A mountain of evidence shows that mail voting has been almost entirely free of fraud through the decades, but Trump insists that it’s a recipe for disaster.
These warnings about vote-by-mail are almost identical to the disinformation Russia is spreading to undermine confidence in the U.S. presidential election. “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 a Department of Homeland Security intelligence bulletin.
Election experts say that mail voting is slightly more vulnerable to fraud than voting in person but that both methods are trustworthy because of the safety measures state officials use to verify ballots.
“The truth is that after decades of looking for illegal voting, there’s no proof of widespread fraud,” Benjamin L. Ginsberg, a leading Republican elections lawyer who retired last month, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed Sept. 8. “At most, there are isolated incidents — by both Democrats and Republicans. Elections are not rigged.”
Some GOP strategists reportedly are worried Trump’s claims could boomerang on Republicans by depressing their voters’ participation. But it’s not just Trump. Attorney General William P. Barr and Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel have repeated these falsehoods.
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.”
Here’s a guide to the most outlandish claims from Trump and his allies. We’ve fact-checked them before, handing out numerous Pinocchios, but Trump and his allies keep repeating these falsehoods over and over. So caveat emptor, there is no excuse for believing anything the president says on this issue.
Mail voting is riddled with fraud
“Mail-In Ballots will lead to massive electoral fraud and a rigged 2020 Election. Look at all of the cases and examples that are out there right now.” (Trump tweet, July 2)
“Elections that have been held with mail have found substantial fraud and coercion.” (Barr interview on CNN, Sept. 2)
This is the key falsehood in Trump’s arsenal. But the evidence boils down to peanuts.
“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, according to the National Vote at Home Institute.
“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.
Trump established a presidential commission to investigate voter fraud in 2017, but it disbanded without finding any. A database maintained by the conservative Heritage Foundation, Ginsberg wrote in his op-ed, “has compiled every instance of any kind of voter fraud it could find since 1982. It contains 1,296 incidents, a minuscule percentage of the votes cast.”
In his CNN interview, Barr falsely said 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.” A single ballot was proven fraudulent in that case — and it was caught. A spokeswoman for Barr said he relied on a memo that contained an “inaccurate summary” of the Texas case, but the attorney general did not back down from his claim about “substantial fraud and coercion” in mail voting.
Foreign powers could spoof mail ballots
“You go to foreign countries — you know, they keep talking, ‘Oh, Russia and China and this.‘ Especially China, not Russia. Especially China. Are they going to print millions of ballots using the exact same paper, using the exact same machines? And are they going print ballots and then hand them in? And then, all of a sudden — it’s the biggest risk we have.” (Trump interview on “Hannity,” June 25)
“Foreign countries, they’re going to be printing their own ballots. … They’re going to take them out of the mailboxes. They’re going to take them from postmen. They’re going to print them fraudulently and foreign countries are going to print them.” (Trump interview, June 22)
“RIGGED 2020 ELECTION: MILLIONS OF MAIL-IN BALLOTS WILL BE PRINTED BY FOREIGN COUNTRIES, AND OTHERS. IT WILL BE THE SCANDAL OF OUR TIMES!” (Trump tweet, June 22)
“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 in trying to adopt, it does leave open the possibility of counterfeiting, counterfeiting ballots either by someone here or someone overseas.” (Barr interview on CNN, Sept. 2)
It’s not as simple as printing and mailing. Experts say it would be almost impossible to successfully counterfeit the ballots being prepared for November’s general election.
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.
For a granular look, NPR interviewed Jennifer Morrell, an elections consultant and former election official in Utah and Colorado. “Ballots are built unique for each election,” she said. “Each jurisdiction will normally have dozens to hundreds of unique ballot styles. Proofs for each ballot style are reviewed and tested to ensure the ballot scanners will read those ballots and only those ballots. Even ballots created on that system from a previous election cannot be read.”
Dozens of graphical details, candidate names, official seals, check boxes and bar codes would have to be copied perfectly, on dozens of different ballot designs — and that’s for each jurisdiction in the United States. On top of that, the hypothetical foreign nation would have to identify registered voters (who had not already voted by mail) and somehow forge their signatures.
