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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Trump’s Latest Voter Fraud Misinformation

President Donald Trump continues to add false and exaggerated statements to his already lengthy list of bogus voter fraud claims.

  • There is no evidence to back up Trump’s blanket claim that “mailed ballots are corrupt.” 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.
  • Trump also falsely claimed that California reached a settlement with Judicial Watch in which the state “agree[d] that a million people should not have voted.” California and Los Angeles County agreed to remove inactive voters from their voter rolls per federal law. But there’s no evidence any of them voted, fraudulently or otherwise.
  • And as he has in the past, Trump claimed there’s “a lot of fraudulent voting going on in this country.” Experts say voter fraud is rare.

Trump’s latest round of voter fraud claims came as Wisconsin struggled with an election at a time when residents were wary of going to polls during the coronavirus pandemic.

Some Wisconsin Democrats, including Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, urged to hold the election by mail and suspend in-person voting. Democratic Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers tried to move the state’s April 7, but after a Republican challenge, the state Supreme Court ruled the governor’s decision was unconstitutional and the election went off as scheduled on April 7 with long lines and fewer polling places.

With uncertainty about the safety of voting in the presidential election November, some Democrats have called for mail-in voting to be considered as an alternative. Former Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, has suggested that a mail-in ballot should be sent to every voter in the country.

Mail-in and Absentee Ballots

At a coronavirus task force press briefing on April 7, the day of the Wisconsin election, Trump made clear that he opposes any expansion of mail-in voting, saying it is “dangerous” and rife with fraud.

Trump, April 7: Now, mail ballots — they cheat.  Okay?  People cheat.  Mail ballots are a very dangerous thing for this country, because they’re cheaters.  They go and collect them.  They’re fraudulent in many cases.  You got to vote.  And they should have voter ID, by the way.  If you want to really do it right, you have voter ID. …

These mailed ballots come in.  The mailed ballots are corrupt, in my opinion.  And they collect them, and they get people to go in and sign them.  And then they — they’re forgeries in many cases.  It’s a horrible thing.

Election experts told us that Trump is exaggerating the amount of voter fraud via mail-in ballots. They say it is more common than in-person voting fraud (something that Trump has repeatedly distorted), but still rare.

“Election fraud committed with absentee ballots is more prevalent than in person voting but it is still rare,” 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,” told us via email. “States can and do take steps to minimize the risks, especially given the great benefits of convenience — and now safety — from the practice.”

In an op-ed published in the Washington Post, Hasen cited a database created by News21, a national investigative reporting project that tracks cases of election fraud. News21 found absentee-ballot ballot fraud was the most prevalent type of election fraud, comprising about 24% of reported prosecutions between 2000 and 2012.

“But the total number of cases was just 491 — during a period in which literally billions of votes were cast,” Hasen wrote. “While certain pockets of the country have seen their share of absentee-ballot scandals, problems are extremely rare in the five states that rely primarily on vote-by-mail, including the heavily Republican state of Utah.”

The five states that already vote primarily by mail are Utah, Colorado, Hawaii, Washington and Oregon. And, of course, all states allow some form of absentee voting by mail.

In fact, as the New York Times noted, Trump voted absentee by mail in Florida’s election in March and in the 2018 midterm elections. Vice President Mike Pence also voted via a mail-in absentee ballot for the primary and general elections in 2018.

Trump was asked during the press briefing on April 7 how he reconciled his comments about mail-in ballots being “corrupt” with the fact that he voted by mail in Florida’s election the previous month.

“Because I’m allowed to,” Trump responded. “Well, that’s called ‘out of state.’ You know, why I voted?  Because I happen to be in the White House and I won’t be able to go to Florida to vote.”

Trump suggested — without any evidence — that ballots mailed from outside the state are more secure.

“[T]here’s a big difference between somebody that’s out of state and does a ballot and everything is sealed, certified, and everything else,” Trump responded.

But elections experts told us states apply the same rules and processes for in-state and out-of-state mail-in ballots.

