President Donald Trump has been claiming that the upcoming election will see “the greatest scam in the history of politics.”
And, in a way, he could be right.
But the scam has nothing to do with the kinds of skullduggery Trump and his allies claim we should expect as a record number of Americans vote by mail due to the pandemic: supposed bribes, counterfeit ballots and other fraudulent votes. Rather, it’s because their hyperbolic and false partisan attacks, along with legal maneuvers, seek to undermine a secure system of voting, according to elections officials and analysts who spoke with CNN.
Elections experts say cases of mail-in voting fraud, and electoral fraud in general, are exceedingly rare in the US. Past attempts to commit mail-in voting fraud have generally been small, local scams that, typically, failed because of a wide array of safeguards in place to prevent and catch such efforts.
Just last week, US intelligence officials, too, contradicted Trump’s claims, saying they had no evidence that Russia or other countries are attempting to produce fake ballots or otherwise undermine mail-in voting.
Nearly every example of alleged mail-in voting fraud that Trump and his supporters have raised is either misleading or flat-out wrong.
Los Angeles County, California, February 2020 – Trump falsely claimed, “They found a million fraudulent votes” in Los Angeles County. In fact, as a result of a court case, the county agreed to notify 1.5 million inactive voters they could be removed from voting rolls if they didn’t respond and vote in the next two federal elections. There was no evidence in the case of any fraudulent votes tied to inactive voters, which include people who may have moved or passed away.
New York 12th Congressional District, Democratic primary, June 2020 – In August, Trump said, “I think you have to rerun that race, because it’s a mess. Nobody knows what’s happening with the ballots and the lost ballots and the fraudulent ballots, I guess.” Due in part to a high number of mail-in ballots, the vote took six weeks to count; but elections officials and candidates said there was no evidence of any fraud.
Paterson, New Jersey, municipal election, May 2020 – Trump and others in his circle repeatedly have pointed to the 3,190 mail-in ballots rejected by the Passaic County Board of Elections in this election, about 19% of the vote, as “a FRAUD!” (Trump also has called it 20% and 23%.) Four men, including one initially declared the winner, face voter fraud charges for allegedly tampering with ballots, and a state judge has ordered a new vote in November in the city council race affected. All four men deny wrongdoing.
But attorney Scott Salmon, who represents the incumbent city council member and alleged fraud victim, said that most of the rejected 3,190 ballots had been discounted for reasons unrelated to fraud, such as not being delivered on time. He said about 900 ballots (roughly 5% of the total vote) were potentially fraudulent. Salmon said he doesn’t think the Paterson case “is relevant, almost at all” to the presidential election. In a local race, a small number of fraudulent ballots can affect the outcome. “It’s not realistic to do that on a scale that would matter for a presidential election,” he said. “And, frankly, you’re probably going to get caught,” as was the case in Paterson.
Trump has said he opposes mail-in ballots because he thinks their use favors Democrats.
Through August, the Covid-19 pandemic had killed more than 184,000 Americans and infected more than 6 million. But Trump has ignored the idea, raised by elections officials, that voting by mail protects voters and election workers from potential exposure to coronavirus.
Elections officials and analysts told CNN they see a greater threat to the election from Trump’s misinformation campaign against mail-in ballots; from GOP lawsuits to block expanded use of mail ballots in California, Iowa, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey and Pennsylvania; from Trump’s insinuations that ballots shouldn’t be counted after election night; from his refusal to say he’ll accept the results if he doesn’t win; and from his opposition to providing more resources to the US Postal Service and to elections authorities that could help prevent administrative problems.
On Wednesday, Trump sowed confusion and seemingly solicited fraud by saying voters in North Carolina should “test the system” by sending in their ballots by mail and then trying to vote in person. Americans are allowed to vote only once during an election. North Carolina’s attorney general said that what Trump was suggesting would “break the law.” Trump has said that mail-in voting is rife with fraud, yet has encouraged his supporters to ask for absentee ballots.