“What would be the point of a counterfeit ballot if it will be counted only if it comes from a real voter?” Briffault said. “I don’t see how a counterfeit ballot gets around the voter verification process.”
“Let them send it in and let them go vote, and if their system’s as good as they say it is, then obviously they won’t be able to vote. If it isn’t tabulated, they’ll be able to vote. So that’s the way it is, and that’s what they should do.” (Trump interview in North Carolina, Sept. 2)
“So send it in early and then go and vote. You can’t let them take your vote away; these people are playing dirty politics. So if you have an absentee ballot … you send it in, but I’d check it, follow it and go vote.” (Trump to supporters in Wilmington, N.C., Sept. 2)
It’s illegal to vote more than once in an election, and in some states, it’s a felony. In response to Trump’s comments, Karen Brinson Bell, executive director of the North Carolina State Board of Elections, issued a statement noting that “attempting to vote twice in an election or soliciting someone to do so also is a violation of North Carolina law.”
Trump then tweeted that voters should “go to your Polling Place to see whether or not your Mail In Vote has been Tabulated (Counted). … If it has not been Counted, VOTE (which is a citizen’s right to do).”
North Carolina voters may check the status of their mail ballots online or by contacting local officials, as is the case in other states. “The State Board office strongly discourages people from showing up at the polls on Election Day to check whether their absentee ballot was counted. That is not necessary, and it would lead to longer lines and the possibility of spreading COVID-19,” Brinson Bell said.
At a campaign rally in Pennsylvania on Sept. 3, Trump doubled down on his comments. “These mail-in ballots are a disgrace and they know it,” he said. “Sign your mail-in ballot. Sign it and send it in and then you have to follow it. And if on Election Day or early voting, that is not tabulated and counted, you go vote.”
20 percent voter fraud in a New Jersey city
“So much time is taken talking about foreign influence, but the same people won’t even discuss Mail-In election corruption. Look at Patterson, N.J. 20% of vote was corrupted!” (Trump tweet, July 26)
Trump often points to Paterson, N.J., where a special election was held for several city council seats May 12. As part of its coronavirus response, New Jersey held all-mail elections for the first time that day. The state attorney general later announced that a sitting councilman, a former councilman and two others (all Democrats) had been charged with voter fraud after postal inspectors found hundreds of ballots stuffed in a Paterson mailbox.
The Passaic County Board of Elections rejected 3,190 ballots, about 19 percent of the mail-in ballots cast in Paterson’s race. The question is how many were connected to the fraud allegations. Trump says all of them were corrupted, but a county elections official told the Paterson Press that 2,300 ballots were rejected as “part of the normal process,” meaning they were disqualified for common reasons such as signature mismatches or arriving after the deadline.
“The Passaic County Board of Elections previously announced that it had decided not to count about 800 ballots because they allegedly were improperly bundled in mailboxes and would be turned over to law enforcement authorities for an investigation of potential irregularities,” according to the Paterson Press.
Doing the math, that means less than 5 percent of the 16,747 ballots cast in this race can be linked to the fraud allegations.
What would that look like in context? In an analysis of 31 local elections held the same day, New Jersey Spotlight found that 9.6 percent of ballots were rejected. “Most commonly, officials did not count ballots because the signature on the ballot did not match the one on file, the ballot arrived too late or the required certificate was not enclosed,” New Jersey Spotlight reported.
Officials are sending ballots to everyone
“You’re sending out hundreds of millions of universal, mail-in ballots — hundreds of millions. Where are they going? Who are they being sent to?” (Trump coronavirus briefing, July 30)
“But the mail-in ballots, they mail them to anybody. And they send them out by the millions.” (Trump interview on “Hannity,” June 25)
“Sending out 80 MILLION BALLOTS to people who aren’t even asking for a Ballot is unfair and a total fraud in the making.” (Trump tweet, Sept. 10)
All wrong. Ballots are not being mailed to anyone and everyone. Some states are mailing ballots to all registered voters, accounting for 51 million voters combined, according to a Post tally. In California alone, that means 20 million ballots will be mailed.
