The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The dishonest pivot at the heart of the new voter-fraud conspiracy

Residents drop mail-in ballots in an official ballot box outside a public library in Milwaukee on Oct. 20, 2020. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

Before we get into the new news, let’s review the old news.

With the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, a number of states made changes to their voting systems to reduce the need to vote in person. Those changes triggered a backlash from Republicans, in part because it was expected to increase turnout and in part because President Donald Trump was actively engaged in trying to cast mail-in ballots as suspect — understanding that it was likely he would lose once those ballots were counted in the hours after polls closed. There was a concerted effort to push back on the changes aimed both at constraining access and at triggering a legal fight that would empower state legislatures to decide election results. Trump and his allies lost most of those debates.

The rules varied by state. Take the process of dropping off ballots. In some states, groups could collect and return ballots on behalf of voters, a practice that seems odd at first until you realize that it’s a robust way to ensure that votes are actually cast. This was the rule in Pennsylvania. In other states — like Georgia, Michigan and Arizona — specific people were allowed to return ballots, like family members. Other states, like Wisconsin, didn’t specify any rules (though a Wisconsin court has since introduced limits). In Alabama, only the voter could submit their ballot.

Turnout was massive, with Democrats voting more heavily by mail. Trump lost. And every day since, he and his allies have been trying to convince the country that he didn’t.

Sign up for How To Read This Chart, a weekly data newsletter from Philip Bump

That brings us to the new theory of how President Biden’s victory somehow represents a successful effort to steal the presidency. It’s been percolating for weeks, quietly being presented to state legislative bodies and in conservative media outlets. Next week, though, right-wing filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza will release a movie called “2000 Mules” that aims to force the theory into the spotlight.

But as D’Souza demonstrated in a Fox Business interview on Thursday, the most serious allegations he makes are going to be hard or impossible to prove.

The film is centered on data from a group called True the Vote. In essence, the group obtained cellphone geotracking data that is collected and made available for businesses. As you walk around with your phone, it knows where exactly you are and when, information that’s very valuable to marketers. If you always drive by Dunkin’, maybe you want to see a Dunkin’ ad. That sort of thing.

The group used that data to try to isolate individuals who went near voter drop boxes. It “geofenced” those areas — a fancy term meaning that it narrowed down a specific square of latitude and longitude data — to see who entered those boxes an unusual amount during the weeks prior to the election. From that, it believes it found a number of people (D’Souza’s “mules”) who were dropping off ballots as the election approached. In some cases, it obtained video showing people dropping off multiple ballots.

There are an enormous number of caveats and qualifiers that need to be applied to that, but before we do, consider how D’Souza described the film in his interview with Fox Business host (and former Trump administration official) Larry Kudlow.

“There’s a number of changes in the rules that enabled this — it’s not an exaggeration to call it an ‘election heist’ — to take place. I think what makes this documentary so explosive is it doesn’t just show that the heist could have happened, but that it did happen. Using cellphone geotracking and also using official video surveillance, the video surveillance of the states themselves, we’re able to identify 2,000 mules — a mule is a professional operative who is dropping fraudulent ballots into mail-in drop boxes — 2,000 of them in the key swing states, harvesting, in total, something like 400,000 illegal votes. More than enough to tip the balance in the 2020 presidential election.”

So let’s walk through this.

First, the “changes in the rules” that allowed the “election heist” to happen are the changes that made it easier to vote. That’s at the heart of D’Souza’s complaint — and of Trump allies broadly. Often, the allegation isn’t that fraudulent ballots were cast but just that Democrats made it easier to vote and that was the election theft. It’s like complaining that your competitor sold more widgets illegally because it lowered its prices.

But then D’Souza crosses a bright line in his allegation. He’s not saying that those collecting ballots and submitting them were violating state laws. He’s saying that the ballots themselves were fraudulent, that this amounted to hundreds of thousands of illegal votes.

If he has evidence of this, he’s cracked the voter-fraud thing wide open. But there’s no reason to assume he does.

There is an investigation based on True the Vote’s research in Georgia into whether laws were broken. But it’s not looking at voter fraud, it’s looking at whether ballots were collected and submitted in violation of the state’s ballot-harvesting prohibition. In fact, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) has been explicit: “Those are still lawful ballots,” he said in an interview, “but they’ve just been handled fraudulently with, obviously, the ballot harvesting.” Maybe! If that’s proved.

What’s more, even True the Vote doesn’t allege that the ballots themselves were fraudulent. When the website Just the News first covered the Georgia story, it noted that True the Vote was not making such a claim. When two True the Vote representatives testified in front of a Wisconsin legislative committee, the group’s Catherine Engelbrecht said so publicly.

“I want to make very clear that we’re not suggesting that the ballots that were cast were illegal ballots,” she said. “What we’re saying is that the process was abused.”

It’s the difference between making and selling a product legally and having someone smuggle that product into another country without your realizing it. If D’Souza’s film shows that the ballots were fraudulent, that’s a massive deal that one would assume would have been quickly presented to law enforcement. But there’s been no such investigation, and the group whose data he’s using says it isn’t what happened. That suggests that D’Souza’s claim to Kudlow is not backed up. That the “400,000 illegal votes” — itself a remarkable assertion of scale! — were not that.

“You can see in the movie, these mules are picking up these stashes of ballots and in the middle of the night — many of them wearing gloves, they look around to make sure no one’s observing them and then they drop multiple ballots into each drop box,” D’Souza told Kudlow at another point. “And all of this is on video, in a sense. We’ve kind of caught the criminal operation on tape.”

Let’s set aside the idea that maybe they were caught on tape because they weren’t worried about being seen doing what they were doing or that they were wearing gloves during a pandemic in which people were at first told (mostly unhelpfully, it turned out!) to worry about contaminated surfaces or that a lot of the video that’s been released by True the Vote shows people doing this in the middle of the day. Instead, let’s talk about confirmation bias.

True the Vote’s lead expert on this project is Gregg Phillips. Phillips gained some national attention in the weeks after the 2016 election when he claimed that millions of votes had been cast illegally (a claim Trump quickly elevated). He never provided any evidence, and, of course, there’s no reason to think that occurred. But this is his position: Rampant fraud occurs. This is the lens through which he considers the evidence. We might therefore be unsurprised that he found what he was looking for.

At last, though, we return to where we began. There’s no evidence that the ballots being cast were fraudulent. But it’s also not clear that D’Souza and True the Vote can even prove that the collection and submission of those ballots was itself illegal! In Wisconsin, for example, True the Vote’s team had to admit that there was no violation of the law if ballots were collected and submitted. That’s probably true in Pennsylvania as well. Georgia is investigating what True the Vote found, so we’ll see how many instances of illegality might emerge. But, again, there were ways in which one person could legally return multiple ballots in the other states that D’Souza’s documentary targets. Were people returning their family’s ballots excluded from being described as “mules”?

Earlier this month, D’Souza offered to debate me over the contents of his film. I quickly accepted the invitation to see and evaluate the movie. I have not heard anything since. Perhaps he has, in fact, found hundreds of thousands of examples of people casting fraudulent ballots, reshaping the 2020 election. Perhaps he’s waiting for the movie to come out before handing over his evidence to the FBI.

Until then, treat his claims with skepticism. And Mr. D’Souza, if you’re reading: Let me know when we can arrange a screening.