There’s no election for President Trump, win or lose, that can’t serve as an opportunity to advance a demonstrably untrue argument we’ll hear a lot before 2020: U.S. elections are riddled with fraud.
It seemed pretty clear, as the 2016 election approached, that fraud allegations were an escape hatch built into his campaign. Should he lose the race, the fault would lie not with him but with irregularities like illegally cast votes. In Pennsylvania in August 2016, down by 9 points in polls, he insisted that the only way he would lose was “if in certain sections of the state they cheat.” The “certain sections” were interpreted to mean heavily black areas where people such as Sean Hannity had made baseless assertions of the existence of fraud in the past.
Trump ended up winning Pennsylvania, thanks to a race that narrowed at the end and a late surge for his candidacy. It was critical to Trump’s election, one of three states in which a 78,000-vote combined victory powered his electoral college win.
After he won, though, his tone about the election didn’t change. He’d won, barely — but kept raising questions about the legitimacy of the vote in places he wasn’t victorious, like New Hampshire or California, the state that alone handed him his popular-vote loss and where, he claims, immigrants in the country illegally helped power that defeat. (Trump reiterated his claim about New Hampshire in an interview with the Daily Caller last week; it remains untrue.)
The bifurcation of his concerns was so sharp that year that in Michigan, another of those narrow-margin states that propelled him to the White House, his legal team fought back against a recount by asserting that “[a]ll available evidence suggests that the 2016 general election was not tainted by fraud or mistake.” This is true, but it’s not what the client of those attorneys was arguing.
This weekend saw the resolution of other closely contested races between Democrats and Republicans. Gov. Rick Scott (R) of Florida was declared the winner of that state’s U.S. Senate contest over incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson (D). The race for Scott’s seat was won by Rep. Ron DeSantis (R), whom defeated Mayor Andrew Gillum (D) of Tallahassee. The narrow margins in the races had pushed each into a recount, with the Republicans maintaining large-enough leads that carried over from election night.
Before the vote counting was over, though, Scott and Trump had raised allegations of fraud in heavily Democratic parts of the state, focusing in particular on the spotty record of Broward County Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes to suggest that illegal ballots were being added to the total to boost Nelson’s total. (Snipes announced her resignation on Sunday.)
There was no evidence that any illegal ballots had been cast. The state’s law enforcement agency announced that it had found no evidence of illegal activity, as did the office of the secretary of state (which works for Scott). Scott’s worry appears to have been that the totals of provisional and absentee ballots from Broward — added to the total votes cast in the county only after Election Day — were reducing his lead, given how well Nelson did in the county. Scott and his allies claimed those votes had materialized out of nowhere, aiming to raise questions about the count in Broward and, therefore, to stop the bleeding. As it turned out, his lead was large enough to withstand the totals from votes that were still coming in and then large enough to withstand the recount.
Trump has repeatedly used the Republican gains in the Senate as an argument for how well his party did in the midterms (despite lots of evidence to the contrary). He joined Scott’s assertions about fraud, seemingly also to help protect Scott’s lead.
But then, in an interview with Fox News after Scott was declared the winner, Trump still claimed that the race had been affected by fraudulent votes.
"Rick Scott won and he won by a lot," Trump told "Fox News Sunday" host Chris Wallace. "I don’t know what happened to all those votes that disappeared at the very end. And if I didn’t put a spotlight on that election before it got down to the 12,500 votes he would of lost that election, okay? In my opinion he would have lost. They would have taken that election away from him. Rick Scott won Florida."
The “votes that disappeared at the very end” appears to be a reference to several counties failing to recount all of the ballots because of various mistakes or technical problems. In several cases — including in Palm Beach County, which Scott had highlighted as problematic — those votes weren’t counted by the recount deadline and so weren’t included.
Again, though, it’s important to note that Trump’s claim about how his spotlight of truth curtailed cheating lacks any evidence. His first tweet about the vote counting in Florida came after Broward County had announced its total number of cast ballots, meaning that there were no more votes that would be added to the county’s total. The count itself revealed a preference for Nelson, but turnout in Broward was down from 2016 (unlike a lot of counties) and the shift in support of the Democratic candidate was lower than the average across Florida counties.
In that interview with the Daily Caller, Trump made broader — and more bafflingly untrue — claims about voter fraud, including that voters would vote twice by changing their shirts and that voter ID laws were less onerous than buying cereal, for which ID is required. (It is not.)
It’s not just Trump who continued to press unfounded allegations of impropriety in Florida after the results were finalized. On Jeanine Pirro’s Fox News show on Saturday, Gov.-elect DeSantis also raised questions about voting in the state he will soon lead.
“[Y]ou had two counties — Broward and Palm Beach County — these ballots started appearing that were not initially logged. Because you know we track every vote, Judge. I mean, that’s just how we do these elections now, so it started that they were all real big Democrat margins,” he said. He later added: “I don’t think there is any question that there was a flagrant violation of the law. I mean, some of these votes that were counted late, a day or two after the election were supposedly cast during early voting, and they were just never reported as having been cast, and we have a lot of transparency and legal requirements precisely because that’s what confers legitimacy to these results.”
Why would DeSantis and Trump keep insisting on illegal procedures or illegal ballots in elections they just won? Quite possibly because they're looking forward two years to the next important election in the state.
Last week, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), one of Trump’s most fervent and frequent defenders in the House, spoke with Breitbart News about the Florida voting. Gaetz made much more sweeping assertions about what had happened in the state (also either misleading, exaggerated or false) — but posited a rationale for why Democrats might be committing fraud ... but not enough fraud to win the elections.
“I think this is about really stress-testing the integrity of our election system,” he said, adding, “I think that Democrats are saying, okay, well if we’re down 5,000 votes, these are the tools we can use. If we’re down 15,000, these are the tools we can use. If we’re down 30,000, then we need truckloads of new ballots to show up, right? I think that is really the exercise we’re going through” for the inevitably close race in Florida in 2020.
It’s not clear whether Gaetz believes this is really what’s happening any more than it’s clear whether Trump thinks the vote in New Hampshire was fraudulent. But Gaetz, it seems, revealed the rationale behind the argument: hardening the state prior to 2020. Scott’s efforts to restrict voting among former felons may have helped contribute to his Senate victory. DeSantis seems poised to push further on addressing how elections are run, changes that in other states in the past have often disenfranchised voters who tend to vote Democratic.
New laws in Florida and other states making it more difficult to vote would likely be helpful to Trump. Alleging fraud in Florida also positions the state to be in 2020 what Philadelphia voters were for Trump in 2016 — an escape hatch. In his interview with Fox News’s Wallace, Trump made clear how much higher the stakes will be for him in two years' time.
Why’d his party lose the House?
“I wasn’t on the ballot,” Trump said.