President Donald Trump on Wednesday appeared to encourage people in North Carolina to vote twice – once by mail and once in person – during the November general election to purportedly double check that their initial vote was counted, which is already receiving push back from state election officials.
Americans can only vote once per election.
When Trump was asked by local news station WECT in Wilmington, North Carolina, whether he was confident in the state’s absentee voting system, the President launched into a somewhat rambling answer.
“Well, they’ll go out and they’ll go vote, and they’re going to have to go and check their vote by going to the poll and voting that way, because if it tabulates, then they won’t be able to do that,” Trump said on the tarmac in front of Air Force One. “So, let them send it in, and let them go vote, and if the system is as good as they say it is, then obviously they won’t be able to vote. If it isn’t tabulated, they won’t be able to vote. So that’s the way it is. And that’s what they should do.”
The President later told people to send in their ballots, saying, “Send them in strong, whether it’s solicited or unsolicited. The absentees are fine. You have to work to get them, you know.”
“And you send them in, but you go to vote. And if they haven’t counted it, you can vote. So that’s the way I feel,” he said.
Trump essentially encouraged voters to test the state’s voting system.
According to North Carolina law, it’s a felony “for any person with intent to commit a fraud to register or vote at more than one precinct or more than one time, or to induce another to do so, in the same primary or election, or to vote illegally at any primary or election.”
Richard Pildes, a CNN election law analyst and professor at the New York University School of Law, said there are both legal and public policy implications to what Trump said.
“First, the legal perspective: all states have mechanisms in place to make sure a voter cannot cast both an absentee vote and an in-person vote,” Pildes said. “A typical rule is that if your absentee ballot has not yet been received and you show up to vote in person, your in-person vote will be counted and your absentee ballot will be rejected. But if your absentee ballot is already recorded as having been received, you will be asked to cast what’s called a provisional ballot and that ballot will then not be counted once it’s confirmed your absentee ballot has been received.”
“But from a public policy perspective, these comments are only going to stir enormous confusion,” he added.
Rick Hasen, a professor of law and political science at University of California-Irvine and a CNN analyst, said that while a case could be made that Trump was joking, the bigger question is about the intent of his remarks.
“It sounds like he was suggesting an attempt at double voting as a means of testing the integrity of the system, or assuring that his voters can cast at least one ballot for him. Is that a fraudulent intent? I could see how a jury could find it to be so, especially given Trump’s other statements suggesting he believes that such double voting would not be caught by election officials,” Hasen wrote on his “Election Law Blog.”
‘Trust the system’
North Carolina officials are dissuading the public from taking the President’s advice.
Patrick Gannon, a public information officer with the North Carolina State Board of Elections, told CNN that “people do not need to go to the polls on Election Day if their ballot had been counted.”
“In fact, we’d strongly advise against that, to allow other people who haven’t yet cast a ballot to vote,” he said.
Gannon laid out three ways that voters can check the status of their absentee ballots. They can use a new tool the state is expecting to launch Friday called BallotTrax; they can check the voter search tool on the board’s website which will show when a voter’s ballot has been accepted; or they can contact their county board of elections.
“We believe that voters can trust the system,” Gannon said. “Elections officials in North Carolina and elsewhere are working very hard to ensure that all voters can cast ballots and be assured that their votes will count.”
Other states also cautioned against the President’s suggestion.
“It’s like advising someone to try to rob a bank to see if the security is as good as the bank says it is,” Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon said. “Knowingly voting twice is a felony. Period. Doing it creates a mess for the voter and the election administrators alike.”
During an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on “The Situation Room” Wednesday evening, Attorney General William Barr said he didn’t know “exactly” what the President was saying when he spoke about voting in North Carolina earlier in the day. “But it seems to me what he’s saying is he’s trying to make the point that the ability to monitor this system is not good and if it was so good, if you tried to vote a second time, you would be caught if you voted in-person.”
When pressed about the fact that it’s illegal to vote twice, Barr responded that he didn’t know “what the law in the particular state says.”
“There are some – maybe you can change your vote up to a particular time, I don’t know what the law is,” Barr said.
Sowing fear and confusion
The President has spent the last several months sowing fear over potential mail-in voting systems being susceptible to fraud. And while Trump may be encouraging voters to test their elections systems, his White House has also highlighted a voter fraud report from the conservative Heritage Foundation that listed cases where voters cast their ballots twice.
Trump has also held varying standards for mail-in voting in different states, claiming that liberal states like California allow “ballot harvesting” (for which there is no evidence) while Arizona and Florida have mail-in voting infrastructure that is secure. Voter fraud from mail-in balloting is rare, and there’s no evidence it’s a widespread problem in the US election system.
But the President’s comments in North Carolina aren’t the first time Trump encouraged supporters to vote twice.
During a tele-rally on August 31, Trump encouraged Nevadans to vote by mail and in person.
“Get it and mail it back. It’s a much more fair way of doing it as you know. And then you can go to vote on Election Day, and if the system is correct like they say, and it should be correct, they say it’s correct, you go to vote and if your ballots are in, if they count it, they will have counted your vote and you won’t be able to vote, which is good,” Trump said.
Encouraging voters to double up on their votes could be particularly problematic in North Carolina, which has a complicated history with election fraud. Recently, a political operative hired by a Republican congressional candidate was indicted for directing an illegal scheme involving absentee ballots. And an increased number of duplicate ballots in the middle of an election already seeing more mail-in ballots because of the pandemic could further slow tabulations in the swing state on Election Day.
Trump has also argued that security measures for mail-in ballots are less secure than those for absentee ballots. But there’s no distinction between the two. 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.
CNN’s Caroline Kenny, Ethan Cohen, Ellie Kaufman and Marshall Cohen contributed to this report.