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Trump’s Shaky Warning About Counterfeit Mail-In Ballots

President Donald Trump has ramped up his rhetoric about voting fraud to include foreign interference — specifically making the unfounded claim that “MILLIONS OF MAIL-IN BALLOTS WILL BE PRINTED BY FOREIGN COUNTRIES,” resulting in a “RIGGED” election.

Voting experts say there are numerous logistical hurdles, such as reproducing ballots in multiple jurisdictions, and security safeguards, such as bar codes and signature checks, that would prevent a foreign government from slipping large numbers of fraudulent ballots past election officials. Those safeguards make such a plan highly unlikely to result in fraudulent votes being cast, experts say, and certainly not enough to sway a presidential election.

Numerous voting experts told us they were not aware of any cases of counterfeit ballots being used in past elections. But if foreign actors were to attempt something like that this year, some experts believe the goal might not be to fool election officials, but rather to create chaos and confusion among American voters, many of whom might be voting by mail for the first time and might be tricked into voting with a counterfeit ballot that is never counted.

In his ongoing and often misleading campaign against the expansion of mail-in voting in the upcoming presidential election, Trump has repeatedly warned about fraudulent ballots. More recently, Trump has warned of foreign interference.

In a speech in Arizona on June 23, Trump posed these questions about mail-in ballots: “Will they be counterfeited by groups inside our nation? Will they be counterfeited maybe by the millions by foreign powers who don’t want to see Trump win because nobody has been tougher on trade or making our country great again?”

Speaking about the “tremendous potential for fraud and abuse” with expanded mail-in voting, Trump warned in remarks on May 28, “They can even print ballots. They get the same paper, the same machine — nothing special — they get the same paper, the same machine. They print ballots. And Bill [Attorney General William Barr] would have to do a great job to catch them doing it, or your state authorities would have to.”

In remarks on May 26, Trump said, “They’ll even be printing them. They’ll use the same paper, the same machines, and they’ll be printing ballots illegally. And they’ll be sending them in by the hundreds of thousands, and nobody’s going to know the difference.”

Trump’s concerns have been echoed by Barr.

Barr told The New York Times Magazine for an article published on June 1, “We’ve been talking about how, in terms of foreign influence, there are a number of foreign countries that could easily make counterfeit ballots, put names on them, send them in. And it’d be very hard to sort out what’s happening.”

In an interview on Fox News’ “Sunday Morning Futures,” Barr warned that an expansion of mail-in voting “opens the floodgates to fraud,” and he specifically expressed concern about foreign countries creating counterfeit ballots. (Starting at the 15:00 mark.)

Barr, June 21: Right now, a foreign country could print up tens of thousands of counterfeit ballots, and be very hard for us to detect which was the right and which was the wrong ballot. So, I think it can — it can upset and undercut the confidence in the integrity of our elections.

We reached out to the Trump campaign for clarification of the president’s statements. Did he mean that millions of fraudulent votes would be cast due to counterfeit ballots created by foreign governments? Or did he mean that counterfeit ballots might be distributed to confuse voters, either by tricking them into sending a fake ballot to a fake address or frustrating them to the point that they don’t vote at all?

We did not get a response.

Counterfeit Ballots to Cast Fraudulent Votes?

If the president meant the former — that foreign governments would create millions of counterfeit ballots, and that enough of them might slip by election officials to swing the election — many voting experts say that would be impossible.

“The kind of fraud the President and Attorney General described is farcical. It cannot happen,” 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. “Foreign entities would have to figure out how to make the exact ballot of voters on a large scale—with each ballot differing in terms of the races covered, duplicate the same paper stock, replicate bar codes on many state ballot envelopes, forge signatures (and potentially witness signatures) and have detailed voter information, such as last few digits of a drivers’ license. It is beyond ludicrous, and seems intended to do no more than undermine voter confidence in the integrity of the 2020 election.”

Wendy R. Weiser, who directs the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law, said there are ample verification processes in place, so she has little concern that foreign nations could interfere in U.S. elections in that way.