Other states, with a combined 44 million voters, are simply mailing ballot applications. In six states, in-person voting remains the only option unless voters provide an approved reason, such as a military deployment or illness, not related to fear of the novel coronavirus.
Democrats are trying to end signature verification
“Why would they want to ban requirements for signature verification in federal elections? Who would want a bill banning signature verification? What’s that all about? You know what it’s about? Fraud. That’s what they want: fraud. They want to try and steal this election because, frankly, it’s the only way they can win the election.” (Trump coronavirus briefing in Bedminster, N.J., Aug. 8)
False. Democrats are not trying to ban signature verification requirements for mail-in ballots.
What Democrats have introduced is a bill that says U.S. election officials must notify any voter whose signature was deemed deficient and give them an opportunity to fix it. That’s not a ban on signature verification.
Democrats also have sued individual states and, in some cases, have won a court-ordered remedy process for voters to clear up any signature mismatches. That’s not a ban, either.
Trump has not repeated this claim since we gave it Four Pinocchios.
Wendy R. Weiser, an election expert and vice president at the Brennan Center, previously told us that “the bigger problem is not forging signatures, but ballots being cast and not counted because the signature doesn’t match.” She cited “significant racial disparities” in rejecting ballots based on signature mismatches, with African Americans and other minorities more likely to have their votes discounted.
Absentee vs. mail-in ballots
“Absentee Ballots are fine. A person has to go through a process to get and use them. Mail-In Voting, on the other hand, will lead to the most corrupt Election is USA history. Bad things happen with Mail-Ins.” (Trump tweet, June 28)
“Like, I’m in White House, and I have to vote in Florida, et cetera, et cetera. You’re an absentee; that’s okay. But people go through a process for that. You know, they — it’s really pretty good. But the mail-in ballots, they mail them to anybody. And they send them out by the millions. I think I read over 30 million ballots are going to be sent out in California.” (Trump interview on “Hannity,” June 25)
“I have no problem with people — I voted by absentee ballot, not by mail, I actually went to the office to cast my vote, but absentee ballots are fine.” (Barr interview on CNN, Sept. 2)
A distinction without a difference. “Absentee ballots” and “mail-in ballots” are interchangeable terms. State officials use safeguards such as bar codes and signature matching to ensure the authenticity of all ballots cast by mail.
For the purposes of ballot verification, it makes no difference whether Barr mailed his absentee ballot or dropped it off in person. It doesn’t matter whether Trump had a commitment that prevented him from voting in person in Florida this year. Both had to identify themselves to register to vote and then submit ballots to local officials for verification. (CNN reported that Trump could have voted in Florida’s March 7 primary but was golfing in Palm Beach and mailed his ballot.)
Absentee voting began during the Civil War as an accommodation for soldiers outside their home states. Election officials began referring to the practice with other terms such as “advanced ballots,” “mailed ballots,” “vote-by-mail ballots” and “mail ballots” as more people were allowed to vote by mail for more reasons, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Aside from Trump, many other top administration officials vote by mail, and the Trump campaign has encouraged mail voting in some states.
Ballots are vulnerable, drop boxes unsafe
“So now we have a mail-in thing. And you see California — he’s sending out millions and millions of ballots. Where are they going? Where aren’t they going? Is the postman going to hand them out? Are they going to take them out of the mailboxes?” (Trump interview on “Hannity,” June 25)
“Some states use ‘drop boxes’ for the collection of Universal Mail-In Ballots. So who is going to ‘collect’ the Ballots, and what might be done to them prior to tabulation? A Rigged Election?” (Trump tweet, Aug. 17)
“So now the Democrats are using Mail Drop Boxes, which are a voter security disaster. Among other things, they make it possible for a person to vote multiple times. Also, who controls them, are they placed in Republican or Democrat areas? They are not Covid sanitized. A big fraud!” (Trump tweet, Aug. 23)
Let’s pause to note Trump’s mind-bending contradictions. The president who told people to vote twice falsely complained that secure drop boxes for ballots allow repeated voting. Trump denigrates mask-wearing, holds campaign events with no social distancing and encourages in-person voting over mail ballots during an infectious-disease pandemic, yet claims to be worried about unwiped mailboxes.
