The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s latest — and final? — voter fraud Hail Mary

President Trump watches Marine One from the Truman Balcony as he returns home after receiving treatment for covid-19 in October. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

President Trump and his allies have spent nearly two months throwing voter-fraud claims against the wall and hoping they stick, only to see all of the strands quickly fall to the ground courtesy of the courts.

But with a week to go before Congress accepts the results of the 2020 electoral college on Jan. 6, the Trump team has landed upon what appears to be its last stand -- or, perhaps more accurately, last strand: alleging there were more votes than actual voters in Pennsylvania.

The claim is characteristically dubious.

For a few days now, Trump and his allies have made this allegation. It was initially and frequently misunderstood as them saying there were more votes than registered voters in Pennsylvania. The nearly 7 million votes in the state is, in fact, far fewer than the 9 million registered voters. Easily debunked, it would seem.

But the allegation is actually different than that: It’s about a supposed discrepancy between real 2020 voters and actual votes counted. On Monday, some GOP state lawmakers in Pennsylvania issued a news release alleging that, while nearly 7 million votes were counted, just 6.8 million people were recorded as actually having voted.

Since Nov. 4, President Trump has repeatedly claimed his election loss as a result of massive fraud. The following is a roundup of his claims. (Video: The Washington Post)

State Rep. Frank Ryan (R) spearheaded the effort, leaning on his background as a certified public accountant — a person who, ostensibly, understands data:

A comparison of official county election results to the total number of voters who voted on November 3, 2020 as recorded by the Department of State shows that 6,962,607 total ballots were reported as being cast, while DoS/SURE system records indicate that only 6,760,230 total voters actually voted. Among the 6,962,607 total ballots cast, 6,931,060 total votes were counted in the presidential race, including all three candidates on the ballot and write-in candidates.

That would be a gap of about 200,000 voters.

Until Tuesday morning, the claim was promoted mostly by credulous websites that did nothing to fact-check it and the conspiracy-theory site Gateway Pundit. But Newsmax is now citing the release, and Fox News’s “Fox & Friends” made a brief mention of it Tuesday morning, and Trump and his campaign quickly seized upon it.

Trump didn’t just cite the data; he also baselessly alleged that all 200,000 supposed excess votes accrued to Joe Biden’s benefit — enough to overturn the incumbent’s 80,000-vote deficit.

Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh then promoted a credulous, local report regurgitating the GOP lawmakers’ news release. He challenged the media to “look into this." Fellow top GOP spokespeople also joined in.

The apparent explanation for this is actually rather simple, and it’s the same as many of Trump allies’ claims about supposed voter fraud and allegedly inflated coronavirus death tolls: It’s based on incomplete and lagging data.

The office of Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar (D) released a statement Monday labeling the claim “misinformation.” The news release from the GOP lawmakers didn’t actually detail the data beyond the raw numbers, so it’s not even clear what those figures are based upon, and Ryan didn’t respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

But the reference to Pennsylvania’s SURE (Statewide Uniform Registry of Electors) appears to refer to data on the vote history of registered voters. Boockvar’s office said that this often lags behind actual election results, because it relies upon counties uploading the data. And it said that data from some big counties -- including those based in the urban centers of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh -- remain incomplete.

“ … The only way to determine the number of voters who voted in November from the SURE system is through the vote histories,” Boockvar’s office said. “At this time, there are still a few counties that have not completed uploading their vote histories to the SURE system. These counties, which include Philadelphia, Allegheny, Butler and Cambria, would account for a significant number of voters.”

Indeed, the voter turnout on those four counties’ websites matches the vote totals recorded by the Pennsylvania secretary of state’s website. The SURE system provides a more detailed version of each voter’s history in an expansive database (i.e. about 8 million records), which could account for slower processing.

What’s more, the number of county-by-county vote totals in the presidential race on the secretary of state’s website matches the overall vote totals.

Even the state GOP lawmakers’ news release notes that “three small rural counties have not fully posted results online” and that, thus, the totals aren’t complete. Why not allow for the possibility of other data also being incomplete, particularly data involving extensive voting histories?

It’s also worth emphasizing that, while the news release was signed on to by more than a dozen state GOP lawmakers, the vast majority of Pennsylvania Republicans did not join in the effort.

“This obvious misinformation put forth by Rep. Ryan and others is the hallmark of so many of the claims made about this year’s presidential election,” Boockvar’s office said. “When exposed to even the simplest examination, courts at every level have found these and similar conspiratorial claims to be wholly without basis.

“To put it simply, this so-called analysis was based on incomplete data.”

This kind of claim has been recycled over and over in the frantic search for supposedly widespread voter fraud. A much-hyped affidavit filed by Trump allies in court, for instance, cited data on estimated voters in Michigan that was actually from Minnesota, it mistook the data to be about total registered voters, and it failed to account for the lag in reporting such data. In another instance, Trump and others claimed that many more mail ballots were counted in Pennsylvania than were actually sent out, but the latter number was actually from the primary election rather than November’s.

The story is the same with some claims aired on Fox News about supposedly inflated coronavirus death tolls, which failed to note that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on the very same webpages that the data lag by weeks because official data takes a long time to accurately compile.

Perhaps the solution is to not air these claims without actually checking on the data behind them. And perhaps those who have promoted bogus claims over and over, only to have them debunked and to move on to the next ones, should have the latest ones viewed accordingly.