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Attorney General Barr’s false claims about voting by mail

President Trump and Attorney General William P. Barr on Sept. 1. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

“Elections that have been held with mail have found substantial fraud and coercion. For example, we indicted someone in Texas — 1,700 ballots collected from people who could vote, he made them out and voted for the person he wanted to.”

— Attorney General William P. Barr, in an interview on “The Situation Room” on CNN, Sept. 2, 2020

Both statements are false. No one was indicted on a charge of casting 1,700 fraudulent ballots, and voter fraud is so rare in the United States, researchers describe it as a statistical blip whether the ballots are cast in-person or by mail.

President Trump has warned for months that malign forces could corrupt the November election by exploiting mail-in ballots. The president falsely portrays some states’ voting procedures during the coronavirus pandemic as an urgent security breach.

The reality is states are expanding vote-by-mail this year to prevent the spread of the coronavirus at traditional polling locations. Election experts say voting by mail presents a slightly bigger risk of fraud than in-person voting, but both methods are considered trustworthy because of the safety measures state officials use to verify ballots.

In his CNN interview, Barr defended Trump’s ominous warnings about the risks of an expansion in mail voting. But if the attorney general’s best defense relies on falsehoods, how good can it be?

The Facts

Experts said it was false for Barr to assert that “elections that have been held with mail have found substantial fraud and coercion.”

“There is, of course, evidence of some absentee ballot fraud, just as there is for in-person fraud, although in both cases it is quite minimal — a handful out of hundreds of millions of votes cast over the last two decades,” said Richard Briffault, a professor and elections expert at Columbia Law School.

Five states — Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington — use mail ballots as the primary method of voting. In 2018, more than 31 million Americans voted by mail, representing one-quarter of election participants.

“Despite this dramatic increase in mail voting over time, fraud rates remain infinitesimally small,” according to the Brennan Center for Justice. “None of the five states that hold their elections primarily by mail has had any voter fraud scandals since making that change.”

A Washington Post analysis of data collected by three vote-by-mail states with help from the nonprofit Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC) found that officials identified 372 possible cases of double voting or voting on behalf of deceased people out of about 14.6 million votes cast by mail in the 2016 and 2018 general elections, or 0.0025 percent.

Another analysis over a longer period also found a very low rate of fraud. “There were 491 prosecutions related to absentee ballots in all elections nationwide between 2000 and 2012, out of literally billions of ballots cast,” Richard L. Hasen, an elections expert at the University of California at Irvine, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed.

State election officials use multiple safeguards to verify that mail ballots are authentic. Most states have bar codes printed on their mail ballots. When a completed ballot arrives, election officials scan the bar code to link it with the corresponding voter in the system. Duplicate ballots from the same voter wouldn’t be recognized by the system.

In addition, voters must follow specific instructions to return a ballot received in the mail, such as signing an affidavit. Officials typically compare the signature on the ballot with the one in the registration and may discard ballots with mismatched signatures.

During a House Judiciary Committee hearing, the attorney general expressed doubts about the security of mail-in balloting for the 2020 presidential election. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

We asked the Justice Department about Barr’s claim that a man was indicted in Texas for collecting “1,700 ballots … from people who could vote, he made them out and voted for the person he wanted to.”

Kerri Kupec, a spokeswoman for Barr, sent us an article from 2017 about a Texas man, Miguel Hernandez, who was indicted on a felony charge by a state grand jury. He was accused of forging a woman’s signature on a mail-in ballot in a Dallas City Council race, as the article says.

“Investigators in the case believe Hernandez is responsible for at least one of the tainted mail-in ballots discovered in the District 6 City Council election,” the Dallas Observer article said. “In that race, about 700 voters’ ballots were turned in bearing the name Jose Rodriguez as having assisted the voter in filling out the ballot.” (The chief investigator on the case had said he believed “Jose Rodriguez” was a pseudonym.)

In 2018, Hernandez pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge and was sentenced to six months in jail. The Dallas Morning News reported: “Hernandez was accused only in the 2017 election. He visited a woman in April 2017 and took her blank absentee ballot. He filled it out and forged her signature before mailing it in, court records show. The woman contacted the district attorney’s office about the incident. She identified Hernandez from a photo lineup.”

