As President Trump was loudly insisting that mail-in voting was rife with fraud in recent days, there was a quiet development in Florida that reinforced the reality of what Trump was up to.

You may recall that, in the days following the 2018 midterm elections, there was some uncertainty in the results in Florida's gubernatorial and Senate races. While Democrats nationally won clear victories in a number of closely contested House races, Florida looked different, with then-Gov. Rick Scott (R) appearing to win a close Senate race and then-Rep. Ron DeSantis (R) narrowly winning the race to replace Scott. As more votes came in, though, both Scott's and DeSantis's leads narrowed.

In short order, Scott alleged that voter fraud had taken place and that the votes coming in from heavily Democratic Broward County were tainted. There was no evidence for this, but it was politically useful for Scott to suggest that he was the victim of an effort to steal the election and not simply the guy whose win was uncertain.

Trump joined Scott’s evidence-free allegations, eager both for a Republican win the contest and to disparage Democrats as committing fraud. At one point Trump suggested that the results at the end of election night should stand — effectively disenfranchising thousands of absentee voters — and, at another point, he claimed that law enforcement was “looking into another big corruption scandal having to do with Election Fraud.”

That investigation is complete. No evidence of fraud was uncovered. Scott won, but more narrowly than it seemed he would on election night.

It is critically important to recognize this outcome, particularly given Trump’s current efforts to disparage mail-in balloting as risky. Trump was at it again on Tuesday morning, claiming that “Mail boxes will be robbed, ballots will be forged & even illegally printed out & fraudulently signed” if states increase mail-in voting. It’s a variation of a refrain we’ve heard over and over from Trump over the past four years — a refrain that literally has never been substantiated, as it wasn’t in Florida.

Trump first raised the specter of fraud in August 2016. At the time, he trailed Hillary Clinton by about six points and seemed poised to lose the general election.

“We’re going to watch Pennsylvania. Go down to certain areas and watch and study and make sure other people don’t come in and vote five times,” Trump said. He added that “the only way we can lose, in my opinion — and I really mean this, Pennsylvania — is if cheating goes on.”

He was particularly concerned that “certain sections of the state” would cheat, he said — an obvious reference to long-standing claims that Mitt Romney had been cheated out of votes in Philadelphia in November 2012. Those claims remain unsubstantiated. In fact, the state had stipulated in July 2012 that there had been “no investigations or prosecutions of in-person voter fraud in Pennsylvania.”

Trump won Pennsylvania in November 2016 by a bit over 40,000 votes. At no point thereafter did he claim that Pennsylvanians had voted illegally in the race. In fact, when the similarly close results in Michigan that year spurred a demand for a recount in that state, Trump’s attorney stipulated in a court filing seeking to block the recount that “all available evidence suggests that the 2016 general election was not tainted by fraud or mistake.”

Nonetheless, Trump continued to insist that there had been fraud in the 2016 election: specifically in California, Virginia and New Hampshire, all states that he lost. He never really got into the Virginia situation much (although officials there quickly rejected it), but he repeatedly claimed that he lost in California and New Hampshire because there had been just enough fraud in those states to cost him a win.

In New Hampshire, the allegation was that thousands of people from out of state came across the border to vote for Clinton — a state that polls suggested Clinton was going to win anyway. No evidence of a massive influx of voters ever emerged. Later analysis of the voting in 2016 showed no evidence of illegal voting. Trump never recanted his allegation, of course.

In California, the allegations were both blurrier and broader. Trump uses the state as a foil on a range of issues, including immigration. His assertion about 2016 has been that his 4-million-vote loss in the state was due to immigrants in the country illegally, to people voting in multiple states or to people voting in the stead of people who had died.

That latter claim surfaced before the election, when Trump stumbled onto a report detailing the number of dead people who remain on voter rolls.

“People that have died 10 years ago are still voting,” Trump said at a rally in Green Bay in October 2016, later citing a report from the Pew Center on the States. “Illegal immigrants are voting. I mean, where are the street smarts of some of these politicians?”

The point of the report was that the voter rolls are messy and inefficient, not that fraud resulted from the presence of dead people on the rolls or because people moved between states. That people don't update their voter status before moving out of state and that people don't rush to alert the board of elections about the deaths of relatives is not a sign of fraud (as one of the study's authors made clear) — but just a function of normal human priorities.

Nonetheless, this has become a centerpiece of claims that elections are riddled with fraud. In the complete absence of evidence of widespread voter fraud schemes, the nebulous possibility of widespread fraud based on flawed voter rolls is substituted in. Trump has repeatedly elevated a lawsuit that forced Los Angeles County to clean up its voter rolls as evidence of fraud in the city, which is a bit like arguing that forcing hardware stores to send old crowbars to the landfill is proof that hardware stores were enabling burglaries.

When Texas’s then-acting secretary of state, David Whitley, last year claimed that tens of thousands of noncitizens had voted in his state, Trump quickly elevated the assertion. No evidence of rampant illegal voting by noncitizens has since emerged. What may have happened in many cases is that people who had indicated they were not citizens gained citizenship and then voted — given that tens of thousands of people in the state become citizens each year. It’s probably also worth noting that, if there was fraud in Texas, it didn’t do Democrats much good in statewide elections. (At other times, Trump has claimed that this alleged fraud never benefited him, although isolated cases in 2016 clearly did.)

Often, Trump’s assertions about voter fraud are vague, if not laughable. He has repeatedly claimed that people will go vote, leave, change clothes and then go vote again — something for which there is simply no evidence. It’s important, too, to recognize the difference between an incident and an effort to throw an election. Just as there’s a difference between one company that prints ballots sending 20 by accident to another state — an incident Trump elevated with a retweet over the weekend — and an attempt to run a massive fraud ring. People do vote illegally (intentionally or not) in most elections, but there’s only very, very rarely evidence that their doing so was a function of a broad scheme to alter the results.

One such scheme emerged in North Carolina in 2018. There, a consultant to a Republican congressional candidate had a team that allegedly collected mail-in ballots from various voters, often filling them out to the candidate’s benefit. The net effect probably was not enough to throw the election for the Republican, who won, but the state threw out the results anyway.

While voting experts do worry more about mail ballots than in-person voting, much of the focus has been on the latter. Why? Because adding more restrictions to voting in person tends to make it harder for groups that tend to vote Democratic. The new focus on mail-in ballots, spurred by the coronavirus pandemic, has seen Trump and his allies focusing on states like California, which vote Democratic, and less on states like Utah, where mail-in voting is common.

In February 2019, Trump offered a response to the alleged fraud in North Carolina: He equated it with the imaginary fraud he saw elsewhere.

“I condemn any voter fraud of any kind, whether it’s Democrat or Republican, but when you look at some of the things that happened in California in particular, when you look at what’s happened in Texas with all of those that they recently found that were not exactly properly done, I condemn all of it, and that includes North Carolina,” Trump said. “If anything, you know, I guess they’re going to be doing a final report, but I’d like to see the final report.”

Those weren't the only examples Trump used.

“I look at that catastrophe that took place in Florida, where the Republican candidates kept getting less and less and less and less, and fortunately Rick Scott and Ron [DeSantis] ended up winning their election, but it was disgraceful what happened there,” Trump said.

What happened was that legal votes were counted. To be fair, though, some disgraceful allegations were made.