“Domestic absentee voters in or out of state are treated the same,” Lonna Atkeson, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico and expert in election administration, told us via email.

Justin Levitt, a law professor at Loyola Marymount University and voter fraud expert, told us that while he is not aware of any valid statistics on the prevalence of fraud in mail-in ballots, “I do collect anecdotal reports, and it is clear (and I think most observers from across the political spectrum agree) that misconduct in the mail voting process is meaningfully more prevalent than misconduct in the process of voting in person.”

“Misconduct still amounts to only a tiny fraction of the ballots cast by mail (and is far less prevalent than the President’s rhetoric suggests, which may well be why he’s felt comfortable voting by mail in the past),” Levitt added.

Perhaps the most widely-reported recent example of absentee ballot fraud was a case during the 2018 midterm election in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District. Election results were overturned after it was learned that a Republican political operative improperly collected and possibly altered or discarded ballots to sway the election in favor of Republican Mark Harris. That operative was ultimately indicted on felony ballot tampering charges, and Harris dropped out of the race prior to the new election.

One of the problems with tracking the prevalence of mail-in voting fraud is that “It’s really hard to find,” Atkeson said in a phone interview. “The fact is, we really don’t know how much fraud there is.”

For example, she said, when signatures don’t match, “Is it a messy signature or someone trying to sign someone else’s ballot?” (State and local election officials have procedures for verifying signatures, as we will explain later.)

“There is a little bit of fraud,” Atkeson said. “There aren’t millions of fraudulent votes, but there are some.”

Lorraine Minnite, a professor at Rutgers University and author of “The Myth of Voter Fraud,” agrees.

“I don’t think anyone can give you a reliable measure of the prevalence of voter fraud with mail-in ballots, but my sense is that it is not much more frequent than in-person voter fraud, which rarely occurs,” Minnite told us via email.

There are two features of mail-in voting that make it “slightly less secure” than in-person voting, Minnite said.

First, she said, “the ‘chain-of-custody’ of the ballot is broken with mail-in voting because the ballot is released by election authorities into the U.S. mail, and voters, therefore, are unsupervised when they vote, they do not record their votes in the presence of election officials.”

Second, she said, “this creates an opening for illegal activity by political operatives that would not otherwise exist if all voting was conducted in-person at official polling sites.”

“The most egregious cases of fraud involving mail-in ballots that I’ve seen … are cases of political operatives engaging in illegal activity, conspiracies to use mail-balloting to intimidate voters to vote a certain way, sometimes through vote-buying schemes, or to rig electoral outcomes by stealing ballots and marking them for their candidates,” Minnite said, citing the example of the North Carolina 9th Congressional District fiasco.

But there are measures states can take to track ballots to voters, Minnite said, and to verify them through some form of identification authentication.

“The most common method for verifying ballots is signature matching,” Minnite said. “A signature is considered a biometric identifier, unique to you, and voters usually sign affidavits that inform them of the penalties involved for providing false information or forging their identity when they vote by mail. 

“The process for verifying signatures varies across the states, but usually it involves matching the signature to an existing signature on file and having more than one person (it could be a bipartisan team) do the match,” Minnite added. “Most states have procedures in place for dealing with discrepancies that involve contacting the voter to correct the problem.  Some states require voters to include a photocopy of a form of identification with their ballot for verification.”

Concerns about people applying for absentee ballots on behalf of others have been “substantially cut down” due to identity verification such as Social Security or drivers license numbers, signature matching and flagging IP addresses with a suspicious number of absentee requests, said Levitt, the Loyola Marymount University professor.

Family members who cast ballots on behalf of recently deceased relatives tend to be caught, either through death records or signature matching, Levitt said. And elections officials are getting better at comparing voting records across jurisdictions to catch people voting in person and them casting an absentee ballot in another jurisdiction, he added.

