trump Presidency will never end, creating alternate maps of the election and false claims to victory, and claiming that legally cast ballots should not be counted. His base even charges the deception of voting ballots through offshore servers, as if the vote was distorted by foreign-made machines.

Is it possible that projecting such nefarious errors conceal an even darker scenario in which incorrect tabulation and counting of absentee ballots would serve to game the electoral outcome to Trump’s advantage? Already in April, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, travels of Alex Azar to swing states grew in ways that privileged the campaign above the nation: HHS Secretary notoriously waged a public messaging campaign of “Health versus Health” as he traveled to key battlegrounds of Georgia, Pennsylvania, Florida, Michigan, Maine, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, at Trump’s request to direct public debate of the issues of managing national health: the theme that overriding focus on the needs to socially distance was creating public health issues across the nation of well-being was similar to Trump’s disconcerting concern for economic fall-out or sacrifices of public liberties: praising Republican governors for reopening, the visits were tantamount to a campaign of public disinformation more than news, a wag the dog paradigm of undermining public health.

Immediately after July 4, more cabinet members fanned out across the nation to the pivotal battleground states of the coming election, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Florida, on the heels of thirty visits from cabinet members from the Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, to defend local agricultural interests in a global economy, EPA Secretary promised clean-up projects of the Great Lakes in Michigan and Wisconsin to end Harmful Algal Blooms, even as the administration canceled public health priorities in earlier years. We could detect a concerted strategy for massaging local issues to undermine national health in the trips of Trump’s cabinet members on public dime: they reflect careful study of the electoral map to secure the stability of a “red state” terrain, strategically placing visits from administration members who served as advocates across the country.

Not only did cabinet members travel to appear on the base meagaphone of Fox News and Fox Radio–like DNI Director John Ratcliffe appeared on Fox News, as National Economic Counselor Larry Kudlow and Secrtary of Energy Dan Brouillette on Fox Radio. To be sure, the EPA Secretary, Interior Secretary and Energy Secretary went to conservative talk radio in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Florida to shore up votes in swing states. But cabinet officials were treated as campaign proxies, as the Interior Secretary jetted to battleground states to tout Trump farm programs in Iowa, the Energy Secretary vouched for local investment in fracking and other projects of infrastructure Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and North Carolina, or Education Secretary boosted there-opening of schools in Michigan to shore up crucial votes in an electoral map. A different demographic of swing states were addressed as Medicaid Services chief administrator Seema Verma addressed elders in Raleigh NC; Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue traveled to farms in Michigan and Wisconsin, as well as Florida. Was this not tantamount to a campaign strategy?

If so, it seems to have not served the public good. Trump had long used the members of cabinet for gaming the Presidency, and his political future. As well as crossing ethical lines shamelessly, Trump adopted the imperatives of public messaging on an electoral map to dispense cabinet members emissaries of pro-Trump news in the service of Trump at taxpayers’ cost: provided an alternate storyline to one of a health crisis, and even to paint Trump as providing a needed national infrastructure, touting Trump’s investment in local infrastructure, as the national health infrastructure collapsed and Rome burned. Trump’s Energy Secretary flatteringly compared the President’s qualifications to discuss the infrastructure to Dwight Eisenhower, whose Highway System Trump used as the standard for a Border Wall; the visits of cabinet members to Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan and Florida asserted an attention to infrastructure to the conceal lack of an infrastructure of testing or public health. As Public Health Secretary Alex Azar put it, “I’m traveling around the country to . . . get the message out that thanks to [Pres.] Donald Trump’s historic response to this crisis and work with our national governors, we need to reopen.” “We haven’t had a President better qualified to talk about infrastructure and the need for investment and problems people have encountered as they’ve tried to invest in communities . . . since Eisenhower created the highways.”

Yet the national highway system and bridges, much as the national readiness for the pandemic, lay in utter disrepair.

Districts with 46,100 Structurally Deficient Bridges, 2019
American Road and Transportation Builders’ Association, Bridge Report

The imperatives and logic of the electoral map created new imperatives of public messaging. The cabinet was increasingly complicit in Trump’s gaming of the electoral system. We might well map visits of Trump’s cabinet members who fanned out to swing states as a use of public funds, but tracing the many cabinet members who left Washington over several months would create a multi-colored set of arcs from Washington, DC across the country to conceal the lack of the chief executive to the nation, as his executive functions declined: the many trips to promote Trump were not only in blatant rejection of the Hatch Act, but gamed the electoral map in visits to swing states on which the campaign centered: sixty violations the Hatch Act in October alone show cabinet members benefitting Trump’s campaign at taxpayers’ expense, gaming a system for needed electoral votes

The logic of the electoral map dominated not only the visits of government officials, but the attack on distance voting, this post suggests, following an increasing atomization of the nation with a GIS laser-precision. For in plotting out itineraries of cabinet members over the summer and fall to address local interests with almost tactical military precision, the planning for the electoral victory took a precedence that terrifyingly replaced the true danger of COVID-19 that was facing the nation at the same time, and was downplayed as Trump’s Cabinet members took up the work of surrogates of defending the electoral map, that increasingly eclipsed the map of infections from COVID-19 that was undermining national safety. Although the military as a result carefully integrated best practices to mitigate the spread or contraction of COVID-19, from the initial isolation of all recruits to distancing and mask-wearing, no mandate for wearing masks or distancing was announced in the nation.

