The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

If there’s a conspiracy to swing the election, it’s one alleging, not committing, voter fraud

President Trump prepares to speak to the media Tuesday as he departs the White House for his last week of reelection campaigning. (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

It was fairly obvious back in July that President Trump was hoping to whip up enough of a fog around the validity of mail-in ballots that he could call for them to be rejected. The rationale for doing so was similarly obvious: Those votes were likely to favor former vice president Joe Biden, given that Democrats were much more likely to indicate that they planned to vote by mail. It’s a strategy as uncomplicated as it is undemocratic: Create a false sense of alarm, and then leverage that alarm to toss the votes.

Given the obviousness of it all, it’s sort of hard to believe that we’re still having to point out its obviousness. But here were are, six days before the election, again needing to reiterate key points. Mail-in votes are not and have never been a vehicle for rampant fraud. Counting votes for days or weeks after polls close is standard operating procedure. And the explicit way in which Trump and his allies are trying to generate a sense of uncertainty makes their intent clear.

Mail ballots aren’t subject to rampant fraud

We’ve been over this enough times (for example) that it might be useful to step back and consider what’s being claimed by the president.

He speculates, in essence, that there are thousands of people across the country who are part of an effort, coordinated or not, in which they submit illegal ballots that evade detection. That somehow each of these actors manages to obtain and submit a ballot that manages to both (1) be from a registered voter and (2) not duplicate an existing voter’s ballot. They also manage to do so in places where state leadership is often Republican and, presumably, more watchful of such activity.

It defies credulity on its face. An abstract “there’s lots of fraud” assertion is one thing. Sitting down and considering what that means, though, makes obvious how dumb it is. A group of a dozen or so people in Michigan allegedly planned to kidnap the state’s governor, and the feds ripped the plan apart. But they can’t dig up a massive electoral fraud ring?

Over the course of the year, we've seen two things happen. Claims that rampant (or even small-scale) fraud has been uncovered have been repeatedly debunked even as we get more evidence that mail-in ballots aren't subject to significant fraud at all.

To that latter point, consider a study from researchers at Stanford University published this week. The state of Washington has had mail-in ballots for years, so the team looked at the frequency of questionable votes cast on behalf of dead people — a staple of fraud allegations.

What did they find?

“Among roughly 4.5 million distinct voters in Washington state between 2011 and 2018, when we focus on cases where records match on full name including middle name,” the study states, “we estimate that there are 14 deceased individuals whose ballots were cast suspiciously long after their deaths, representing 0.0003% of voters.”

That is not rampant fraud.

Trump and his team just keep throwing out various incidents — ballots found in a ditch, ballots found in the garbage — as some sort of evidence that something suspicious happened. But time and time again, those allegations are shown to be false, overblown, misconstrued or simply irrelevant. A personal favorite was when White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany claimed that a mail truck that caught fire was evidence of fraud somehow, instead of simply being evidence of mail trucks catching fire a lot.

Counting votes takes awhile

It's not unusual for Trump to claim that something obviously not illegal is illegal, but on Tuesday he made a claim that nonetheless stands out in that regard.

“It would be very, very proper and very nice if a winner were declared on November 3rd, instead of counting ballots for two weeks, which is totally inappropriate,” Trump said to reporters, “and I don't believe that that's by our laws. I don't believe that.”

“That’s illegal!!!” is one of Trump’s favorite charges, a claim he makes about anyone and anything with which he disagrees. It’s a claim that is accurate with about the same frequency as those Stanford researchers found dubious ballots in Washington. Here, it’s obviously not: Counting ballots for weeks is, if anything, the norm, not something suspect.

To date, more than 70 million votes have been cast, about 42 million of them by mail. Those ballots take longer to count for two reasons. The first is that while voters at polling places are verified by staff on-site, mail ballots must be verified upon receipt. The second is that in-person votes are generally logged right into a tallying system, while mail ballots must be logged by elections officials. Those things take time.

What Trump is doing, probably willfully, is conflating the point at which we generally know who won an election with the point at which the final vote totals are confirmed.

