Debunking Trump's false claims about voter fraud, and what really happened to mail-in ballots

‘More likely to be struck by lightning’: Is there any truth to the president’s claims about vote-by-mail?

Alex Woodward
New York
,Andy Gregory
Friday 06 November 2020 15:58
Comments
Donald Trump rails against "voter fraud"

As the US election result hangs on a number of remaining battleground states and Joe Biden pulls further into the lead, Donald Trump continues to step up his baseless claims about voter fraud.

With more than 60 million Americans having cast their votes using mail-in ballots due to the coronavirus pandemic – most of whom appear to favour Mr Biden – the president’s initial lead in several key states predictably disappeared on election night and beyond as these ballots were counted.

In what is widely viewed as an assault on democracy, the president claimed on Wednesday morning that mystery officials in several remaining states “are working hard to make” his advantage “disappear”.

“They are finding Biden votes all over the place,” he raged as legitimate American ballots were counted, adding: “So bad for our Country!”

Confirming the fears of many of his critics, the US president had controversially declared himself victorious hours earlier, while simultaneously branding the election process a “major fraud”, and claiming he was poised to ask the Supreme Court to stop votes from being counted.

Later on Wednesday, Mr Trump sought to halt voting in Michigan via state courts, and his campaign sent out a fundraising email to supporters, claiming without evidence: “The Democrats will try to STEAL the Election! President Trump needs YOU to step up and DEFEND the results.” 

While any legal challenges to the vote will likely have to be carried out on a state-by-state basis over the coming weeks, Mr Trump and his allies have been laying the groundwork to falsely call the result into disrepute for months.

What has the president said about mail-in ballots during the campaign?

Despite using vote-by-mail ballots himself on numerous occasions, most recently in Florida this August, Mr Trump has disparaged the method for years.

Perhaps tellingly, he opposed numerous reforms to the voting system proposed by Democrats, including vote-by-mail, in March. Mr Trump said: “They had things, levels of voting that if you’d ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

As the pandemic took hold, the president intensified his campaign against mail-in ballots, urging Republicans to “fight very hard” against it and seizing on a small number of incidents in which a handful of votes were spoiled – which typically were not as clear-cut as he alleged.

The president also launched an unprecedented attempt to sabotage the United States Postal Service, admitting he was blocking emergency funding in order to kneecap postal voting efforts, amid disappearing mailboxes, letter-sorting equipment and huge delays across the country.

By the final throes of his campaign, the president had rejected a host of requests that he commit to accepting a peaceful transition of power should he lose the election – a result he repeatedly claimed would happen only if it is rigged.

Is there any truth to his claims?

Rather than mail-in-ballots, most incidents of voter fraud are instead traced to other issues, including clerical errors, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York School of Law.

The centre’s The Truth About Voter Fraud reviewed elections “that had been meticulously studied for voter fraud” but found incident rates between “0.0003 percent and 0.0025 per cent.”

The report found that it’s more likely a voter “will be struck by lightning than that [they] will impersonate another voter at the polls.”

Election officials and voting rights groups have stressed that in cases of fraudulent or questionable activity, existing state and local laws and enforcement are in place to investigate and prosecute, if necessary.

But the president and the US Department of Justice have signalled a willingness to intervene during an in-progress election while promoting baseless conspiracies that threaten to suppress the vote.

The FBI has “not seen, historically, any kind of coordinated national voter fraud effort in a major election, whether it's by mail or otherwise,” according to director Christopher Wray, who appeared before the Senate’s homeland security committee in September.

But one doesn’t need to take the word of an agency that the president once called “scum.”

In 2018, the president’s own voting integrity commission found no evidence to support claims of widespread voter fraud, according to administration documents compiled by a former member.

The president convened his Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity to investigate 2016 election results after he claimed as many as five million ballots were illegally cast.

Mr Trump ordered its creation in 2017 but disbanded the group in January 2018, two weeks after the commission was court-ordered to share its documents. The president blamed states for refusing to cooperate.