“When the President says that it’s going to be fraudulent, that it’s going to be rigged, he’s speaking with absolutely no credibility. There’s no evidence of this. There’s no evidence that the states that vote all by mail have larger rates of fraudulent balloting. In fact, fraudulent balloting is rare in all states in the United States,” said Rick Hasen, an election-law scholar and the author of “Election Meltdown: Dirty Tricks, Distrust and the Threat to American Democracy.”
“And the reason for that,” Hasen said, “is we have all kinds of safeguards in place to make sure that people are not voting multiple times, that ballot boxes are not being stuffed, that foreign countries are not mailing in thousands of ballots.”
When the conservative Heritage Foundation conducted a study of voter fraud cases across the country going back to the 1970s, they turned up a rate of less than 1 vote in 740,000 – or about 0.0001%. In Oregon, which moved to vote by mail in 1998, a recent analysis by the centrist/liberal Brookings Institution of the Heritage database described a rate of attempted fraud, over the past 20 years, amounting to fewer than 1 in 1 million votes cast.
Trump made the same kind of unsubstantiated voter fraud claims in 2016. When polls showed Hillary Clinton leading, Trump repeatedly claimed the election was rigged and wouldn’t commit to accepting the results. Even after he won, he falsely claimed he’d won the popular vote, too, and repeatedly said that 3 million undocumented immigrants had voted for Clinton, a contention for which his own commission on election integrity found no evidence.
During his reelection bid, Trump’s campaign sued Pennsylvania in June to prevent the use of drop boxes for mail-in ballots, alleging that they are rife for fraud. But when federal district court Judge J. Nicholas Ranjan ordered the Trump campaign and the Republican Party on August 13 to show evidence of such fraud, they weren’t able to produce any. Instead, their attorneys argued that their claims “do not hinge on evidence of voter fraud actually occurring.”
Charles Stewart III, a political science professor and elections researcher at MIT, called the suit “unfortunate.”
“Drop boxes are a best practice in the Western states that have long championed and specialized in voting by mail,” he said. They eliminate “problems with the postal service or returning the ballot. It gives the voter assurance that their ballot has been received. And we know from public-opinion research that voters who return their ballots in person are more confident that their vote was counted as cast. So, there’s all sorts of good public-policy reasons to encourage drop boxes.”
In Nevada, the Trump campaign is suing to block a law signed in August that calls for election officials to send absentee ballots to every active registered voter in the state; the campaign argues it would “dilute” GOP votes. On August 4, Trump tweeted, falsely, that “in an illegal late night coup, Nevada’s clubhouse Governor made it impossible for Republicans to win the state. Post Office could never handle the Traffic of Mail-In Votes without preparation. Using Covid to steal the state. See you in Court!” The next day Trump tweeted: “Nevada has ZERO infrastructure for Mail-In Voting. It will be a corrupt disaster if not ended by the Courts,” and the GOP.
In fact, the law passed on a party-line vote and was signed by Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak. Nevada’s Republican Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, who oversees the election, didn’t support the legislation, but testified there was no mail-in voting fraud in the June primary elections. Before the primary, her office put out a fact sheet debunking false claims and conspiracy theories about mail in voting, including some spread by Trump.
“Folks should not have to put their life at risk, when we have examples in other states of expanded mail and options that work and have worked for years,” said Jason Frierson, the author of the new law and the speaker of Nevada’s state assembly. He said the new law “takes away no one’s right to vote in person.” And he said safeguards in the law, including signature verification, “have happened in other states for years and worked well.” He called the notion it’s fraudulent “a red herring.”
Nine states and the District of Columbia are using universal vote-by-mail for the November election.
Several election analysts said they worry about Trump’s efforts to cast doubt on the outcome if counting the votes takes days or even weeks to resolve. A record number of voters are expected to vote by mail; some states won’t start counting ballots until after the polls close. For these and other reasons, it is likely results in many places, including battleground states, may be delayed, they said.
“Americans and journalists need to be prepared for the fact that we may not know on election day who won,” said Myrna Perez, director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Voting Rights and Elections program. And that’s OK, she said. “If we want there to be the kind of transparency and accountability in our election systems that come from doing audits, we won’t know who won on Election Day.”
CNN’s Nelli Black, Drew Griffin and Yahya Abou-Ghazala contributed to this story.