President Donald Trump continues to draw false distinctions between mail-in and absentee ballots, claiming the former are rife with voter fraud while the latter — which he has used as president — require a voter to go through “a very strict process. The equivalent of going to a voting machine, or maybe even sometimes better.”
Voting experts told us the verification process is the same for absentee and mail-in ballots, and many states consider them to be the same thing.
As many states attempt to ramp up mail-in ballot options in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Trump has positioned himself as a staunch opponent, claiming that if states expand mail-in voting it will result in a “rigged election.”
In a radio interview with Michael Savage on June 15, Trump warned that an expansion of mail-in ballots would increase “the chance of theft, where they steal them, they hold up mailmen, they take them out of mailboxes, they print them fraudulently.” Trump said a friend whose son died seven years ago told him that he recently received a ballot in his son’s name. “These mistakes are made by the millions,” Trump said.
Some in the media have pointed out the apparent hypocrisy of Trump’s position on mail-in voting, given that he voted by mail in the Florida primary this year.
In his interview with Savage, Trump said his criticism of mail-in ballots did not extend to “absentee” ballots like the one he has said he cast.
“Go to a voting booth and vote,” Trump said. “Unless you’re an absentee, in which case they have to go through a whole process. In order to vote, they have to go through a very strict process. The equivalent of going to a voting machine, or maybe even sometimes better.”
It’s not the first time Trump has made this false distinction. Asked in a press briefing on April 7 what the difference was between someone voting by mail in-state versus out-of-state, Trump claimed, “Well, there’s a big difference between somebody that’s out of state and does a ballot and everything is sealed, certified, and everything else.”
In fact, election officials say states use the same verification/certification process for absentee or mail-in ballots.
As we mentioned, Trump voted by mail in Florida in March. Trump called it an “absentee” ballot.
“Absentee is okay,” Trump said in remarks on May 26. “You’re sick. You’re away. As an example, I have to do an absentee because I’m voting in Florida, and I happen to be president. I live in that very beautiful house over there that’s painted white. So that’s okay. And it’s okay for people that are sick and they can’t get up. Something. You know, something.”
“Absentee voting has the word absent in it for a reason. It means you’re absent from the jurisdiction or unable to vote in person,” McEnany wrote in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times. “President Trump is against the Democrat plan to politicize the coronavirus and expand mass mail-in voting without a reason, which has a high propensity for voter fraud. This is a simple distinction that the media fails to grasp.”
Never mind that, as the Orlando Sentinel noted, Trump could have voted in person in Florida if he wanted to. The paper reported that the president “was in Palm Beach County, where he’s made his Mar-a-Lago Club his legal address for voting purposes,” for several days during the state’s early voting period in March. In fact, the Sentinel said, early voting was offered in a library right across the street from the Trump International Golf Club where Trump spent some of his time.
More important, Florida doesn’t have absentee voting, per se. For decades, it has had vote-by-mail, which is available to any eligible voter in the state. 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. In other words, voters do not need to attest that they will be out of the voting jurisdiction on election day, or that they cannot get to the polls 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.
“President Trump’s comments regarding absentee and mail-in ballots are misleading,” Darren Hutchinson, a law professor at the University of Florida and an elections expert, told us via email. “The differences between the two systems are trivial. To vote by absentee ballot, a voter must provide a reason, usually travel or disability, to excuse in-person voting. The absentee ballot label, however, is somewhat of a relic. Most states, including Florida, have moved to ‘no-excuse’ mail-in ballots. In these states, individuals can submit a mail-in ballot without explaining their absence on election day. They simply need to submit an application virtually identical to the one states use for absentee ballots.
“There is no rigid screening process that distinguishes the two methods of voting,” Hutchinson added. “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.”
In Florida, Hutchinson said, elections officials compare signatures on the returned ballots with the signatures on the voter registration forms.
“If, in the opinion of the elections officials, the signatures do not match (or if [someone] fails to sign the ballot), a voter would be contacted and allowed to cure the defect,” Hutchinson said.
That’s a little different than the process for in-person voting in Florida, as poll workers ask for a picture ID. But even without an ID card, he said, a person must be allowed to cast a provisional ballot.
