The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s barrage of new claims of voter fraud have been disproved

A U.S. Postal Service worker removes mail from a drop box in San Francisco on Aug. 17. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg News)

In the last interview that President Trump gave before entering the hospital to receive treatment for covid-19, he spent far less time talking about his health than he did about what he sees as the real threat looming over the country: alleged voter fraud.

He warned his friend Sean Hannity that it could take days or weeks to know the results of the November election, which is accurate, given the need to count votes submitted by mail. Then he shifted to this purported fraud, which he seemed to imply would further muck up the works.

“There will be [fraud],” he told Hannity. “Just take a look at New York. Take a look at the ones — the ballots that were thrown into a garbage can and they all had the Trump name on it. They were military ballots that were thrown into the garbage can. The ones that were on a tray, and they were thrown into a creek or a river. It’s a terrible thing.

“And if you look at Carolyn Maloney, what they did to that guy that ran against her, it's a disgrace,” he continued. “That's in New York. And that's only for a congressional race. They have no idea where the votes are, where the ballots are. This is going to be all over. This is in Virginia. This is in New Jersey. It's a very, very sad thing."

Trump’s ploy here is transparent. Allege rampant fraud, bolstering the case with whatever examples present themselves. Then use those allegations as justification to fight any effort to count ballots after Election Day, ballots which polling has repeatedly suggested will benefit his opponent. This is why Trump says flatly that there will be fraud — any insinuation that there isn’t undermines both his future and current arguments. (In North Carolina, for example, his campaign is pressuring county elections officials to ignore counting rules with the rationale that doing so protects voter intent.)

There’s another point worth making here, too: None of the claims of fraud made by Trump in the above rant is an example of fraud.

“Just take a look at New York,” Trump said, an apparent reference to the primary race that Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) won. Trump has repeatedly conflated the slow count in that race — a function of an increase in absentee ballots — as somehow indicative of fraud. He claims to be defending Suraj Patel, Maloney’s opponent, who had called for fewer disputed ballots to be discarded as the count continued. But Patel himself rejects Trump’s framing.

Later, Trump claimed that “they have no idea where the votes are, where the ballots are” in that race. That’s not true: They know where the votes are; Patel just wanted those votes to be counted despite their being rejected. They were rejected, of course, due to a process specifically meant to screen out fraud — a process which is arguably too aggressive at rejecting valid votes

Trump then talked about military ballots being thrown in a garbage can. This refers to an incident in (Trump-friendly) Luzerne County, Pa., where ballots were, in fact, discarded. After being briefed on the incident by Attorney General William P. Barr (county officials looped in the Justice Department out of an abundance of caution), Trump first revealed the incident in a radio interview.

But here, too, there's no evidence of fraud, according to Pennsylvania's secretary of state.

“The investigation is still going on, but from the initial reports we’ve been given, this was a bad error,” Kathy Boockvar said. “This was not intentional fraud. So training, training, training.”

“While the actions of this individual has cast a concern, the above statement shows that the system of checks and balances set forth in Pennsylvania elections works,” Luzerne County Manager C. David Pedri said in a statement last month. “An error was made, a public servant discovered it and reported it to law enforcement at the local, State and Federal level who took over to ensure the integrity of the system in place.”

After the military ballots, Trump described as a “terrible thing” ballots that “were on a tray, and they were thrown into a creek or a river.” This is an inaccurate description of an allegation that absentee ballots in Wisconsin were found in a ditch.

But that, too, is false. The mail that was discovered didn't include any ballots.

Trump revisited Maloney’s race before declaring that fraud is happening in Virginia and New Jersey. The former is apparently a reference to an effort from a nonprofit group — not the state — to provide voters with absentee ballot applications, an effort which included return envelopes addressed to the wrong government entity. We’ll note here that Trump’s initial mention of New York in his Hannity comments might have been a reference to a similar situation that affected thousands of absentee ballots sent from a third-party vendor by elections officials.

In neither case, though, is there any evidence of fraud. Nor is there any suggestion that the reported errors would facilitate any systematic effort to throw the results of the presidential race. Among other things, if Democrats are engaging in a large-scale illegal effort to throw the vote in a state Trump lost by 22 points, they're making a number of big mistakes.

The New Jersey example isn't new to Trump's rhetoric. There is an active criminal investigation into potential fraudulent behavior in a relatively small local race earlier this year. A new election has been ordered.

Trump has at times gone further, though, claiming that the number of ballots that were rejected, about a fifth of those submitted by mail, are indicative of a problem. Again, though, those rejections are a manifestation of a response to potential fraud, not evidence of fraud itself.

“It was a local election in Paterson,” Gov. Phil Murphy (D) said in an interview in August. “Some guys tried to screw with the system. I view it as a really positive data point. They got caught."

In other words, Trump’s repeated fraud allegations come down to broad insinuations, unfounded allegations or questions about hundreds of votes in the race for Paterson, N.J.'s, Third Ward city council seat. To some extent, this is itself the strategy: throw out a flurry of scary-sounding claims that are only debunked later, whipping up a dust storm of uncertainty that even if proved false contributes to the sort of turmoil Trump is relying on to contest mail-in ballots.

“Hopefully, we can win by a lot,” Trump told Hannity, “because I have no doubt that they’re going to be doing a number. I have no doubt about it. And the press knows that, too. You know, they act so — so sacrosanct. They act, oh, it’s so terrible. He’s talking about our democracy. They know what’s going on. It’s really a shame."

The press does know what’s going on, and it is, in fact, a shame.