In June 2018, the commission released its documents following a lawsuit from Maine's Secretary of State and commission member Matthew Dunlap, who later argued that instead of “widespread evidence of fraud” the commission’s findings “actually reveals a troubling bias.”

In a letter to Vice President Mike Pence and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, Mr Dunlap said that the commission’s “purpose was not to pursue the truth but rather to provide an official imprimatur of legitimacy [from] President Trump’s assertions that millions of illegal votes were cast during the 2016 election and to pave the way for policy changes designed to undermine the right to vote.”

Mr Dunlap wrote that there is "no single document that reveals there is no widespread voter fraud" but points to a lack of evidence that fails to substantiate the president's claims.

The president’s re-election campaign also has not found any evidence of vote-by-mail fraud.

His campaign recently sued Pennsylvania officials over the state’s decision to allow drop boxes to collect mail-in ballots without voters risking delays through the US Postal Service. The campaign argued that drop boxes provide “fraudsters an easy opportunity to engage in ballot harvesting, manipulate or destroy ballots, manufacture duplicitous votes, and sow chaos.”

A federal judge ordered the campaign to “produce such evidence in their possession, and if they have none, state as much”. In more than 500 pages of court filings, it produced evidence pointing to only a handful of election fraud cases, none of which involved mail-in ballots.

The president has meanwhile claimed that that “they” are "sending millions of ballots all over the country."

Voters in most states can request mail-in ballots, for which they are first sent an application. Only nine states and Washington DC have enabled universal mail-in elections, in which registered voters are delivered their ballots.

But throughout his campaign, the president spread false and misleading claims about voting by mail in several key states:

Michigan

In October, Michigan’s Republican Party chair suggested its election system has “potentially been compromised” after it claimed that videos showed proof of an insecure ballot drop box , though one of the videos was filmed before any ballots were mailed to voters, and a lone envelope inside the box wasn’t holding a ballot.

Laura Cox said that the party stands with the president “in his fight for [a] free, fair election”.

Democratic secretary of state Jocelyn Benson pledged to “launch a full investigation” – asking state law enforcement to see whether the GOP’s statement was legal.

“By sharing blatantly false statements in the press release, they are irresponsibly spreading misinformation likely intended to suppress voting among Michigan citizens,” Ms Benson’s communications director Jake Rollow said in a statement. “We have referred this matter to the Attorney General for investigation as election misinformation.”

In September, the president called Ms Benson a “Trump Hater” after the state mistakenly mailed overseas absentee ballots without Mike Pence’s name on them. The president claimed it was “done illegally and on purpose.”

The secretary of state said that as many as 400 ballots had the error, but said the issue was corrected within 90 minutes and voters received the accurate ballots afterwards.

She said: “This was an unintended computer glitch that was caught [and] quickly corrected … Suggesting otherwise is false [and] misleading. Impacted voters immediately received an accurate ballot [and] guidance to ensure their vote counts.”

Pennsylvania

In September, the US Department of Justice published, then removed, then re-issued a press release that announced an “inquiry” into nine “discarded” military ballots in Pennsylvania, revealing that seven were cast for the president.

The statement stunned election officials and voting rights advocates, concerned that federal officials were trying to connect local investigations to the president’s voter fraud claims.

Mr Trump and his campaign pounced on the issue to claim it as evidence that Democrats are “stealing” the election.

A statement from the county manager of Luzerne County poured cold water on the suggestion that fraud was behind the discovery, explaining that a temporary seasonal independent contractor had “incorrectly discarded” several ballots. Officials did not know to whom the ballots had been cast until the Justice Department’s announcement.

County manager David Perdri said officials “immediately began an internal inquiry.”

All garbage from the Elections Bureau was secured, and “each bag of garbage from the entire building in the dumpster was searched by the Federal Bureau of Investigations, the Luzerne County District Attorney’s Office, Pennsylvania State Police as well as Luzerne County staff" and placed in the FBI's custody, he said.