Projected Risks of to National Defense of COVID-19 Outbreaks at Military Bases
Govini Risk Assessment to Military Bases in United States, March 2020

Trump downplayed the coronavirus as a national threat: his attention to the electoral map, rather than coronavirus infection rates, is shocking. The Army had developed safer Personal Protective Practices, as the nation did not.

Arianna Drehsler

The disruption of the pathways of a socially distanced franchise by failing to secure needed funds to secure timely mail delivery provided a parallel specter of national disaster, provoked by Trump’s appointment of Louis DeJoy as Postmaster General on the eve of the Presidential election. When DeJoy was appointed to run what historian Winifred Gallagher called “the central nervous system of American democracy” and of the new nation-state, by securing the pathways across often contentious colonies that guaranteed each citizen access to the news. If the expansion of the postal system had proved particularly well-suited to th expansion of an information network across the western states after the U.S. Civil War–here the foundation of a post offices from 1865-1882–

Geography of the Post in the Nineteenth Century, Western States of the United States
Cameron Blevins and Jason Hepler, Stanford University

–the communicative network seemed in danger of being undermined by limiting the franchise in a spectacularly selective underhanded way.

While DeJoy was named the successor of Benjamin Franklin presided over the uniform dissemination of uncensored opinions as the basis to guarantee an informed electorate had atrophied with the migration of news online. DeJoy’s appointment in May 2020 was on the basis of expertise in shipping logistics that was argued to streamline the loss of money in what had been originally understood as subsidizing the informing of an electorate to allow the experiment of elections: the fears that the appointment betrayed a single-minded purpose of removing sorting machines that were the central nervous system of the pseudo-network of mail collection threatened to delay arrival of mail-in ballots in ways that would subvert democratic intent.

For the delays of mail-in ballots that often were refused to be counted if they arrived after election day appeared unprecedented gaming of the electoral map by adjusting tallies of votes on election night: delaying arrival of Democratic votes disproportionately voted by mail in a socially distanced franchise raised the specter of a historical reversion of the mail system as a “commons” as much as a communication system able to unite regions of the country geographically distant, as the spatial system linking  whose 75,000 local offices across the continent allowed the nation to survive the Civil War as a communicative network, whose spread was greater in expanse than any other democratic nation. If the post defined relations of center and periphery in the post-Civil War period, the fault lines of red and blue states exposed in 2016 threatened to re-emerge in 2020 by a disrupted communications infrastructure to undermine consensus.

The threat of disrupting the very network that allowed the embodiment of the nation in the decennial census, income tax system, and banking system seemed able to disrupt the coherence of voting–and, with it, distort the electoral system that was an already troubled inheritance of democratic consensus. But the marginalization of the postal system as a foundation of a representational government seemed increasingly easy in a nation virtually interlinked, in which the post office seemed a white elephant. DeJoy gained attention in supporting Trump’s suspicious refusal of funds to accommodate the processing of mail-in voting by additional funding of the Postal Service. While included in the Coronavirus Relief Package, DeJoy gained attention by refusing additional funds to prepare for voting by mail–and then disabled sorting machines that may have served to delay mailed by an identical logic of electoral maps.

Might it be possible to engineer a delay in mail to shift the balance in high traces in battleground states? DeJoy’s role must be viewed in the concerted strategy of cabinet members to bolster attention to local issues in an electoral context. Paid trips focussed attention on local issues in local media as the number of swing states intensified: Trump’s strategy of catering to specific interests of red states as much as the body politic metastasized as issues of campaigning distracted from the national coronavirus crisis bay supplanting the absence of testing, protective gear, or hospital support across the nation with base issues: instead, fracking, school vouchers and charters, energy projects and agricultural subsidies replaced a national strategy with a slew of push-button local interests. At the same time as Trump pressured his Attorney General and FBI Director to game the news cycle by announcing investigations of Joe Biden and his son, did he also game the electoral votes by the map was gamed both by visits.

Was it even more clearly gamed in an attempt to delay the arrival of electoral ballots of a distanced franchise? As much as DNI John Ratcliffe promoted fears of hacking by Russians or Chinese or Iranians as salient issues of national security, was the arrival of mail-in ballots of a socially distanced franchise exploited as a vulnerability of the electoral process? As the map was a sort of guarantee of Trump’s victory, the logic of battleground states reflected how visits were prioritized to battleground states in anticipation of the election to defend his victory in “red” states: if his travels on Air Force One spread him thin, the fuel ferrying him to Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Florida, his cabinet secretaries followed identical itineraries to play defense on an electoral map at public expense.

President Trump’s Trips to Battleground States, 2020

As the threat of coronavirus grew, and bills for providing economic relief to those affected by work stoppages or protective relief for the infected were stalled in government, the logic of the electoral map, rather than the map of infections, set priorities. If the trips privileged local issues in place of national interests, the national franchise seems to have been undermined by how dedication to strategic dominance of an electoral map seems to have informed an astounding overturning of a universal franchise. While Trump dismissed the role of mail-in voting, and wanted courts to address, was delay of first class mail actually designed to delay–literally distance–the votes that would be tabulated for President in battleground states?

