At some point it becomes blurry whether President Trump is defending a position because he believes it or because he refuses to lose the debate. He has been claiming for four years that American elections are subject to massive, widespread voter fraud, for example, and continues to make those claims despite a complete lack of evidence. Yes, some fraud occurs, but that doesn’t mean that it occurs widely, much less without detection.

This is an important distinction, so it’s worth reiterating. It is the case that your car could be stolen. Auto theft exists. There are even local gangs who steal cars regularly and sell them for parts. It is not the case, though, that there exists a national ring of car thieves who operate without detection, purloining and selling millions of cars a year. That auto theft exists does not strengthen the argument that auto theft exists at a scale in which the system of auto ownership is imperiled.

In the past few months, Trump’s refined his allegations about fraud to center on the idea that an increase in voting by mail in November, spurred by the coronavirus pandemic, will lead to rampant abuse. Over and over, he’s alleged that there will be massive electoral fraud as a result of the mail-in process, hyping anecdotes of small problems (mismailed ballots and isolated fraudulent ballots) or sweeping assertions of risk (foreign actors dumping ballots in the United States) to disparage the process broadly. He seems to think that mail-in voting favors Democrats, something not supported by research.

On Sunday, Trump elevated a new example to bolster his argument: the recent municipal elections in Paterson, N.J.

Not for the first time, Trump is drawing a distinction between absentee voting — in which someone requests, receives and submits a ballot — and mail-in voting, in which someone receives and submits a ballot. The president does this in part because he and many of his aides have repeatedly voted absentee, so he’s highlighting the difference in part to deflect accusations of hypocrisy. But he also seems to think that sending out ballots automatically erodes the checks on validity that apply to absentee ballots in general.

That is a nice point of transition to Paterson. The city held its regular city council elections in the middle of May, entirely by mail given the pandemic. While in the three prior municipal elections the city had just over 9,000 ballots cast by mail, nearly 17,000 were cast this year. It was nonetheless the lowest turnout election in the city since at least 2014.

This isn’t a new concern in Paterson. In the 2010 election, a candidate who narrowly won election to the council was accused of fraud, though a judge found no evidence that election fraud had occurred. Eventually, the candidate was charged with participating in a ballot-harvesting program and, later, with coaching witnesses. In 2018, an increase in the number of mail-in ballots cast again raised concerns about fraudulent activity, though that was at least in part an effort by candidates to set the table for raising later objections to the outcome (as Trump appears to have been doing in 2016 when he first raised the issue).

This year, there has been clear evidence of improper activity. New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal announced charges against three men, including one of the election’s winners, focused on election fraud. There has been anecdotal evidence of bundled ballots, suggesting an improper harvesting operation.

The result? Nearly a fifth of the mail-in ballots cast in the election were rejected by the Passaic County Board of Elections, a sharply higher percentage than in any of the past three elections and nearly twice the number rejected two years ago.

According to the Paterson Press, the nearly 3,300 ballots thrown out were roughly split into three groups: those rejected because signatures on the ballot didn’t match the signature on file, those rejected for problems with the section filled out by a person submitting the ballot on another person’s behalf (the “bearer”) and those rejected for other reasons.

It’s important to note two things about those numbers.

The first is that the rejected ballots do not necessarily demonstrate proved fraud. Trump touts the idea that this 19 percent of ballots was evidence of fraud, though that’s not demonstrably the case. Some of those involved in the issue argue, in fact, that the high rejection rate is a function of the intense focus on rooting out any possibly fraudulent ballots. One candidate, for example, claims to have identified 100 people whose ballots were rejected for “bearer” problems but who say they submitted the ballots themselves, perhaps because they were mailed from mailboxes also used in apparent harvesting operations.

That’s the second point: The rejected ballots are evidence, if anything, that fraud is detectable.

About a thousand of the ballots were tossed because of mismatched signatures. Last week, we spoke to an expert on forgery who pointed out how hard that part of any fraud attempt would be to successfully execute, particularly without any existing examples of a voter’s signature.

“[W]hen someone tries an absentee ballot scheme like this clumsy attempt in Paterson it is hard to hide,” elections expert Rick Hasen wrote in a blog post about the Paterson questions. He compared it to the effort in 2018 to swing a congressional race in North Carolina using apparent election fraud — an effort that resulted in the results being thrown out and the election rerun.

In that case, the candidate who benefited from the apparent fraud was a Republican. And, in that case, Trump didn’t talk much about the alleged fraud.

One of the few comments he made about it was when he was asked about it specifically in February 2019.

“I condemn any voter fraud of any kind, whether it’s Democrat or Republican,” he said as part of his response, “or 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 votes that they recently found were not exactly properly done, I condemn all of it. And that includes North Carolina.”

He also mentioned the “catastrophe that took place in Florida” the prior year, in which absentee ballots narrowed the margins of victory that Republican candidates for the Senate and governor saw the night of the election. But both still won and an investigation later found no evidence of fraud.

There was no evidence of rampant fraud in California, either, not in 2016 and not in 2018. The allegation he makes about Texas stems from a prematurely announced investigation into possible voting by noncitizens. It was later shown to be broadly overstated. The one example of a systematic effort to throw an election that was shown to be valid was the one Trump didn’t really want to talk about.

It’s important to reinforce, too, that the number of ballots at stake in Paterson was significantly more modest than what Trump has alleged has been at stake nationally. Nineteen percent of 17,000 ballots is 3,200-odd votes. If he foresees a similar rate of “fraud” nationally in November, he’s saying that he thinks 26 million ballots will be cast fraudulently, based on 2016 turnout.

Cars are stolen. There are even local operations that steal cars and sell them. There is not a national effort to steal hundreds of thousands of cars and sell them without detection — and if you were to suggest that there were, people would understandably consider your claim with skepticism.

If you further suggested that people feloniously stole and sold the cars simply on the off chance that they might receive some indirect benefit from doing so, that skepticism would justifiably increase.