This Texas case proves a single ballot was fraudulent — not 1,700, as Barr claimed — and it was caught.

The Post reported that “the assistant district attorney on that case said Barr’s description doesn’t match the facts” and that the 700 ballots in the Dallas race were not all cast for one candidate. Kupec said in a statement for that article: “Prior to his interview, the Attorney General was provided a memo prepared within the Department that contained an inaccurate summary about the case which he relied upon when using the case as an example.”

The Fact Checker asked whether Barr thought the Texas case nonetheless was evidence of “substantial fraud and coercion” in mail voting and received no response.

Barr added on CNN: “I’m saying people are concerned about foreign influence, and if we use a ballot system with a system that some — that states are just now trying to adopt, it does leave open the possibility of counterfeiting, counterfeiting ballots either by someone here or someone overseas.”

Another falsehood, Briffault said.

“Not only are there bar codes on the ballot, but the ballot won’t be accepted unless it is from a registered voter, whose name and signature are verified by elections officials,” he said. “What would be the point of a counterfeit ballot if it will be counted only if it comes from a real voter? The two principal reasons mail-in ballots are not accepted is that they arrive late or that election officials conclude the signature on the ballot doesn’t match the one on file for the voter. I don’t see how a counterfeit ballot gets around the voter verification process.”

As CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer kept fact-checking Barr in real time, the attorney general argued that Democrats and the media considered the risks of voting by mail to be more serious before Trump took office.

“Well, this is a, you know, sort of cheap talk to get around the fundamental problem, which is, a bipartisan commission chaired by Jimmy Carter and James Baker said back in 2009 that mail-in voting is fraught with the risk of fraud and coercion,” Barr said.

The Commission on Federal Election Reform issued its report in 2005, not 2009. Oregon had already shifted to vote-by-mail elections. While the Carter-Baker commission found that voting by mail “increases the risk of fraud,” the report immediately goes on to say, “Oregon appears to have avoided significant fraud in its vote-by-mail elections by introducing safeguards to protect ballot integrity, including signature verification.”

A statement from the Carter Center, issued in May, says: “The commission’s main recommendations on vote-by-mail and absentee voting were to increase research on vote-by-mail (and early voting) and to eliminate the practice of allowing candidates or party workers to pick up and deliver absentee ballots. Fortunately, since 2005, many states have gained substantial experience in vote-by-mail and have shown how key concerns can be effectively addressed through appropriate planning, resources, training, and messaging.”

“I urge political leaders across the country to take immediate steps to expand vote-by-mail and other measures that can help protect the core of American democracy — the right of our citizens to vote,” Carter said in the statement.

The day after Barr’s CNN interview, the Department of Homeland Security issued an unclassified intelligence bulletin warning that Russia is seeking to undermine confidence in U.S. elections by spreading the same kinds of claims about mail voting as Trump and Barr.

“Since March 2020, Russian state media and proxy websites have denigrated vote-by-mail processes, alleging they lack transparency and procedural oversight, creating vast opportunities for voter fraud,” according to the DHS bulletin, obtained by ABC News.

The Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee, in its report about Russian election disinformation, recommended: “Sitting officials and candidates should use the absolute greatest amount of restraint and caution if they are considering publicly calling the validity of an upcoming election into question. Such a grave allegation can have significant national security and electoral consequences, including limiting the response options of the appropriate authorities, and exacerbating the already damaging messaging efforts of foreign intelligence services.”

The Pinocchio Test

Barr stated on CNN: “Elections that have been held with mail have found substantial fraud and coercion. For example, we indicted someone in Texas — 1,700 ballots collected from people who could vote, he made them out and voted for the person he wanted to.”

Neither claim is true. Elections held by mail in the United States have been almost entirely free of fraud. Ask the five states that use mail ballots as their primary method of voting. None reports any issues. The Texas case Barr cited as proof involves one fraudulent ballot, which was caught, not 1,700.

Barr earns Four Pinocchios.

Four Pinocchios

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