3. Trump hoped the electoral map would serve as something of a confirmation for Trump’s single-minded pursuit of his treasured projects, first and foremost the border wall. Trump avoided discussing the state’s spiking rates of COVID-19, assimilating the rise of the virus’ threat to the arrival of migrants. He conjured fears by charging his opponent for endorsing “open borders” while he boasted to have ended worker visas for the year, conjuring images of illegal voting as he called mail-in ballots “the most corrupt election in the history of our country,” and a “disaster” for democracy. Then democracy caught up–and, more accurately, the disruptions of coronavirus–from job-loss to economic decline to the disruption of daily life–created a pressing reality that the President was failing to address and could not spin.

This election, the narrative turns on the counting of individual ballots, and the preservation of slim margins of a Biden victory after the counting of absentee ballots in a distanced election. With an ever-increasing number of ballots arriving as a result of sweeps of mail facilities, not delivered to the Registrars of Voters before Election Day, the 12,000 votes in suspended animation in states where final votes have not been called for two to five days after Election Day–Nevada; Arizona; Georgia; North Carolina–have led thousands of ballots to be rejected out of hand in Georgia and Arizona, where late ballots were not accepted. And despite the timely arrival of 93.3% absentee ballots processed by USPS, some 7% were not processed in ways that would allow their inclusion, and some 8,000 ballots were not processed on time nationwide. Although some voters who requested ballots may have preferred to vote in person, an astounding–especially astounding given the small margins of victory in many states–existence of 300, 000 ballots for the 2020 Presidential election went missing, scanned as mailed but lacking exit scans, and not processed across much of the lower forty-eight, as they were removed for classified for expedited delivery?

The apparent interruption of the delivery of votes was sufficient to compel a judicial order to sweep sorting stations in twelve processing facilities for missing ballots that was never performed. The numbers are not high given the six million absentee voters in the election, but the suspicious “missing” ballots in Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Carolina and the Atlanta area, as well as Arizona and central Florida, suggest a potential disruption of the counting of ballots and indeed of the ensuring of unimpeded access to participation in an election of considerable national consequence–and an absence of difficulties with missing ballots in many more less populated “red” states where the election may hang–Pennsylvania, Arizona, the Atlantic area, North Carolina, and Central Florida as well. The “missing ballots” in border areas in California, Arizona, and New Mexico are striking.

The delays that many feared in the arrival of ballots when combined with the close margins of late-tending Biden victories may well make the election have been an even far closer brush with a failure or planned breakdown of democracy in the face of COVID, and a terrifying sense of the fragility of voting practices independently from feared foreign disruptions caused by interrupted power infrastructure, corrupting voting machine tallies, or hacking: the sense of interference with a promise for resumed stability may have come from within, rather, with the subversion of mail-in voting as legitimate, even despite social distancing measure in the Era of COVID-19. So immediate was the worry that mail-in voting was a contingency of possibly determining effect that some that some worried mail in ballots were but a ploy into which Democrats entered into as a trap, destined to be loosened by future litigation–even though mail-in ballots greatly furthered democratic discourse and focus on voter turn out, and created legitimacy of generating a paper record of vote tabulation. Although mail in ballots offered time for reflection on civic duty and encouraged reflection and commitment to voting in a needed public schooling in voting rights, Trump’s sustained attack on mail-in votes terrifyingly dismisses the democratic process.

What were the odds of such tight voting differences in multiple states in the 2020 Presidential election? As ballots counts in North Carolina, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Nevada seemed far narrower than usual, mail system snags may be invalidating tens of thousands of ballots. While we all recall the assurances of Postmaster DeJoy in assuring the nation with unfounded confidence that the ballots would arrive–unwarranted as he had limited familiarity in mailing practices and USPS pragmatics that were thrown off kilter by the destruction or retirement of mail sorting machines–the rates of delivery in postal districts in ten swing states plunged almost six percentage points below the national average in delivery times, hinting at how much DeJoy seems, more than the courts, an accessory in delaying consensus about the victory of the forty sixth President.

Sharp declines below the respectable national average of 95% in a period when timely deliveries were of national consequence. Was this a political stratagem that was barely forestalled, and whose effects can be seen in the late arrival of ballot counts that transfixed the nation–and world–in what seems an Election Day that lasted over five days, and may be protracted in the courts, as the concession of the one-term President is deferred, even without launching a recognized appeal? President Trump, ever a master manipulator, stoked claims for voter fraud that raised eyebrows, but seems to have been done in concert with the delay of votes’ arrival for a nation he believed would demand immediate results on television: watch to see if I am robbed in the tallies of incoming votes, as new ballots are discovered, Trump alleged the engineering of the election.

4. The President tweeted insistently to insinuate suspicious evidence in the diminishment of his lead of 700,000 votes as mail-in absentee ballots were tabulated, despite an evident “blue shift” among the 2.6 million mail-in ballots reflected that two-thirds were for Joe Biden Pennsylvania, per the analysis of election data by Michael McDonald, the University of Florida political scientist who maintains U.S. Elections Project. He claimed having “won” in Michigan based on early voting results, as if hoping the later changes in mail-in ballots didn’t deserve inclusion in the final tally, even in an era of social distancing. A similar claim of his campaign that they lack “meaningful access” to observing the opening and tabulating of mail-in votes ignored the need for socially distanced tabulation as a conspiracy.