“I think the primary concern is that someone other than the ostensible voter may help complete the ballot itself, even if the voter signs the return envelope, or coerce the voter into voting a certain way: members of the household, or in some cases, allegedly, campaign workers,” Levitt said. “That’s quite difficult to police.”

There are other logistical issues with mail-in voting. States would need more money, to improve their voter files, to provide prepaid postage for ballots, and to expand ballot drop-off sites (some states have special election drop boxes). Many states would also need to hire more people to process and count the ballots.

“It’s very challenging and expensive,” Atkeson said. “I’m really hoping this doesn’t happen [in November]. If we are going to do something like that, the states need to start preparing as soon as possible.”

Levitt said mail-in voting may not be the optimal choice in November, but its limitations may need to be weighed against concerns about the spread of coronavirus.

“In a time of global pandemic, the question is not about the best voting system in the abstract,” Levitt said. “Service members often don’t have the luxury of voting in person, which is why the remote ballot system is so very vital to ensuring that they’re able to exercise the franchise. Given wide displacement of polling places and poll workers during a pandemic, we may all be in situations far more akin to service members than we’re accustomed to. And both the benefits and limitations of mail ballots – including the potential for misconduct, which happens occasionally – have to be assessed in that context.”

California Misinformation

The day after making his disparaging remarks about voter fraud with mail-in ballots, Trump was asked for evidence to back up his claim. He doubled down on his misleading claim without providing that backup and added a couple other bits of misinformation — including the false claim that California admitted in a court settlement that a million people voted improperly.

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.

That’s not what happened. In January 2019, the conservative group Judicial Watch announced that it had reached a settlement requiring the county of Los Angeles 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). California also agreed to send a written advisory to all counties to comply with the law about removing names of inactive voters.

Per the settlement, 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.

And that’s where Trump’s comments go astray.

No one alleged or provided any proof that any of those people on the inactive roster 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.”

As part of his case for voter ID laws, Trump has conflated this issue before, citing statistics about invalid or inaccurate information on voter rolls and wrongly suggesting those represented a list of fraudulent voters. As we wrote in 2016, those statistics don’t represent instances of fraud, but rather are evidence of the need to upgrade voter registration systems.

Prevalence of Voter Fraud

Trump ended his attack on mail-in voting on April 8 with his usual call for voter identification laws that require voters to present valid identification at a polling place in order to be allowed to vote. Voter ID laws are justified, he said, because, “there’s a lot of fraudulent voting going on in this country.”

Trump, April 8: Our voting system, first of all, we should have voter ID. When you vote, you should have voter ID. And if you send something in, you should be sure as a state and as a country, you should be sure that that vote is meaningful, and it’s not just made fraudulently. Because there’s a lot of fraudulent voting going on in this country. This country should have voter ID.

As we have written before, numerous researchers who have studied the issue, say it’s simply not true that “there’s a lot of fraudulent voting” in the U.S.

“The best facts we can gather to assess the magnitude of the alleged problem of voter fraud show that, although millions of people cast ballots every year, almost no one knowingly and willfully casts an illegal vote in the United States today,” Minnite wrote in her book, “The Myth of Voter Fraud.”

In 2012, a team of students led by the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University analyzed 2,068 alleged election-fraud cases since 2000 and concluded that “while fraud has occurred, the rate is infinitesimal, and in-person voter impersonation on Election Day, which prompted 37 state legislatures to enact or consider tough voter ID laws, is virtually non-existent.”

There is no evidence of widespread voting by immigrants in the country illegally, or by people voting on behalf of dead people, as Trump has repeatedly alleged. There is no evidence of busloads of people from Massachusetts pouring into New Hampshire to skew voting there. There is no evidence that millions of illegal votes caused Trump to lose the popular vote to Hillary Clinton in 2016. And mismatched signatures on mail-in ballots– often the result of handwriting changing over time — aren’t proof of “electoral corruption.”

Several months into his presidency, Trump created the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity — which was to examine “fraudulent voting,” among other issues. The commission was dissolved just months after it was created without reporting any proof of widespread fraud.