President Donald Trump has railed against “mail-in voting” while defending “absentee voting,” baffling experts who say those voting systems are essentially the same thing.
Trump made the claims in a series of tweets Friday morning, which included some of his previously debunked claims about voter fraud. There is no widespread fraud in US elections.
“Mail-In Ballot fraud found in many elections. People are just now seeing how bad, dishonest and slow it is. Election results could be delayed for months. No more big election night answers? 1% not even counted in 2016. Ridiculous! Just a formula for RIGGING an Election,” Trump tweeted. “Absentee Ballots are fine because you have to go through a precise process to get your voting privilege. Not so with Mail-Ins. Rigged Election!!! 20% fraudulent ballots?”
Facts First: Trump is inventing a distinction where none exists, and also peddling baseless claims of rigged elections and fraudulent ballots. Different states use different terms, but “absentee ballots” are “mail-in ballots,” and vice versa. Regardless, there are strict measures in place across the country to verify the authenticity of all ballots cast in the mail. These measures are very successful – more than 99.9% of votes in US elections are legitimate.
“No-excuse mail voting or absentee voting – whatever you call it – is essentially the same thing,” said David Becker, founder of the nonpartisan Center for Election Innovation and Research. “You request a ballot, you get a ballot, you vote, you send it in, and there are protections in place. It doesn’t matter whether you call it mail voting or absentee voting. It’s the same thing.”
CNN and other outlets have previously reported that Trump and many administration officials have utilized vote-by-mail options in the past. This includes Vice President Mike Pence, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany and White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, as well as members of Trump’s family who tried to vote absentee but sent the ballots in too late.
In addition to conflating absentee voting and mail-in voting, Trump raised the possibility that the election would be “rigged” and that 20% of the votes would be “fraudulent ballots.” Based on turnout in past presidential elections, 20% of the vote would amount to at least 20 million votes. Fraud of that scale would be near-impossible to pull off and is not a serious threat, experts say.
When Trump touts the “precise process to get your (absentee) voting privilege,” he’s likely talking about things like voter registration, providing proof of identity, and signature-matching. These safeguards are in place for all postal voting, regardless of whether someone has voted absentee for many election cycles or is requesting an absentee ballot for the first time this year.
In the 2016 election, about 24% of all ballots were cast in the mail, according to federal data. Experts expect that will significantly increase this November, as states expand postal voting to keep people away from polling places during the Covid-19 pandemic. Officials from both parties implemented these sweeping changes – despite Trump’s public pleas to restrict postal voting.
In some states, an excuse is required to vote absentee. But to make it easier this year, states have loosened the rules on what counts as a valid excuse, like fear of getting the coronavirus at the polls. Some states have taken the step of pro-actively sending absentee ballot requests to all registered voters. Other states are going farther and will send a ballot to all registered voters.
Experts often distinguish between “absentee voting” and “vote-by-mail,” and even though the voting methods are similar, the terminology can be different. In “absentee” systems, voters must pro-actively request a ballot, and sometimes need an excuse. “Voting by mail” refers to states with universal mail voting, where each registered voter is automatically sent a ballot for each election.
Trump’s phrasing in Friday’s tweets, and previous posts, conflates some of these terms.
While all methods of postal voting are largely secure, experts say absentee systems often include additional steps that further bolster election integrity. For instance, if a voter is required to request a ballot for a specific election, that confirms the voter is still alive and is living in the state, which prevents ballots from going to people who are still on the rolls but aren’t around.
Several reporters debunked Trump’s claims within minutes of his Twitter post Friday morning. CNN has repeatedly fact-checked Trump’s wildly untrue claims about voting-by-mail, allegations of fraudulent elections, and his far-fetched theories about foreign countries printing ballots.
This story has been updated to further explain the various terms for postal voting.