The problem of restricted access to voting is not only about voting rights–serious as any restriction on this fundamental democratic institution–but is a curb on Free Speech. When we arrived to vote in unprecedented numbers, albeit in a socially distanced manner, we affirmed a sense of deep democracy, and indeed the historical role of the United States Postal System as a creator of public consensus and of reclaiming public space in an almost Habermasian sense, even in the highly politicized nation.

The argument that mail-in voting was a fraudulent expansion of the franchise driven by Democrats’ demands, led to fears of delay by the changing transportation schedules in USPS that were begun by new policies of the Postmaster General, potentially preventing ballots from being delivered: Trump’s taunt that “the postal service is a joke” in mid-August even as the return of ballots two weeks early provided a deep concern about planned delays in postal delivering systems nationwide–potentially focussed in contested states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Florida. Trump tweeted in mid-August, in ways that now seem diabolical. Amidst the use of remote voting for the primary, the President seemed to adopt an antagonistic relation the registrar of voters, before the state was hit by an onslaught of increased COVID infections: “Nevada has ZERO infrastructure for Mail-In Voting. It will be a corrupt disaster if not ended by the Courts. It will take months, or years, to figure out.

Later tweets, bursting forth as the election was underway, finally brought some tempered cautions form Twitter, inserted as corrections to a menacing onslaught of all caps that seemed to set the stage for bringing suit against late-arriving ballots, as if they were underhanded attempts at “ballot harvesting”–a shady, undefined practice of assembling absentee ballots in the service of a blatantly partisan agenda.

Was the forty-fifth President anticipating future strategies of litigation of the election in refusing the allow USPS a needed $25 to improve its sorting facilities? Trump notoriously projects his own illicit behavior and lack of honesty, perhaps as a stratagem of casting shade and sowing doubts–akin to an art of hypnotically induced blind skepticism–a part of his performance of his own semblance of honesty, from Hillary Clinton’s corrupt practices as Vice President and at the Clinton Foundation with foreign actors (“She’s the puppet!”) to likening Joe Biden’s “corrupt family” to a family of organized crime, to the lies of the news media you can’t trust, to the canniness with which Democratic state officials “rigged” votes and the election without transparency: such charges come second nature to Trump, as part of his performance, and indeed as part of his combative confrontation of others.

5 But the transparency of his own skill at projection is by now so much a part of his performance of Trump, the show that plays to sold-out audiences twenty-four seven as a skilled entertainer. utter dissolute morals. While the ballots mailed in were not lost, but were poorly tracked to their destinations, without being fully accounted for, as the President of the American Postal Workers’ Union, Mark Dimondstein, assures us, the existence of 1,400 ballots that did not arrive on Election Day in Philadelphia distorted the posting of complete counts by the Registrar of Voters that appeared on television screens, and Trump must have known the effectiveness of attenuating the reporting of votes was itself a televised spectacle, an ultimate Reality TV show of sorts that he could pronounce upon at any point in the evening from The White House..

Possible Delays in Mail-In Ballots, August 15 2020

Were these cautionary mappings of delays a basis for the encouragement of expanding the franchise by ensuring early mailing of ballots? They certainly led to increasing attention to ensuring the validity of ballots postmarked by Election Day to preserve the franchise, as we wondered whether automated Flat Sorting Machines and Flat Sequencing Systems would sustain the flow of millions of ballots as Election Day approached. The open data on the arrival of ballots by USPS compiled–and on the removal of mail sorting machines–reveal a scary landscape of the restriction of the franchise and the limitations on free speech.

While the contested battleground states of Florida, Ohio, Michigan, and Georgia were striking, the illustration of the removal of mail sorters seemed to plot against the 2016 electoral map by counties in terrifying manners–although perhaps many of the more crucial states for the Biden victory, like Nevada, Wisconsin, Arizona, and Georgia perhaps weren’t in the end hurt by the delays as much as the margins of citron in Michigan and Georgia were razor-thin. Did such an effort to slow the flow of mail demand to be examined not only in Presidential levels, but in Congressional terms, although the slowing of mail reduced or delayed urban votes in Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan seemed almost a ham-fisted power grab, rigging the election before the voting began, and skewing the map red. Although it many be a stretch, the increased abilities for reconfiguring states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania–all “flipped red,” as North Carolina entered the category of “swing states” by the RedMap project of the RNC Redistricting Committee from 2010 to get around the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The gaming of voting districts by GIS software offering redistricting versions–like Maptitude–by a practice of hyper-gerrymandering, the reduction of mail delivery time offered an analogous “gaming” of votes that might work to partisan advantages, and in several of the same states played the reporting and tallying of votes in potentially strategic ways.