For example, we can probably safely predict right now that California will vote for Joe Biden this year, a prediction that will almost certainly be validated at 11 p.m. Tuesday. Why? Because we know a lot about the state and its voters. We can watch as votes come in on election night and where they’re from and, barring something truly stunning, predict a winner. The media uses statistical analysis to predict with high confidence what will happen and, over the ensuing days or weeks, the votes are counted and almost always reinforce those predictions. (Former vice president Al Gore can explain how such predictions can err, should you ask him.)

This year, it will be much harder to call most states on election night because so many states will have mail-in ballots that need to be counted. This isn’t suspicious or a function of fraud in any way; it’s just a function of process. It also makes it harder to call a race on election night because there’s a lot more opacity about where the ballots are from and whom they might favor. All of that is why the media is taking pains to reinforce that people should expect a slower-than-normal determination of a winner.

In 2008, networks predicted Barack Obama’s victory at 11 p.m. Eastern, once polls closed on the West Coast. In 2016, it took longer, given a series of close contests. Several states critical to Trump’s victory weren’t called until well after Election Day. In early December, Trump was still tracking the recounts in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. It’s more important to be accurate than to be quick.

Unless accuracy isn't really your goal.

Trump and his allies are exacerbating the problem

One thing that might make it more likely that winners could be declared on Tuesday would be to start processing mail ballots now, reducing the number that need to be counted on or after Election Day. There are obvious reasons that doing so requires caution, but this is still a process that a number of states deploy to speed the determination of a winner.

But calls to start counting ballots early have fallen on deaf ears in the Republican-majority legislatures of Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Vote-counting in those states will take longer as a result.

That will give Trump plenty of opportunities to continue his claims that the votes are suspect and shouldn’t be counted. The reason is obvious. On the graph above, you can see that Democrats have both requested and returned more mail ballots than Republicans. This, again, reflects polling showing that Democrats are more likely to say that they plan to take advantage of early voting. A Post-ABC News poll released this month showed that 3 in 10 Democrats planned to vote by mail, compared with 13 percent of Republicans. It’s simple: Blocking those votes helps his campaign.

If you doubt he might do this, look at the election in Florida in 2018. There, his ally Rick Scott (R) was running for Senate. When returns showed a close race, Scott quickly alleged without an iota of evidence that ongoing vote-counting centered in more populous Democratic counties was rife with fraud. Trump amplified this nonsense, asserting that the results as of Election Day should stand. The count continued, and Scott won anyway. But Trump tipped his hand.

Again, he has allies. Wisconsin was the subject of a Supreme Court decision on Monday, overturning a lower court’s decision that ballots that arrive late could still be counted if they were postmarked by Election Day. In a concurrence with the decision, Trump-appointed Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh offered a mishmash of rationales for opposing the count. His arguments mostly ignored a central question: What if a ballot arrives late through no fault of the voter’s? His answer, in essence, was, “Oh, well.”

Thousands of ballots will unquestionably be thrown out for this reason. Changes to the postal system implemented by the new postmaster general in summer are ongoing and leading to broad delays in the delivery of mail. On Tuesday, a federal judge ordered that the U.S. Postal Service provide daily updates on its efforts to reverse the policies that led to the slowdown.

“USPS personnel are instructed to perform late and extra trips to the maximum extent necessary to increase on-time mail deliveries, particularly for Election Mail,” Judge Emmet Sullivan wrote. “To be clear, late and extra trips should be performed to the same or greater degree than they were performed prior to July 2020 when doing so would increase on-time mail deliveries.”

The new postmaster, Louis DeJoy, is a strong Trump supporter and major Republican donor. A former member of the Postal Service’s board of governors testified that Trump and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin had been overtly attempting to politicize the mail system — something he observed in April, before leaving the organization. DeJoy was appointed the following month.

If you're looking for evidence of a broad, concerted effort to throw the results of the election, the most likely culprit isn't some invisible hand controlling mail-in ballots. A more obvious focus should be the system supporting Trump's claims: state officials, the Post Office, the Supreme Court, the president's campaign. It's not necessarily the case that there's some central directive aligning all of these actors in the same direction. To a large extent, they were already aligned.

Trump’s just taking advantage of it.