Trump had urged supporters during an official White House event in North Carolina on Wednesday to send in a ballot through the mail and then attempt to cast another one at polling sites on Election Day in an effort to test the system. He has stated repeatedly that universal mail-in voting would lead to rampant fraud, despite evidence to the contrary.
Karen Brinson Bell, executive director of the North Carolina State Board of Elections, issued a lengthy statement emphasizing that attempting to cast multiple ballots would constitute a Class 1 felony and that soliciting someone to vote twice is also a crime. Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, both Democrats, vowed to prosecute those caught trying to vote more than once.
“It is illegal in all 50 states and under federal law to vote twice,” said Ellen Weintraub, a commissioner with the Federal Election Commission. “As any federal officeholder or law-enforcement official should know. And there’s still no basis for the conspiracy theory that #VoteByMail will lead to a rigged election.”
Facebook announced it would remove a video of Trump’s initial remarks, and Twitter appended a notice to two of the president’s tweets, ruling that they violated the site’s rules about “civic and election integrity.”
Trump and other administration officials, including Attorney General William P. Barr, sought to justify the president’s comments and minimize the political fallout. On Twitter, Trump wrote that he was instructing those who vote by mail to follow up at their polling place to make sure the ballots have been counted.
“The president is not suggesting anyone do anything unlawful,” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said on Fox News. “What he said very clearly there is make sure your [mail-in] vote is tabulated, and if it is not, then vote.”
Democrats and state elections officials affiliated with both parties have pushed to make it easier for people to vote by mail to help protect against the spread of the coronavirus at crowded polling places. More than 183,00 Americans have been killed by the deadly pathogen. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden on Wednesday accused Trump of trying to delegitimize the U.S. election system.
The president’s remarks in North Carolina marked his latest attempts to impugn the integrity of mail-in voting, which Trump believes would favor Biden.
Trump, who has voted in Florida through absentee ballot, has railed against efforts by some states to broadly expand vote-by-mail, and he said this summer that he opposed additional funding for the U.S. Postal Service to deprive it from facilitating a surge in mail-in ballots.
Trump also has floated the possibility of dispatching federal law enforcement officials to polling sites across the country to monitor the election, a practice that has been used historically to intimidate racial minorities and other marginalized groups from casting a ballot. After losing the national popular vote to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, Trump insisted that millions of illegal immigrants had voted, even though a presidential commission led by Vice President Pence disbanded without finding any evidence.
Lawrence Noble, who served 13 years as the FEC’s general counsel, said that it would cause “tremendous problems” if Trump supporters who had already voted by mail showed up en mass at polling sites on Election Day — taxing already strained poll workers and potentially intimidating other voters.
More broadly, Noble warned that Trump appears to be attempting to cast doubt on the election system to help him validate his prediction of fraud, especially if he loses to Biden.
“If he urges his supporters to vote twice, and a state does not show they voted twice, can he also say that proves fraud?” Noble said. “He throws out things that are totally inconsistent that give him the opening to claim later on, without evidence, that there was fraud and things were done illegally.”
During his trip to Wilmington, N.C., on Wednesday, Trump responded to a reporter’s question about whether he had confidence in the voting system by stating that voters should send in a ballot.
“If their system’s as good as they say it is, then obviously they won’t be able to vote” a second time at the polling sites, he said. “If it isn’t tabulated, they’ll be able to vote,” Trump said. The president made nearly identical comments to supporters on the airport tarmac.
“So send it in early and then go and vote,” Trump said. “You can’t let them take your vote away; these people are playing dirty politics. So if you have an absentee ballot . . . you send it in, but I’d check it, follow it and go vote.”
Trump’s senior aides have provided cover for the president.
On CNN, Barr skirted a question about the legality of the president’s suggestion, saying he was not familiar with election laws in every state. “Maybe you can change your vote up to a particular time; I don’t know what the law is,” Barr said.
The data in states that already have universal mail-in voting doesn’t back up claims by Trump and Barr that voting by mail leads to rampant fraud. A Washington Post analysis of three vote-by-mail states found that officials identified just 372 possible cases of double voting or voting on behalf of deceased people out of about 14.6 million votes cast by mail in the 2016 and 2018 general elections, or 0.0025 percent.
“This is playing with fire,” Barr said during a heated exchange with CNN host Wolf Blitzer. “We’re a very closely divided country here. And if people have to have confidence in the results of the election and the legitimacy of the government, and people trying to change the rules to this methodology, which, as a matter of logic, is very open to fraud and coercion, is reckless and dangerous.”
Vanita Gupta, former head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, called the interview “absolutely astounding” and said it “reveals the degree to which the Justice Department is being and will be weaponized in Trump’s effort to hold power.”
“His willingness to just defy all of the evidence before him and just participate in the president’s political agenda is staggering,” Gupta said of Barr.
In defending his position, Barr pointed to a report more than a decade ago from a commission led by former president Jimmy Carter and former secretary of state James A. Baker III, which noted the fraud risk with mail-in voting. He said news accounts and studies since that time had confirmed the risk, and added, “the only time the narrative changed is after this administration came in.”
The Carter Center said in a statement earlier this year that although the commission’s report had noted that voting by mail “creates increased logistical challenges and the potential for vote fraud,” improved planning and training, along with additional resources, have helped mitigate the problems.
In a statement, Carter, 95, said, “I urge political leaders across the country to take immediate steps to expand vote-by-mail and other measures that can help protect the core of American democracy — the right of our citizens to vote.”
John Wagner contributed to this report.