Th potential reduction of sorting capacities in post offices that would sort large numbers of Democratic-tending votes in large urban areas where Democrats were focussed–Los Angeles, Houston, Columbus, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia–stood to slow the reporting of votes on Election Night, if they arrived late, leading in several states to their not be counted at all. Trump’s voters in fact grew suspicious at the late arrival of mail-in or absentee ballots seemed to unfold on television as a stolen election, with early results heading one way, but then seeming to shift to blue in ways that were indeed rigged, and threatened to rob an election that was tending to indicate Trump the winner by early returns from one part of the state or among one group of votes reported that day. Such allegations that suspicious activity was occurring behind the scenes was in part triggered by the retiring of some 671 mail sorting machines in a city like Houston, reducing the capacity to sort mail by an estimated 470,000 pieces per hour–altering the pace of votes’ tabulation in a center of urban Democratic votes.

Trump railed all summer against the commitment to mail-in ballots as a form of voting inviting fraud and corruption–which it was not, experts insisted–even as he seems to have worked to reengineer the cascade of a flow of Democratic votes by mail as, if not needing to be reviewed and recounted with Republican observers, would create a dramatic progress in the tally of votes on Election Night for network pundits to explain and social media to sew doubts, raising questions perhaps more compelling than the suspicious he already planted around mail-in voting, by responding to the plans to introduce socially distanced elections in Nevada, a state that Trump very much wanted in his column, as COVID fears grew in May, before the actual escalation of infection rates in the summer moths.

President Trump charged that including mail-in ballots in the state concealed an agenda that rigged the election, and promoted a blatant attempt to “cheat” in elections by conducted. by mail; he attacked the decision for lacking the infrastructure for Mail-In Voting as “a corrupt disaster if not ended by the Courts” that would delay tabulation of the vote in unacceptable ways. Linking the “courts” to mail-un voting in ways that might now raise eyebrows, Trump repeatedly taunted the groundless belief that the 2020 Election would end in the the Supreme Court; on election night he claimed victory in an unconvincing televised address that seemed the inelegant swan song of his Reality TV career–asserting without precedent that he wold petition a friendly U.S. Supreme Court to suspend ballot-counting, as if the television audience were the true arbiters of an election “far from over,” confident of a welcome audience among newly appointed justices.

Carlos Barria/Reuters

It seemed for a moment, in retrospect, that the incommensurability between law and Reality Television Donald Trump had long denied suddenly popped into relief: the absurdity of undermining the very nature of standard procedures for tabulating elections, even if the alternative worlds that Trump seemed to have been sponsoring or endorsing by census undercounts, undermining the United States Postal System, and endorsing the gerrymandering of the RNC–as well a the packing of the courts with “friendly” partisan justices. The dishonesty of the motivated disrespect of practices of counting individual votes was transparent. While the coincidence of the removing of mail sorting machines from centers of population was understandable, the timing of their removal by DeJoy and the effects of a pronounced slowing of mail in states like Texas, Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania seemed designed to limit the flow of absentee ballots.

Hot Spots of Clinton Votes in 2016 (Blue) v. Red Circles of Post Office Sorting Machine Removals

The overlay of states by the red v. blue base map offers an even more grim map that recalls a skewing of votes scarily similar to gerrymandering in the RedMap project, of redrawing congressional districts to ensure more Republican votes–a terrifying parallel in the instrumentality of effective means of disenfranchisement that suggest a new reason for the importance of strengthening the Voting Rights Act in an age of GIS mapping, where the routing of mail in ballots seems to have been intentionally slowed in ways that would synchronize with the televised announcement of voting results.

If such delays were successful, this would be something like an institutionalization of electoral odds, or an effective “gaming” of the electoral system by a concerted actions for delaying ballots’ arrival in time to be reported, in order to make the election paper to be “stolen” even if the balance of voting tallies start to shift late into the night.

6. Ensuring pathways of communication is of course a historical foundation of public government and a network of communication that was not impeded in any way. The notion of a space of public deliberation and indeed a network of communication was long identified with the future vision of the country as a basis to ensure public benefit supervised by the government.  

The United States was historically defined around a broader space of public communication in the decades following the American Revolution, to ensure the future promise of the democracy by fostering open avenues of speech as much as possible. The sponsorship of the rapid expansion of dedicated post roads for transporting mail and communications provided a basis for the expansion of a public communication and the delivery of news along an unprecedented expanse, a legacy of Benjamin Franklin. Franklin as Postmaster General valued the routes of communication, even to rural areas, as an infrastructure of Enlightenment, expanding an architecture of freedom of speech through a physical architecture.

The state monopoly helped to under-write uninhibited and unrestrained paths of open communication–fixing the right to create post roads across the country beyond the pre-revolutionary focus on the coast and coastal towns–leading miles of postal roads to quintuple by 1797, matching needs to circulate information to urban and rural areas in a democratic space, resulting in constructing more  post roads per capita than other nations.

Main Post Roads in United States, 1834/Rumsey Center

Such dramatically expanded pathways of communication created a comprehensive network guaranteeing full privacy, securing low postal rates for the newspapers that discussed public affairs, and offering a basis to create public communication across the unprecedentedly large nation as a distinct infrastructure to subsidize non-urban rural areas–dramatically expanding the thirteen post offices communicating with England to create a new notion of public communication and indeed political deliberation across a space that had no models for a coherent identity or commonly shared values.  The creation of a common space of “free speech” afforded a basis for consensus to emerge in a deliberative fashion–in ways that restricting or bounding free speech to a single “space,” “place” or location runs against.