The claims are false or baseless. No matter how a mail-in ballot gets to an election office, the verification process is the same, so duplicate ballots or votes wouldn’t be recognized. Twitter has placed a warning that obscures Trump’s Aug. 23 tweet, labeling it misinformation.
Ballot drop boxes are usually fortified in some way, placed in secure locations such as courthouses or election agencies, cemented to the ground and placed under camera or staff surveillance. Only election officials have access to their contents. No evidence shows that these boxes disproportionately advantage one party over the other.
The U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) recommends that bipartisan teams of officials, equipped with special ballot-carrying bags, security seals, chain-of-custody forms and personal protective gear such as disposable gloves, collect ballots from drop boxes.
“A great example of using existing spaces comes from Madison, Wisconsin,” according to an EAC guidance document. “The city’s libraries were shut down owing to COVID-19. The City Clerk’s office decided to capitalize on locations that were already secure and located in places familiar to city residents. Working in partnership with the library, they used the book drops from three of the city’s public libraries and turned them into temporary ballot drop boxes.”
Democrats are trying to rig the election
“The Democrats are also trying to rig the election by sending out tens of millions of mail-in ballots, using the China virus as the excuse for allowing people not to go to the polls.” (Trump speech in Phoenix, June 23)
“Imagine a ballot being sent to a person regardless of eligibility, signed by someone else, picked up and delivered by a campaign operative, and still counted. Democrats are trying to legalize ballot harvesting nationwide.” (McDaniel tweet, June 23)
States governed by both Democrats (including California, Illinois and New York) and Republicans (including Alabama, Iowa and Nebraska) are expanding vote-by-mail this year to prevent the coronavirus from spreading. Utah, also governed by Republicans, is one of the five states that already held vote-by-mail elections before the pandemic.
In May, Trump falsely accused Nevada and Michigan state officials of breaking the law by expanding vote-by-mail for their primaries and threatened to pull some federal funding. It wasn’t clear he could do so, and Trump never followed through.
Michigan and Nevada are battlegrounds in the November elections, but they were not the only states planning to use absentee or mail-in ballots to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus for the primaries. For some reason, Trump did not tweet similar threats to Georgia, Iowa, Nebraska or West Virginia, several states doing the same thing as Michigan and Nevada, but where his reelection prospects are better.
‘Anybody that walks in California is going to get a ballot.’
“In California, the governor sent, I hear — or is sending — millions of ballots all over the state. Millions. To anybody. To anybody. People that aren’t citizens, illegals. Anybody that walks in California is going to get a ballot.” (Trump remarks during a discussion on diabetes, May 26)
“Think of it: California. He’s going to be sending out millions and millions of ballots. Well, where are they going? Where are these ballots going? Who’s getting them? Who is not getting them? A little section that’s Republican. Will they be stolen from mailboxes as they get put in by the mailman? Will they be taken from the mailmen and the mailwomen? Will they be forged? Who is signing them? Who’s signing them? What, are they signed on the kitchen table and sent in? Will they be counterfeited by groups inside our nation? Will they be counterfeited, maybe by the millions, by foreign powers who don’t want to see Trump win because nobody has been tougher on trade or making our country great again?” (Trump speech in Phoenix, June 23)
Trump’s disinformation campaign on vote-by-mail is built on easily debunked statements and wild speculation, throwing anything at the wall, as these comments show.
He often describes California, the most populous U.S. state, as ground zero for a looming voter fraud scandal. California is mailing ballots only to registered voters, about 20 million total. Undocumented immigrants cannot register to vote, and the Democrats who govern the state are not proposing to give them voting rights.
The Pinocchio Test
This is a breathtaking onslaught on the truth and the integrity of an upcoming U.S. election. We expect it from Russia, especially after the copious evidence of its disinformation campaign in 2016 to benefit Trump. But to see it emanate from the president of the United States, the attorney general and the head of the Republican Party is nothing short of stunning.
Every one of these claims earns Four Pinocchios.
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