In a July 30 tweet, President Donald Trump suggested for the first time that the 2020 election should be postponed, drawing — once again — false distinctions between mail-in and absentee ballots.
For months, the president — who is trailing in the polls with the election less than 100 days away — has been warning about the potential for voter fraud in 2020.
But the president has no authority to delay the election — only Congress can do that, and that’s not going to happen, Jerry H. Goldfeder, a lawyer who teaches election law at Fordham University School of Law, told us via email.
“It is beyond remote that a divided Congress would postpone the election,” Goldfeder said. “We have held 58 presidential elections — during wars and depressions— and they’ve always gone forward.“
In an article in the New York Law Journal, Goldfeder wrote: “The U.S. Constitution explicitly provides that a president’s term is four years, and the new or re-elected president is sworn in at noon on January 20th. There is no provision or precedent for a sitting president to extend his term beyond then. … Congress alone has the authority to adjust this election timeline — provided there is sufficient time for either Biden or Trump to take the oath of office at noon on Jan. 20th.”
Moreover, there is no evidence to support Trump’s overall claim that “mailed ballots are corrupt,” as he said in April. Voting experts say the president is exaggerating when he says mail ballots are “fraudulent in many cases.” While the instances of voter fraud via mail-in or absentee ballots are more common than in-person voting fraud, the number of known cases is relatively rare.
Here we briefly recap the false, misleading and unsupported arguments that the president has made this year about the potential for voter fraud — starting with the case that he makes for delaying the 2020 election.
Absentee vs. Mail-In Ballot Spin
The president is drawing a distinction without a difference when he claims that absentee ballots are “good” but mail-in ballots will result in an “INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election.”
Voting experts say the verification process is the same for absentee and mail-in ballots, and many states consider them to be the same thing — including Florida, where Trump has cast what he calls an “absentee” ballot. But it’s not really the case that Florida has absentee ballots.
Florida is one of 34 states (plus Washington, D.C.) that have “no excuse” absentee or mail-in voting, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Voters in those states do not need to attest that they will be out of the voting jurisdiction on Election Day, or unable to vote in person because of an illness or disability.
So there is no special process that “absentee” out-of-town voters go through that other mail-in voters do not, Darren Hutchinson, a law professor at the University of Florida and an elections expert, said in June, describing the “absentee ballot label” as “somewhat of a relic.”
“The differences between the two systems are trivial,” Hutchinson said. “There is no rigid screening process that distinguishes the two methods of voting. Once registration and address are verified, the elections office will process the request and send the ballot. In Florida, almost 30% of votes in the last presidential election were cast by mail, and voters did not have to provide an excuse, be absent from the state, or go through an enhanced screening process. On this issue, Trump is simply wrong.”
Bogus Claims about California
In May, Trump falsely claimed that California will send mail-in ballots to “anyone living in the state, no matter who they are or how they got there” and “people that aren’t citizens.” California plans to send every registered voter in the state a mail-in ballot for the November general election, due to the potential threat of COVID-19.
Sam Mahood, press secretary for California’s secretary of state, told us the ballots, which will be mailed to voters living domestically 29 days before the election, “will only be sent to active registered voters.” Inactive voters would be those for whom county elections offices receive an undeliverable election mailing “indicating the voter no longer lives at that address,” Mahood said. And if such a voter doesn’t vote in two subsequent federal elections, “their registration will be cancelled.”
Twitter appended a warning label to Trump’s tweets on this topic, encouraging people to “Get the facts about mail-in ballots,” with a link to more information about the president’s claims.
Trump also falsely said that California agreed that 1 million people should not have voted in the state.
Trump, April 8: I think there’s a lot of evidence, but we’ll provide you with some, okay? And there’s evidence that’s being compiled just like it’s being compiled in the state of California, where they settled with Judicial Watch, saying that a million people should not have been voting in — you saw that. … I’m telling you, in California, in the great state of California, they settled, and we could’ve gone a lot further. Judicial Watch settled where they agreed that a million people should not have voted, where they were 115 years old and lots of things, and people were voting in their place.
As previously reported, that’s not what happened. In January 2019, the conservative group Judicial Watch announced that it had reached a settlement requiring Los Angeles County to purge the names of inactive voters from its voter rolls after a period of time, pursuant to the National Voter Registration Act (and a 2018 Supreme Court decision that found such removal is mandatory).
The county sent notices to people it determined to be inactive, and agreed that if they did not respond, or did not vote in the next two federal general elections, their names would be removed from voter rolls. California agreed to notify its other counties to do the same. The settlement noted there was no admission of wrongdoing by the state or Los Angeles County. It also made no mention of voter fraud.
That’s where Trump’s comments go off the rails. No one alleged or provided any proof that any of those people actually voted, fraudulently or otherwise. Judicial Watch said “there were approximately 1,565,000 registrations on Los Angeles County’s inactive file of registered voters.”
As Judicial Watch noted in its January 2019 press release, “Inactive voter registrations belong, for the most part, to voters who have moved to another county or state or have passed away.”