When Whitman fashioned himself as the channel for the nation’s voice, although he did so in openly poetic terms, motion across and through the continent was in fact first able to be mapped, both as they system of open roads across the continent. ion to the “open road” offered a measure of national health as an alternative to national divides on the eve of the Civil War. Whitman righty associated with the broad nature of his poetic voice with the rise of roadways of common travel. The decreasing costs of road construction in the United States with the promotion of plank roads from 1850, as well as the rise of state-subsidized public canals and railroads, created a newly open infrastructure: front he 1850s, roads built on timber, in a technique pioneered in Canada in the 1840s, led 10,000 miles of plank road to be built nationwide, with over 3,500 in New York State; the parallel expansion nationwide of toll road subscriptions, organized by counties, redefined regional roadways, and national space. And these expanses of roadways created a new notion of the relation of self to nation Whitman’s rhetoric of inclusiveness expanded to affirm a material tie to the nation.

7. The danger may lie in how the openly partisan use of maps accentuate strategic ends erase any sense of human agency, and perhaps fail to offer any persepective that accounts for individual agency. Perhaps the hope was to create a sufficiently plausible or convincingly coherent electoral map that a nation shocked the failure of polls to translate to the electoral mosaic for a second time, overcome by its fractures, might pause in misunderstanding to be multiplied on MAGA social media echo chambers as confirmation of the persistence of an illusory Trump Nation.

The coherence of Trump Nation was promoted by images of Donald as Savior, looking to the future, living one thumb in the air, or other billboards proclaiming the ideology of Trump as a means of Keeping America Great.

Private Iniitative Billboard on Arizona-California Border, Posted with Bailout Funds
Texas Republicans
Self-Funded Crowd Funded Texas Billboard Promoting Trump for July 4, 2020

While the digital billboard that once flashed Trump’s face in Berkeley, where I live, on 80, along the Bayshore, has been replaced since by advertisements for cannabis and publicity for centers of COVID-19 testing, the location of a a Trump digital billboard in the site of one census block where Trump received the least votes in 2016 in the country attested to the ambitious scale of the Frontage billboard, seemed to respond to the scandal of a black and white billboard nearby demanding Trump’s impeachment.

The image of the national savior or redeemer adopted in many of these self-funded billboards not to be. And the vastly complicated multi-state effort to catch up on a defeat in multiple state primaries, each of which demand separate legal cases to be pursued, as the margin of votes of .6% in Arizona have to be balance with a demand for recounts in Nevada, Wisconsin, and Georgia, all proceeding independently while he pursues cases about vote-counting practices to overturn the results in Pennsylvania and Michigan.

Trump may have mounted legal challenges to seek money to retire campaign debt, but lacked any legitimate legal cause–it is still unclear what his endgame is, even if it seems destined to redress or contest the electoral map. Perhaps it is all an endgame and continued publicity stunt, until he finally walks away from it all, desultorily insisting he has won. But the decision to pursue options and litigation of the validity of Mail-In ballots suggest a disbelief that seems to reflect a conviction, not apparent to many, that he was entitled to a different configuration of the electoral map.

8. To delay ballots’ arrival would engineer an undercount favorable to his candidacy is a steep charge. But it is strikingly analogous to the engineering of an undercount in the U.S. Census, a decennial undercount that would mess with the process of apportionment that Trump is desperate to conclude before his term is out.

Such “gaming of the system” to create undercounts would seek to fabricate an alternative reality that institutionalizes desired results to undercut the democratic process–in this case, of an apparently persuasive electoral vote–disturbingly echoes strategies of cartographic manipulation and persuasion in precedents of the undercounts of select census tracts of which the Trump Chamber of Commerce was suspected. Any engineering of the electoral vote–and indeed of the franchise–would openly undermine the democratic vote. The potential redrawing of select sites of the incoming vote delivered by mails suggests an attention to distorting the body polity akin to planned interference of the enumeration of populations in the census count. The 2010 Census revealed the danger of the deep distortions by introducing undercounts of populations in many of the hardest to count regions, where migrants’ presence would be less likely to be reflected in the final count.

The difficulty of undercounts seem to have been accentuated and even exploited by a self-reported 2020 Census, whose planners considered to include a citizenship question that might depress engagement or self-reporting in the 2010 Census that revealed “hard to count” tracts whose risked serious populations undercounts.

Manipulating mail-in ballots dominantly favorable to Joe Biden such hopes s to engineer undercounts in the 2020 Census. For the introduction of a planned question on citizenship, a deterrent to non-citizen populations if there ever was one, was an effective weaponization of the decennial enumeration for allocating federal resources and representation. If Make America Great Again is taken seriously as a return to the past era of census undercounting of African Americans and communities of color that was conveniently endemic to the earlier census counts, the broad mailing of the 2020 Census that would be delivered to many American households was also the first digital census, in hopes to be more inclusive than ever before, using both satellite imagery to track the changing population of each census block in a decade without field workers and using demographic data to track historically “hard-to-reach” groups–and an app to help census workers obtain responses to the 60 million not expected to be counted. The app would streamline the practice of census to avoid the reams of paper produced in the routine activity of census-taking–the 17 million paper maps printed out by the U.S. Census in 2010, and 50 million paper questionnaires, and allow the U.S. Census to hire fewer workers than it did in 2010.

