— President Trump, during a speech full of falsehoods about the presidential election, Dec. 2
The president’s 46-minute rant on the presidential election was filled with dozens of falsehoods, most of which we have previously checked. But he included one new claim that caught our interest. In contrast to many of the statements Trump makes, this one is not entirely made up from whole cloth.
Let’s take a look.
The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment, but it appears that Trump’s assertion is based on a detailed report issued in August by John R. Lott, who is normally known for his pro-gun research. The 140-page report examines the voting rules in 43 European countries, as well as the rules for developed members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
Separately, a later report was issued in October by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), a key democracy nongovernmental organization in Sweden. The report was written by Anika Heinmaa, a research assistant at the group’s regional Europe Program in Brussels.
Broadly speaking, both reports found that many European countries at this point do not yet allow mail-in ballots, although the ban is not nearly as sweeping as Trump claimed. There are some contradictions between the reports as well, with Lott listing Sweden as allowing absentee voting and IDEA saying it does not.
Graeme Orr, an international elections expert at the TC Beirne School of Law of Australia’s University of Queensland, said in an email that the International IDEA report shows that Trump’s claim is “seriously misleading, and cherry picking data.”
“Currently, 14 countries in Europe provide in-country postal voting opportunities to voters,” Heinmaa said in an email. “In eight of these countries, all voters are eligible, and in six only voters in certain outlined categories may vote.”
Heinmaa’s report includes a helpful map that color-codes the countries, with dark green showing the countries with unrestricted mail-in voting. The United Kingdom, Germany, Switzerland and Spain are among the major countries that allow mail-in voting, but you can see that most countries do not. According to her report, other countries that have unrestricted voting include Iceland, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg and Poland. The report also has maps showing rules for early voting, mobile voting and proxy voting.
In Switzerland, where some studies say postal votes account for 90 percent of all votes in the country, all eligible voters are sent ballots, which they can either send in by mail or bring to polling booths, weeks before elections. In some regions, voters can also cast ballots online.
“The maps in the report show clearly more than two — and some very prominent Western European nations — have in-country postal voting,” Orr said. “Germany, the U.K. and Poland alone — three big E.U. democracies — allow any elector to vote by mail (albeit Poland may have extended this for covid periods). The countries that don’t, you will see, also invariably offer mobile voting (a.k.a. ‘visitor voting’) to ensure the frail, hospitalized, disabled etc. can vote. Some, like the U.K., have not just in-country postal voting but ‘proxy’ voting — a general right to send, say, a relative to vote on your behalf!”
The International IDEA report does not list the individual country rules for voter ID, although it notes that “in granting the voter this flexibility, the risks of voter identification and physical transport of the vote are more acute. To guarantee postal voting, it is essential that voter identification and authentication are carried out in a reliable way.”
We have no idea what Trump means by the need to show a “very, very powerful ID.” Orr believed it refers to the fact that “many continental countries have ‘papers’ — all citizens are issued a national ID. This is an administrative and cultural practice way wider than elections. It is egalitarian, if illiberal.” (Among countries that allow mail-in balloting, Iceland and Britain do not issue national identity cards to their citizens.)
Orr said that because national ID cards are universally required, they cannot be viewed as the same as voter ID requirements in the United States. “Some U.S. states of course are notorious in having voter ID requirements that differentiate between types of ID that are less accessible — or impose difficulties on — some groups in the population,” he said.
In most cases, some sort of identification is required.
Spain requires display of the national identity card to obtain an absentee ballot, according to the election law. Iceland requires “producing an identification document or an ID card, or by satisfying the opinion of the election official in another manner,” according to the election law. Luxembourg allows anyone to vote by mail, but voters need to first obtain a poll card, which requires an ID or passport, according to the election law.
Another issue is that many governments have not yet had to confront the question because major elections have not been scheduled (or have been rescheduled) during the pandemic.
Lott does not include Poland on his list of countries allowing absentee voting, whereas IDEA does, but his report notes that Poland will allow mail-in ballots for elections this year. France has banned voting by mail since 1975 over fraud concerns, but Politico reported that “the record turnout in the U.S. general election has reignited the debate around voting by mail.” France, however, allows voting by proxy.
Update, Dec. 14: Lott confirmed that his inclusion of Sweden was in error. But he also raised concerns that International IDEA had mistakenly included Iceland and Montenegro. Heinmaa responded that upon investigation, Montenegro should not have been included, but “Iceland does provide postal voting, though in a slightly unconventional fashion...citizens must go to the municipality themselves to receive the postal ballot package, and they have the option of having the municipality send it, or may post it themselves." She added that the Netherland recently allowed people over the age of 70 to vote by post in upcoming elections in March.
The Pinocchio Test
Maybe because Trump was speaking from a prepared script, his remarks had a bit of caveat — it sounded like he said only two countries in Europe allowed mail-in ballots for people who reside in the country, but then he added that others also require “a very, very powerful ID.”
But that’s a red herring, given that many of these countries have national ID cards. It also ignores the fact that countries have other ways to accommodate voters who cannot go to the polls, such as proxy voting. In the end, it’s clear that some of the largest countries in Europe, such as Britain, Germany, Spain and Poland, allow voters to cast ballots by mail.
We wavered between Two and Three Pinocchios but ultimately settled on Three. The president could have framed his statement by simply saying, correctly, that most countries in Europe do not allow absentee voting, as opposed to suggesting it was only two that do — especially because he prefaced this statistic with the line: “No other advanced country conducts elections this way.”
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