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On repeated occasions, President Trump has embraced a contentious idea following a question posed by a journalist. Sometimes, too, he will seize on one presented by someone like Fox News’s Sean Hannity, as he did on Thursday.

The two were discussing Trump’s favorite subject of late, his untrue allegations that the 2020 election will be subject to massive electoral and voter fraud. While Trump’s recent focus has been mail-in balloting, Hannity mentioned an older favorite: the idea that in-person voting is suspect.

“Are you going to have poll watchers?” Hannity asked his friend during an interview clearly aimed at pulling viewers away from simultaneous coverage of the Democratic convention. “Are you going to have an ability to monitor, to avoid fraud and cross check whether or not these are registered voters? Whether or not there’s been identification to know that it’s a real vote from a real American?”

“We’re going to have everything,” Trump replied. “We’re going to have sheriffs, and we’re going to have law enforcement, and we’re going to have hopefully, U.S. attorneys, and we’re going to have everybody, and attorney generals. But it’s very hard.”

This, understandably, raised eyebrows. The president would send law enforcement to police polling stations? It’s a scenario that seems analogous to elections conducted by Eastern European strongmen, not by an elected official in the United States.

Speaking to reporters on Aug. 22, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said President Trump remarks on voting and n the 2020 election should be ignored. (Reuters)

There are a few things to keep in mind about this claim, though.

The first is that, like so many of Trump’s wild assertions, he has made it before. In August 2016, he gave a speech in Altoona, Pa., in which he pledged to combat what he presented as endemic fraud in the state.

“We have to call up law enforcement. And we have to have the sheriffs and the police chiefs and everybody watching,” he said then, later adding another familiar refrain, that “the only way they can beat [me] in my opinion — and I mean this 100 percent — is if in certain sections of the state they cheat, okay?”

When he made the claim at the time, though, there was a significant roadblock to the plan. The Republican Party had been restricted from dispatching poll watchers to precincts for more than 30 years, the result of a lawsuit filed by the Democrats in 1981. Why? Because the Republican National Committee was using “poll watchers” in an effort to intimidate non-White voters.

Here’s how the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit described what the party was doing:

The RNC allegedly created a voter challenge list by mailing sample ballots to individuals in precincts with a high percentage of racial or ethnic minority registered voters and, then, including individuals whose postcards were returned as undeliverable on a list of voters to challenge at the polls. The RNC also allegedly enlisted the help of off-duty sheriffs and police officers to intimidate voters by standing at polling places in minority precincts during voting with “National Ballot Security Task Force” armbands. Some of the officers allegedly wore firearms in a visible manner.

This is precisely the specter that Trump's comments raise.

Four years ago, though, the party (and, some argued, Trump’s campaign) could not actually implement his plan, given that the consent decree barring that activity was still in place. But in early 2018, the decree expired, potentially making Trump’s plan more feasible, should it be more than idle cable-news flexing.

If you accept the Hannity-Trump position that in-person voter fraud is a significant problem — which you shouldn't, because it demonstrably isn't — you might think sending cops to the polling places might make sense.

But then think about it a little more. What, exactly are they going to do? How is a sheriff going to identify “a real vote from a real American”? Stop people who look like they don’t belong there, possibly triggering a new consent decree? Arrest people who show up at the wrong polling place — as Trump did multiple times when he went to vote in 2004? Perhaps if you think in-person fraud is rampant, you think there are clear tells, like a guy wearing a false mustache asking for Mary Jones’s ballot. That doesn’t happen — in large part because it’s almost never the case that someone goes to a polling place in an effort to vote for someone else.

At this point, Trump defenders scramble to email me something about the 1960 presidential election or to send me a news article showing that in 1997 a guy in Tempe did precisely that. Sure, it has happened. It has also happened that people have been struck and killed by meteorites, but that doesn't mean you should wear a helmet every time you leave the house.

This is the sewer pipe that runs through the entire Trump-Hannity conversation. Fraud is not the threat that the pair asserts (to a large viewing audience), and the reason they claim that it is such a threat is solely to advocate for changes that would make it harder for Democrats to vote.

Hannity, true to form, offered misleading data to prove his point.

“This whole issue of mail-in balloting, the Heritage Foundation — I have it here in front of me — the sampling fraud cases across the country,” he said. “What they found is 1,088 proven instances of voter fraud, and that includes 949 criminal convictions.”