But digital record-keeping could be hampered in its roll-out by possible bugs as well as cybervulnerabilities to hacking, phishing, or spoofing; the Bureau sent invitations to respond to the Census in March 2020 moreover coincided with the rise of waves of coronavirus infections across the United States: while workers were planned to be sent to hard-to-count areas , COVID-19 may well prevent them form reaching the 40% of households to prevent an undercount of those who did not respond, predominantly communities of color. Would the map create an alternate image of the United States? Although online maps of hard-to-count areas was launched in 2017, to help identify the metrics to ensure better counting of the historically undercounted regions–the census has a hard time reaching non-fluent English speakers, homeless, lower income, undocumented populations, or mobile persons–creating estimated losses of of $1,091/person, and defunding federal programs in rural regions of Kansas and Missouri alone by $48 million–from highway planning to SNAP to Medicaid–that threaten to continue to perpetuate income inequalities.

The 2020 Census is poised to stand in uneasy relation to a region’s actual inhabitants: out would perpetuate distortions of tallying all inhabitants mandated by the U.S. Constitution, in hopes separate undocumented from the nation. Such fears of the explicit politicization of the decennial aim to increase potential undercounts of the 2010 Census,–a lowering the minority presence in the country as revealed in a mapping tool developed by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. The result would be an alternate reality for self-serving ends. Communities loath to self-report to census-takers had created pronounced undercounts in “hard to count” areas including migrants who were effectively excluded from the nation. Although not enacted, even plans for a citizenship question by Wilbur Ross could inspire fear in responding to the decennial census and increase an undercount tantamount to disenfranchising specific communities, “gaming the census” to create an apportionment of resources out of step with the nation rather than establishing an image of the distribution of national populations.

Hard to Count” Areas, U.S. 2020 Census

Undercounts in the “hard-to-count” areas already present in 2010 would be effectively bolstered and encouraged by the threat of such a question; the limitations of self-response rates so far tabulated in the 2020 Census suggest a similar danger of mirroring undercounts in minority-majority areas, all but swiveling the results of the picture of the nation.

While the choropleth distribution is just a rough record of states that seem destined to suffer from undercounts–poorer demographics in Oklahoma, Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana that seem threatened by less ties to regular voting as they will not benefit from ties to the national government–the lower fifth of those self-reporting are spread across rural areas–sites possibly of low internet penetration, more spread out communities, and low-density population, and majority-minority areas of the southwest.

Hardto-Count Areas, 2020 Census: Lower Fifth of Self-Reporting Counties
Hard-to-Count Areas, 2020 U.S. Census

Low response rates evident in urban neighborhoods reduce allocation of funds for schools, health care, or municipal services in urban areas. The new vision of cities self-reporting created gave prominence to select neighborhoods, more immigrant-free, at odds with the actual world:

Self-Reporting Percentages in U.S. Census Tracts of San Francisco, 2020

Shift to a digital census in 2020 raised fears of undermining public trust that compromised a fundamental democratic institution ensured through apportionment. Trump’s appointment as director of the U.S. Census of a notorious defender of Republican redistricting who helped defend GOP-drawn maps later struck down by federal courts suggests the particular salience of problems of accurately mapping non-white populations akin to racial gerrymandering by undercounting non-white, that is echoed in the current talking points to limit the count of “illegal” votes. Two days after the election, indeed, Trump supporters raised the all too familiar anti-immigrant standard in offering an  “update on our very important efforts to protest the integrity of the vote” to claim “If you count the legal votes, I easily win.  If you count the illegal votes, they can easily steal the election from us. “

9. The looser architecture for social media created a new idea of free speech, built on constant interaction, and infinite expansiveness, far less of a sense of fixed or identifiable addressees, as proliferating pathways of communication, sharing, and “speech” multiply in online platforms–Facebook, Reddit, Twitter, and Instagram–provided increasingly performative spaces, as much as architectures for Free Speech, but seem to antiquate the postal system as less important, while we rely on state structures for tabulating votes.

The removal of content or limits on public speech press against norms and redefining boundaries, however, as postal systems continue as the only architecture of voting:  each year, Facebook receives some two million requests to remove or delete posted material; twitter removes some posts deemed objectionable by ghost deletion, so they still appear on the feeds of those who posted them, but only began to focus on “abuses” or “abusive behavior” recently, and really only adopted policies after the election, curiously, even though the moral economy of the internet boosted a rise in incivility.  

Although Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, and YouTube attempted in the end to adopt rules designed to fight online hate speech in the EU in 2016, as Reddit worked to curtail online the circulation of online abuse in hopes to ameliorate public discourse, norms in America were delayed, such platforms identified themselves as free speech–as if we could separate freedom from responsibility:  social media promoted itself as a medium of free speech that elevated that medium above any individual message, rewriting of Marshall McLuhan, evident in credulous denials of any dangerous role of the medium in the 2016 Presidential election.