“While the actions of this individual has cast a concern, the above statement shows that the system of checks and balances set forth in Pennsylvania elections works,” he said. “An error was made, a public servant discovered it and reported it to law enforcement at the local, state and federal level who took over to ensure the integrity of the system in place.”

New York

In his last interview before he was hospitalised for the coronavirus, the president told Fox News host Sean Hannity: “And if you look at Carolyn Maloney, what they did to that guy that ran against her, it's a disgrace. That's in New York. And that's only for a congressional race. They have no idea where the votes are, where the ballots are. This is going to be all over. This is in Virginia. This is in New Jersey. It's a very, very sad thing."

The president has also claimed that “fraudulent ballots” were submitted, or suggested that the slow ballot count in that race, as the state adjusted to a surge in mail-in ballots during the pandemic, signalled fraud. Election officials had disqualified several hundred ballots for lacking postmarks or other issues, but they clearly know where the ballots are; Ms Maloney’s opponent Suraj Patel rejected the president’s claims.

In response, he said: “Let’s be clear, the issue in my race was disenfranchisement, not voter fraud. More than 1 in 5 ballots were discarded, many multiples of the final margin. We called our election a canary in the coal mine for November, we were right. Trump lied about what happened here.”

West Virginia

During the first presidential debate, the president said to “take a look at West Virginia, mailmen selling the ballots. They're being sold” – a claim that prompted the state’s Republican secretary of state to issue a correction to the president’s false claims.

A postal carrier in Pendleton County pleaded guilty to mail and election fraud in July for changing the political affiliation on five absentee ballot applications from Democrat to Republican.

Secretary of state Mac Warner said “voters should be confident that this election will be safe, secure, and fair.”

“This was a prime example of a dedicated clerk, closely watching her election process, and quickly reporting an anomaly as she had been trained to do,” he said “The system worked, and we were able to rapidly assure the voters of West Virginia that the election was secure.”

Wisconsin

The president repeatedly and falsely claimed that absentee ballots in Wisconsin had been dumped into creeks and rivers.

Three trays of mail were found in a ditch in Greenville, Wisconsin, and the Outagamie County Sheriff's Office reported at the time that there were several absentee ballots among the discarded mail.

But there were no Wisconsin absentee ballots among them, according to the Wisconsin Elections Commission. The mail was on its way to a nearby post office and was returned to the postal inspector when it was discovered.

Meagan Wolfe, the director of the Wisconsin Elections Commission, said she did not know if ballots from another state were in the mail. The US Postal Service is investigating the incident.

How have other Republicans opposed mail-in ballots?

Republican-led suppression efforts were afoot across the US during the campaign, voting rights groups have argued.

In Michigan, right-wing operatives Jacob Wohl and Jack Burkman were charged with voter intimidation after allegedly leading a robocall effort to dissuade voters from mailing their ballots. Both men were arraigned in October.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott had ordered the closures of mail-in ballot drop boxes across the state, the second largest in the US, forcing massive counties to provide voters with just one office in which they can hand deliver their mail-in ballot rather than risk slow delivery amid US Postal Service chaos or crowded in-person polls on Election Day.

Several groups unsuccessfully sued to reverse the move.

Louisiana’s voter registration website also failed on nationwide Voter Registration Day; a similar website was down in Florida on the final day to register to vote in time to be eligible to participate in November’s elections.

Georgia’s secretary of state accused hundreds of voters of “double voting” in the state’s elections in 2020, but it appears cases involved people who voted in person without assurance that their absentee ballots would count or be delivered in time – election officials are able to screen for those cases at the polls. Election officials said the cases did not affect the outcomes of elections.

In Pennsylvania, Republicans and the Trump campaign sought to throw out so-called “naked ballots” that did not include provided secrecy envelopes, which could jeopardise votes for thousands of people in the state.

And in October, the US Supreme Court sided with rules in South Carolina that mandate witness signatures on absentee ballots, which opponents argue could place an additional burden on voters – already avoiding the polls during a pandemic – to get someone to sign their ballot.

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