For example, she told us, most states that use mail-in ballots also use bar codes matched to a specific person in the voter files. In addition, ballot envelopes are keyed to particular individuals on the voter files and usually include personal information, such as date of birth or driver’s license numbers. And signatures are required and matched against ones on file. If foreign governments wanted to record fraudulent votes, they’d not only have to create an exact replica of a local ballot but also include that voter information, she said.

“There’s really a dozen different ways” that election officials would know if ballots were counterfeit, Weiser said. “It would be noticed and their ballots would not even be counted in the first place. There are multiple layers of protection.”

That is why, she said, she’s “not aware of any cases of counterfeit ballots. It’s just not something we’ve ever seen happen before.”

It is true that foreign actors are trying to interfere with U.S. elections, she said, and local governments need to be better prepared for that. However, she said she’s not worried about this counterfeit ballot scenario the president and attorney general describe.

Justin Levitt, a law professor at Loyola Law School and voter fraud expert, agreed the logistical hurdles make the prospects of a foreign government successfully fooling election officials with counterfeit ballots a fanciful idea.

“Mail-in ballots are printed on special paper, with specific barcoding unique to each election office and special US Mail election insignia,” Levitt told us via email. “If a foreign country or a private entity went to the trouble to manufacture ballots, they wouldn’t be delivered by the USPS, and they wouldn’t be read or accepted by American election officials. Plus, even if they did somehow manage to discover all of the relevant non-public details for all of the different election jurisdictions, and get ballots through to individual voters with the races they expect to be voting on, elections offices match the signatures on the outside of absentee ballot envelopes to the signatures on voter registration forms.”

Explaining how and why the U.S. Postal Service would likely flag fake ballots, Levitt noted that “the USPS knows that election mail is high priority, specialized, and delivered only at certain times – and has certain procedures for it, so it doesn’t get lost.” Ballots that are “off in minor ways … would trigger pretty substantial alarms pretty quickly,” he said.

“Also, election ballots come from election offices,” Levitt said. “USPS knows when they’re coming and where they’re coming from. So in order not to trigger alarms, the fictitious foreign entity would have to not only deliver the ballots in a way that’s substantively undetectable for each individual ballot, but they’d have to have operatives physically in the same locations as all of the election offices whose ballots they wanted to replicate, delivering ballots for bulk mailing that carefully get intermingled (without anyone noticing) with the bulk ballots dropped off by elections officials. USPS isn’t going to deliver 100,000 ballots to Los Angeles voters if those ballots are dropped off in bulk in a Philly post office, much less if there are a truckload of ballots coming in from overseas. And even one slipup locally would be enough to alert postal inspectors, who are in contact with each other nationally.”

Considering all of those hurdles, Levitt said, “To believe that this could or would happen millions of times over is the plotline to a poorly researched middle school creative writing assignment.”

“The closest analog to what the President seems to be talking about – one of the vanishingly few absentee ballot modes that doesn’t have to be printed on special paper – is the Federal Write-in Absentee Ballot used so that servicemembers (and citizens overseas) can still cast a valid ballot even if they’re in combat conditions. It’s been used since 1986 to help servicemembers vote securely and reliably, as a failsafe for regular mail-in ballots,” Levitt said. “There’s absolutely no evidence that the program has been abused at all, much less with ‘millions of mail-in ballots printed by foreign countries,’ in the 34 years of its existence.  And I find it surprising (and distressing) that the President would be calling to clamp down on the sorts of ballots regularly used by members of the military.”

Sowing Chaos and Confusion

Logan Churchwell, the communications director for the Public Interest Legal Foundation, a conservative legal group that opposes the expansion of mail-in voting, acknowledges that “there’s a lot to” the arguments made by those voting experts and that counterfeit ballots are “probably not going to trick election officials.” But focusing on whether counterfeit ballots might result in fraudulent votes being accepted and counted may be missing the point, he said.