“No matter how much he repeats them, Trump’s lies about voter fraud are patently untrue,” California Secretary of State Alex Padilla said in a statement to FactCheck.org in June 2019. “Specifically, the settlement with Judicial Watch, Los Angeles County, and the Secretary of State contains absolutely no admission to or evidence of ‘illegal votes.’ The President’s claims are untrue and yet another distortion aimed at undermining confidence in our elections.”
An Unsubstantiated Mail-in Ballot Conspiracy
In June, Trump ramped up his rhetoric about voting fraud to include foreign interference — specifically making the unfounded claim that “MILLIONS OF MAIL-IN BALLOTS WILL BE PRINTED BY FOREIGN COUNTRIES,” resulting in a “RIGGED” election.
Voting experts told us at the time that there are numerous logistical hurdles, such as reproducing ballots in multiple jurisdictions, and security safeguards, such as bar codes and signature checks, that would prevent a foreign government from slipping large numbers of fraudulent ballots past election officials. Those safeguards make such a plan highly unlikely to result in fraudulent votes being cast, experts say, and certainly not enough to sway a presidential election.
Richard L. Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine School of Law and author of “The Voting Wars,” said that the kind of massive fraud described by Trump is “farcical.”
“It cannot happen,” Hasen said. “Foreign entities would have to figure out how to make the exact ballot of voters on a large scale — with each ballot differing in terms of the races covered, duplicate the same paper stock, replicate bar codes on many state ballot envelopes, forge signatures (and potentially witness signatures) and have detailed voter information, such as last few digits of a drivers’ license.”
Hansen said Trump’s claim “is beyond ludicrous, and seems intended to do no more than undermine voter confidence in the integrity of the 2020 election.”
Numerous voting experts told us they were not aware of any cases of counterfeit ballots being used in past elections. But if foreign actors were to attempt something like that this year, some experts believe the goal might not be to fool election officials, but rather to create chaos and confusion among American voters, many of whom might be voting by mail for the first time and might be tricked into voting with a counterfeit ballot that is never counted.
False Claim About Michigan
Trump — in a tweet he later deleted — falsely claimed in May that Michigan’s Democratic secretary of state was “illegally” sending “absentee ballots to 7.7 million people” for this year’s primary and general elections.
“Breaking: Michigan sends absentee ballots to 7.7 million people ahead of Primaries and the General Election,” he wrote. “This was done illegally and without authorization by a rogue Secretary of State. I will ask to hold up funding to Michigan if they want to go down this Voter Fraud path.”
But Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, in her own tweet correcting the president, explained that Michigan would send absentee ballot applications — not ballots — to all registered voters.
“Hi! I also have a name, it’s Jocelyn Benson. And we sent applications, not ballots. Just like my GOP colleagues in Iowa, Georgia, Nebraska and West Virginia,” she wrote.
Politwoops reported that Trump deleted his tweet six hours after he posted it. He replaced it with one saying “ballot applications” — instead of just “ballots” — but still claimed the action was “illegal.”
Benson had announced May 19 that, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all of the state’s registered voters would be mailed an application to vote by mail in the August and November elections. A press statement on the announcement said that 1.3 million of the state’s 7.7 million registered voters were already on the permanent absent voter list, and receive applications from their local election clerk prior to each election.
“By mailing applications, we have ensured that no Michigander has to choose between their health and their right to vote,” Benson said, according to the statement. “Voting by mail is easy, convenient, safe, and secure, and every voter in Michigan has the right to do it.”
She was also correct that Iowa, Georgia, Nebraska and West Virginia had mailed absentee ballot applications to voters.
The National Conference of State Legislatures says that all U.S. states allow qualified voters to vote by absentee ballot, and five states (Utah, Colorado, Hawaii, Washington and Oregon) currently conduct all their elections primarily by mail. Michigan is one of 34 states that do not require an excuse from those who want to vote by absentee ballot, according to the NCSL.
After he won the 2016 election Trump declared, without any proof, that millions of undocumented immigrants voted illegally and that without them he would have won the popular vote as well as the electoral college vote.
He was so enamored of this explanation for why he lost the popular vote that he even convened a task force to look at voter fraud—a task force that found so little fraud it was disbanded the next year without even issuing a report.
Of course, there are instances of large-scale vote fraud. The most famous one occurred in the 9th congressional district of North Carolina in the 2018 election cycle where political operatives for the Republican congressional candidate illegally collected absentee ballots. They were caught and convicted. The election was overturned and a new one held.
The Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank, has been studying voter fraud for years in order to provide support for more restrictive voting laws such as voter ID.
Any case of voter fraud is serious, and the guilty parties should be caught and prosecuted. But the evidence presented by the Heritage database does not make the case that voter fraud is a major problem in America, nor does it make the case that mail-in ballot systems are riddled with fraudulent activity.
Republicans would have you believe that vote fraud is widespread enough to affect elections. But the fraud uncovered by the Heritage study is inconsequential.
The Brennan Center’s seminal report on this issue, The Truth About Voter Fraud, found that most reported incidents of voter fraud are actually traceable to other sources, such as clerical errors or bad data matching practices. The report reviewed elections that had been meticulously studied for voter fraud, and found incident rates between 0.00004 percent and 0.0009 percent. Given this tiny incident rate for voter impersonation fraud, it is more likely, the report noted, that an American “will be struck by lightning than that he will impersonate another voter at the polls.”