Expansion of Mail-In Voting
In response to fears that in-person voting in November will spread SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, a number of states have sought to expand mail-in voting.
States including Michigan, Iowa, Georgia, Nebraska and West Virginia have mailed absentee or mail-in ballot applications to registered voters. Other states, such as California and Nevada, have sent actual mail-in ballots to all registered voters in their states. Trump has singled out several of those states — particularly ones with Democratic governors — making false and misleading claims about their actions regarding mail-in voting.
For example, on May 20, the president erroneously tweeted 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, though the state actually said it will send absentee ballot applications — not actual ballots — to all registered voters who may want to vote by mail.
A week later, Trump falsely claimed on Twitter and at the White House that California was sending 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.” As we wrote, California will send every registered voter in the state a mail-in ballot for the November general election.
Trump has repeatedly claimed that mailed ballots are rife with voter fraud and, if expanded, would taint the presidential election. We’ve written before about such claims, noting that experts say the president is exaggerating, and that 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, however, we are focusing on the president’s repeated claims that absentee ballots are subject to greater scrutiny than other mail-in ballots.
“The President has no idea what he is talking about,” said Sam Mahood, press secretary for the California secretary of state, the office that oversees the state’s elections.
Mahood told us via email there’s no difference between absentee and mail-in ballots in California.
“For nearly 20 years, California has allowed voters to register to permanently vote-by-mail, no excuse needed,” Mahood said. “There are simply ‘vote-by-mail’ ballots in California, we don’t use the term ‘absentee’ any more as there are no excuses or qualifications needed to vote-by-mail.”
“California county elections officials check each and every vote-by-mail ballot that is cast, so even if a ballot was sent to the wrong voter it would be caught,” Mahood said. “Elections officials check to see if the voter has cast a ballot elsewhere. Every vote-by-mail ballot also has a unique bar code that elections officials scan. A voter’s signature on the vote-by-mail ballot return envelope is compared against the voter’s registration record. If a signature is missing or does not match the registration record, elections officials will reach out to the voter. If the voter does not respond and provide a missing/corrected signature, the ballot will not count.”
A spokesperson for the Michigan secretary of state said the president’s claim has no merit in Michigan either.
“Absentee ballots and mail-in ballots are the same thing,” said Tracy Wimmer, director of media relations for Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat who also has found herself a target of Trump’s mail-in balloting barbs.
“In Michigan you have the option of submitting your absentee ballot to a drop box or in person at your clerk’s office, but the vast majority are mailed in,” Wimmer told us via email. “The verification process — signature matching when you request a ballot and when the ballot is returned — is the same.”
Five states already conduct elections primarily by mail-in vote: Utah, Colorado, Hawaii, Washington and Oregon. All of them will send registered voters a mail-in ballot in advance of the election, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures and the individual state election materials.
In Utah, all but two counties automatically sent ballots to registered voters in the 2018 elections, and this year’s June 30 primary will be conducted primarily by mail, due to the coronavirus pandemic, with no regular polling places available in all but one county.
“In my state, I’ll bet 90% of us vote by mail,” Utah Sen. Mitt Romney said in May. “It works very, very well, and it’s a very Republican state.”
Matthew Weil, director of the Elections Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said that while the verification process for mail-in ballots can vary by state, the states do not treat absentee and mail-in ballots any differently. The only new twist is that some states have, for the first time, sent out ballots or ballot applications as a way to promote vote-by-mail this year due to the coronavirus. States that already primarily use vote-by-mail are better positioned to handle verification, Weil told us, as they tend to have better technology for things like signature verification and bar codes to track ballots, and they keep better voter registration lists.
The coronavirus relief bill included $400 million for states to allow them to expand mail-in or early voting. The Brennan Center for Justice estimated that it would cost $982 million to $1.4 billion on top of what states are spending now to ensure a vote-by-mail option is available to all voters in November.
Whether some states are up to the task of providing safe and secure mail-in ballots, or whether in-person voting is preferable, is a matter for political debate. But the president is wrong to repeatedly insist that absentee ballots — like the one he said he cast in March — include “a very strict process” that mail-in ballots do not.