The denigration of the postal system was perhaps apt for a President suited social media as a means to situate himself as the center of any debate, to register reactions in unfiltered ways, and to address “my people”–as much as the nation.  (Did this platform address the very folks who didn’t get used to “that black President,” as Paul Beatty put it, dven “after two terms of looking at a dude in a suit deliver the State of the Union address”? The promise of locating freedom not in suffrage, but in the emergent ecology of online communication, independent monitors of content or offensiveness, or ‘policing’ but championed its unregulated medium. Yet as Yonaton Zunger observed, “free speech” is never “free,” most favorable and least constrained for those in power, or are at least not perceived to threaten the established order.

10. The close margins of election might indeed demand to be seen, in hindsight, as a stratagem barely forestalled. The fear of challenge by mail-in ballots seem to have grown as they were cast as a potentially illegitimate means of denying President Trump a second term. If we were troubled by delayed tallies of ballots that frustrates our desires for immediate gratification of automatic results, built up after a long election accompanied by ramped up divisiveness, rumors of fraud, and heightened expectancies, and fears of disenfranchisement, or hacking, the uneven terrain of mail voting in the United States created a new terrain of suspicion.

Voting by Mail in the 2020 Presidential Election: Where Ballots Sent to All Voters (Purple) or Where Non-Pandemic Excuses Required to Vote by Mail (Red)

The unequal nature of the voting terrain doesn’t break down into time zones, but the red island of resistance to voting by mail, even during a pandemic, coincided unsurprisingly with a nucleus of red states of a significant electoral vote–a “block” of fifty-seven electoral votes with urban areas in strong blue in a sea of red.

While the “blue” states of the west are charged with rigging the vote by providing ballots by mail to all registered voters, as if that would tamper with the national vote, the high voter turn-out itself taken as evidence of a sort of misdemeanor in increasing the franchise to their own advantage–a rumor that echoed earlier charges those western states accorded votes to illegal immigrants to expand the franchise–the federal structure of different state policies of ballot-certification, voter requirements, ballot tabulation, and voting practices haunted the election. Did not the failure to provide the mail-in option to voters in “red” states like Indiana, Mississippi, and Texas provide an obstacle to the Blue Wave, by reducing the franchise and hampering candidates like Mike Espy in Mississippi and in M.J. Hegar in Texas?

Perhaps it would seem just desserts if the pro-Trump vote to remain at home and sit out the January Senate races in Georgia, and a Democratic majority from which a Biden White House would surely profit.

But while the nation was often facing an existential threat from the Trump Presidency, unknown to many, much of the Republican Party grew increasingly dependent on Trump as a rallying cry of false populism, in part promoted by the very specter of illegal voting. To say Trump is due his “rights” to “weigh his legal options” to challenge the outcome of the election, risks entertaining the insistence of Trump that the election was not concluded. The refusal to “accept preliminary results” among many seems only evidence of the difficulty of extracting the fortunes of his party from the identity of Trump. We may not realize how much, as much of the nation was placed in existential terror by Donald Trump’s Presidency, how dependent the Republican Party grew on Trump’s desire for legitimacy and denial of a conclusive electoral outcome.

The difficulty to distance the party from the large turnout that occurred for Trump may be particularly difficult and take time, but we can see a dangerous future in which Donald Trump leaves office continuing to assert his rightful victory, nonetheless, delegitimizing a Biden presidency, as he was so wont to delegitimize an Obama presidency, and force Republicans to continue to kowtow to his gut feelings that victory was stolen from him by a process of voting that allowed a huge number of “illegal” votes. Trump’s readiness to recycle baseless charges that votes “were erased” from the voting machines of Dominion Voting Systems software across twenty-eight states–a baseless claim, circulating on One America News Network, suggesting the ease of the erasure of electoral selections in automated voting systems that “deleted” 2.7 million votes nationwide, echoing Trump’s charge of “rigged” elections in destabilizing trust in voting results. The charge that a software “glitch” flipped Michigan blue undercuts the human agency in rejecting the failed Presidency of Donald J. Trump. Continued insistence that the election was “stolen” keeps Trump at the center of attention, denying the transition to advance, and delays any resolution after the vote, in the healing period that precedes the Inauguration, casting deep doubts on its legitimacy for much of the country to ensure Trump can insinuate himself into future electoral maps, or worm his way into the unconscious of his base.

This is the alternate world that he seems to find some external validation for as Valdimir Putin and Javier Bolsonaro–no friends of democracy–argue that neither would recognize Joseph R. Biden Jr. as president-elect until all claims for challenging the results of the election in court are exhausted, a premise dangerously exhausting for the nation and the world. But it is the only alternate world in which Trump can now exist, as he seems destined to drift away from the White House to an alternate world of rallies, destabilization of discourse and the roll-out, at long last, of a public health plan, eerily inhabiting attempts to reconstruct something like public space.

1 Comment

Filed under 2020 election, data visualization, Donald Trump, electoral maps, Presidential Elections

One response to “A Socially Distanced Franchise?

  1. Rachel Brownstein

    Wonder how much of his mischief is thought out, how much improvised as things start moving… Not that it matters much, but you sow dissent!

    Sent from my iPhone


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