“You’re not going to confuse election officials,” Churchwell said, “but you can cause confusion with the end users, the voters themselves.”

In other words, Churchwell said, counterfeit ballots don’t need to be good enough to fool elections officials, they only need to be good enough to trick some voters, or at least to cause confusion among voters and sow chaos and general distrust among the public in the elections process.

Although Churchwell said he’s never before seen anyone try to create counterfeit ballots, it would not be hard to get enough voter information and ballot details through publicly available data to create a convincing fake ballot, he said.

“Every tool you need to do it is a public record,” Churchwell said.

Churchwell said he assumes Barr is “getting some kind of information that this is some kind of concern.”

We reached out to the Justice Department to see if it has intelligence that foreign governments may be planning such an operation, but DOJ declined to comment. Barr told the New York Times for the June 1 article, “I haven’t looked into” foreign governments conspiring to produce fraudulent ballots. The Times said Barr offered “no evidence to substantiate that this was a real possibility.”

Five states now conduct elections primarily by mail-in vote: Utah, Colorado, Hawaii, Washington and Oregon. Numerous other states are attempting to expand mail-in voting in response to the coronavirus pandemic. 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 or will send actual mail-in ballots to all registered voters in their states.

Churchwell said bad actors would likely target states where mail-in balloting is being significantly expanded for the first time, and where most voters would not have a frame of reference to spot a counterfeit ballot.

“If the goal is to confuse people, you want to go to states where mail-in balloting was not that common and where people have not voted by mail before,” Churchwell said.

In such states, voters new to mail-in voting might be convinced to send a counterfeit ballot to a bogus address, where their ballots would simply be thrown away, he said. Or, Churchwell said, voters might get two ballots — a real one and a fake one — and not know what to think.

“That would only increase distrust of the system,” he said.

In a statement provided to FactCheck.org, Hans von Spakovsky, manager of the Election Law Reform Initiative at the conservative Heritage Foundation, laid out a step-by-step plan for how a foreign government could create counterfeit ballots to confuse voters.

“If a foreign spy operation wanted to create mass chaos, confusion, and long delays in our election process, mounting such an operation that took advantage of states that are going to all-mail elections or are vastly increasing the use of absentee ballots would not be that difficult,” von Spakovsky said.

A spy agency could, he said, send counterfeit ballots to voters, or forge voter signatures on counterfeit ballots and send them to election officials. Unlike Churchwell, von Spakovksy is convinced a sophisticated foreign spy operation could slip some fake mail-in ballots past elections officials.

“Depending on how good the counterfeiting/forging operation is, the spy agency might be able to get a certain percentage of its fraudulent ballots accepted as real votes,” he said.

Again, that point is contested by the voting experts we spoke to and who, for the reasons outlined above, said it would be extremely unlikely to fool elections officials with counterfeit ballots. Von Spakovsky, a former member of the Federal Election Commission, was a controversial addition to the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity — which was formed by Trump, in part, to examine “fraudulent voting.” The commission was dissolved just months after it was created without reporting any proof of widespread fraud.

Regardless of whether counterfeit ballots actually result in fraudulent votes, von Spakovsky said, “even just causing chaos and confusion, damaging the confidence of the public in the integrity of the outcome, would probably be a worthwhile objective for foreign adversaries.”

We’ll let readers decide whether Trump is warning that foreign countries might produce millions of counterfeit ballots in hopes of registering enough fraudulent votes to tip the election against him.

But many voting experts say Trump’s warnings that hundreds of thousands or millions of ballots will be sent in and that “nobody’s going to know the difference” isn’t possible. There are enough logistical hurdles and security safeguards to prevent that from being successful, they say.

In some cases, Trump’s words are vague enough, however, that it’s possible he means that an expansion of mail-in ballots might entice a foreign government to produce millions of counterfeit ballots in an attempt to confuse voters, or to foment mistrust in the election system, not necessarily to record fraudulent votes. Although, at this point, there is no evidence that a foreign government is hatching such a plan.

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