Here's the Heritage database. It includes somewhere around 1,000 examples of people committing a wide range of offenses, from voting illegally to giving homeless people cigarettes to sign voter applications — a likely function of organizations that pay staffers for hitting voter registration benchmarks. (This was what Hannity described as “a Skid Row scheme.”)

The database includes cases going back to 1982. While Heritage’s goal is to advocate for new rules restricting voting, its concerted effort to show the pervasiveness of fraud cobbled together, by its own tally, about 1,200 instances of electoral fraud, illegal signature gathering and illegal votes over four decades.

If all of those instances were illegal votes and all of them occurred only in 2016 and all of them occurred in a single state, it would not have been enough to swing the result in the presidential contest. It would have constituted 0.0009 percent of all of the votes cast that year.

But, again, this stretches back to the 1980s.

Trump, of course, accepted Hannity’s presentation. He went on to complain about mail-in voting, as he did in a tweet shortly before he went on the air.

“This will be the most fraudulent election in history. Fifty-one million ballots being sent to people,” he said. “Many of them will have been dead. Many of them will get more than one. But it’s going to be a really horrible thing. It’s just a horrible, horrible thing. And it's impossible to police.”

A few things about this. Those 51 million ballots will go to voters in states like California, where Trump received 4.5 million votes four years ago, and Utah, which he won. There will be ballots mailed to dead people, given that families selfishly decline to immediately inform their county registrars of voters the instant a loved one dies. And some people will get more than one ballot.

Top members of both parties have weighed in on one of the most pressing issues in the 2020 presidential election. (The Washington Post)

If you have ever read anything I’ve written on this subject, you know what’s coming next, and I, at least, will apologize for repeating myself. But this assertion that because voters will receive improper ballots, those ballots will necessarily lead to fraudulent ballots being submitted and accepted is ludicrous. The analogy I generally use is that nearly every home in America has a hammer, a device that could be used to break into a car. But very, very few hammers are used for that purpose, and, if someone gave you an extra hammer, the odds are low that you would then use that hammer to steal your neighbor’s Corolla.

There’s another level here, though. Trump is not only claiming that people will commit fraud but that it will go undetected. That there will be a rash of car thefts that no one picks up on.

Why would this be “impossible to police”? Because Trump doesn’t seem to know how it works.

“Fifty-one million ballots are going to [be] indiscriminately sent out to people that didn’t even ask for them, people that say, hey, I just got a ballot. That’s great. Let me vote,” Trump said later.

He gave examples.

“You have some of these states sending them out like Nevada where they don’t even have to check the signatures so anybody can sign it,” Trump said. “New Jersey just sent it where the governor, as I understand, has just signed an executive order, didn’t even go through the legislature to get it done.”

First: The legislation in Nevada that would send ballots to registered voters does require that signatures be checked. It’s one of a number of ways in which ballots are “policed” for irregularities. At other times, of course, Trump points to that policing as evidence of fraud, claiming that a large number of ballots being thrown out (generally for issues with postmarks or questions about signatures) is evidence that election results can’t be trusted.

Second: Trump's sudden opposition to executive orders will be news to President Trump.

Trump’s reelection campaign is still worried about Pennsylvania, by the way. It filed a lawsuit aimed at restricting measures in the state aimed at increasing the ability of voters to cast a ballot in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. The judge in the case made a simple request: If fraud is so rampant that it necessitates blocking these changes, it should be easy to turn up evidence of that fraud.

The campaign filed a 524-page response to that request. It reportedly included no evidence that fraud is a significant problem in the state. (In 2012, the state admitted as such in another legal filing.)

All of this comes back to the same point. Trump knows he’s losing, just as he believed he was losing Pennsylvania four years ago this month. So he creates this argument that gives him an out: There’s all this fraud, and that’s why we can’t trust the results! He probably believes this to some degree, which is alarming in itself, but it nonetheless provides an excuse, an excuse we know he will use since he used it even after he won in 2016.

In service to that argument, he takes Hannity’s suggestion and turns it up: Fraud is so bad that we need police to stand watch! That this reinforces concerns about his authoritarian tendencies probably never even enters his mind. That his party suffered three decades of punishment for doing this in the 1980s may not even be something he’s aware of.

None of that is important to Trump. What’s important is that people think that any loss in November was not because the majority of voters don’t like him.