But let’s set that important question aside for a moment. Even if Trump was just trying to make a point, does it make sense?
In many ways, it doesn't.
First, here’s what Trump said to WECT (Channel 6). He suggested that if the system works, people who voted absentee should be prevented from also then voting in person:
They will vote and then they are going to have to check their vote by going to the poll and voting that way, because if it tabulates, then they won’t be able to do that. So, let them send it in, and let them go vote. And if the system is as good as they say it is, then they obviously won’t be able to vote (at the poll). If it isn’t tabulated, they will be able to vote. So that’s the way it is, and that’s what they should do.
The Trump campaign’s cleanup work involved arguing that he was merely telling people to verify that their absentee vote had been counted. “President Trump encourages supporters to vote absentee-by-mail early, and then show up in person at the polls or the local registrar to verify that their vote has already been counted,” campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said.
Generally speaking, this is how the system should work. According to the North Carolina State Board of Elections, “If someone has voted an absentee ballot and then shows up to vote in person, the check-in system will alert the poll worker that the person has already voted.”
But there’s a giant caveat to this: the very real possibility that the absentee ballot hasn’t even been received or counted.
North Carolina, unlike some other states, begins counting absentee votes before Election Day — fully two weeks prior. So, if you vote by mail early, you should be flagged if you show up to also try to vote in person.
But North Carolina is also unlike some other states in another key way: It continues accepting absentee ballots after the election — until 5 p.m. three days after Election Day — as long as they are postmarked by Election Day. What’s more, an influx of an unusually high number of absentee ballots and recent postal delays could mean that many people who don’t send their absentee ballots early enough or simply wait until as late as Election Day won’t yet be registered as having voted absentee. There will be no way for poll workers to know the in-person voter was attempting to vote twice, because the absentee vote may not have been received.
That doesn’t mean their absentee vote won’t be counted or they won’t eventually get in trouble if they vote again. There are a number of examples of people being charged for voting twice in recent years, with most of them flagged well after the election. You’re not free-and-clear if you are allowed to cast a second ballot in person. North Carolinians, be warned.
An official with the Wisconsin Elections Board earlier in the year had a stern warning for people attempting just the thing Trump suggested.
“If you do that, you will be caught, and you will be prosecuted,” said the official, Reid Magney.
Wisconsin also cross-checks Election Day voters with absentee votes that have been counted, but that, again, doesn’t cover everyone.
Magney added: “You go to the polling place, you show them your ID, they have you sign the poll book. If later on they are processing absentee ballots, and there’s one for you there, that’s when they would look at the poll book and they would see, ‘Oh, wait, this person has already voted in person.' And so we know not to process that absentee ballot because we’ve already got a signature here on the poll book from that person.”
So, even if someone decides to heed Trump’s advice, it may not be nearly as edifying as they hope, and it may not even prove the point Trump was trying to prove. Even the watered-down version of his comments offered by his campaign — that he was merely telling people to verify that their absentee votes have been counted — doesn’t really make sense. At that point, people unfamiliar with these processes might wrongly believe their absentee vote has been lost forever, and might even think that allows them to vote in person.
And, ultimately, the joke might truly be on them.
Update: The North Carolina Board of Elections has now issued an extraordinary statement making clear that voting twice is a felony. It also notes that there are multiple safeguards in place against double-voting, and urges people not to show up in-person to verify the status of their absentee ballots, offering three methods of checking it online.
“The State Board office strongly discourages people from showing up at the polls on Election Day to check whether their absentee ballot was counted,” the elections board said. “That is not necessary, and it would lead to longer lines and the possibility of spreading COVID-19.”