I have already written that the key issue in the American election this Fall. It is and will continue to be getting the voters to vote even more than getting them to vote for your party. The importance of this issue was made readily apparent in the first presidential debate which at least 65 million Americans watched. Donald Trump in one of his more important wild accusations claimed that “mail-in voting will lead to fraud like you’ve never seen.” He made clear, which he often failed to do previously, that he was talking about unsolicited ballots sent out to voters. He himself voted (or will vote) by mail, but he specifically requested a mail-in ballot.
This is not a new charge. He has repeatedly made such claims, but without producing real evidence in the past. This time he did offer evidence. But he continued his pattern of not revising his views when the evidence overwhelmingly contradicts what he says. After the 2016 election, he kept insisting that millions of fraudulent votes caused him to lose the popular vote in the 2016 election – that is, on the few occasions when he acknowledged that he lost the popular vote. Trump has repeated such claims over and over, even though Americans have long voted by mail – by means of both solicited and unsolicited ballots.
Biden responded that, “No one has established at all that there is fraud related to mail-in ballots.” On that, he is backed up by many American authorities:
- Ellen Weintraub, US Federal Election Commission (FEC): “There’s simply no basis for the conspiracy theory that voting by mail causes fraud.”
- FBI Director Christopher Wray, at a Senate national security hearing: “We take all election-related threats seriously… we have not seen, historically, any kind of coordinated national voter fraud effort in a major election, whether it’s by mail or otherwise.”
- Max Feldman, counsel in the Voting Rights and Elections Program at the Brennan Center for Justice: “Voting by mail has been a secure part of our election system for many years.”
- Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold (Democrat): in Colorado, the verified voting fraud in the 2016 election according to the conservative Heritage Foundation was .000006%; “mail-in ballots are the most secure method of voting” and “the single best method of getting out the vote.”
- Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman (Republican): there were only 142 out of 3.2 million votes cast in the 2016 election in Washington in which there was either a case of someone dead voting or where there was double voting; this was an error rate of .0000044. “Our elections are ones that electors can believe in.”
- Tory Burch, non-partisan fashion executive promoting voting; no evidence of fraud with mail-in ballots.
The fact is that the fraud rates for mail voting are infinitesimally small. “It is… more likely for an American to be struck by lightning than to commit mail voting fraud.” (Brennan Center) But why is Trump so adamantly throwing doubt on the mail-in part of the election process. One explanation is that it is inertia. It was the theme he picked up before the 2016 election to throw doubt on that vote and why he would not necessarily accept the results. After the election, he felt humiliated by losing by well over two million in the popular vote and used the fraudulent mail vote claim to explain that number, Once Trump grasps a theme, he simply repeats and repeats; evidence that refutes his beliefs does not dissuade him.
He is playing on the same note in the 2020 election, but perhaps not just because it is a broken record, but because he is expecting to lose and is preparing the grounds for not giving up office because he will deny that he was defeated. The problem is that the very same posture may be contributing significantly to his immanent defeat. He may be scaring off more Republican supporters, particularly those in the 65+ group, from voting. According to Amy Gardner and Josh Dawsey writing for The Independent (4 August 2020), “unfounded attacks on mail balloting are discouraging his own supporters from embracing the practice, according to polls and Republican leaders across the country, prompting growing alarm that one of the central strategies of his campaign is threatening GOP prospects in November.”
He repeats the claim even though it undercuts the possibility of victory for himself. A third possible motive is his desperation over losing, not only because it will be an enormous assault on his narcissistic personality, but because of the crises he will face once out of office:
- The IRS audit is looking into Trump’s $72.9 million tax refund (plus interest) as a result of his casino bankruptcies; since he did not abandon the properties as worthless, he seems to have personally benefitted from those bankruptcies, thereby making him ineligible for the refund; if civil and/or criminal charges are added, the total owed could be $200 million.
- He has a personal debt of $420 million due not long after he leaves office and, if he remains in office, it is difficult to imagine lenders foreclosing on the loan.
- A pardon would be useless in the state case because this is a civil matter.
- He could be liable for criminal charges for making one statement to the IRS and contradictory statements of the value of his properties to the banks from which he borrowed money.
- He would lose the large stream of monies from his properties from guests who go to them, including employees of the federal government and others, mainly foreigners, seeking Trump favours.
The problem in that Donald Trump’s personal motives do not align with his party’s. Republicans are far more unlikely to vote by mail because they have been convinced that mail voting is fraudulent, but they are also risk-averse to going to the polling stations during a pandemic. At the very same time, Trump has propelled more Democrats to vote, and many to vote by mail and early, because not only of his assault on the fairness of vote by mail, but because he has insisted that he will not simply accept a peaceful transition because he “doesn’t expect to lose” and, if he appears to be losing, it will only be as a result of mail voting fraud.
According to Trump, “We have a big problem, and you see it every day, you see it happening every day with ballots. When the ballots and when the system is rigged — which it is, obviously it is — and the only one that knows that better than me are the Democrats.” Trump repeats and repeats this theme ad nauseum to prepare his voters for the challenge he plans to launch if he loses the election. At the very same time as he repeats this theme, he not only ignores but actively denies the efforts of foreign powers to use hacking to deform the election, well documented by the FBI. At the same time, he throws doubt on the ability of state and local governments to ensure fairness in the lead-up to the election and on election day.
What about the evidence he does offer? For he cites many examples. In some states, mail-in ballots are rejected at a higher rate than those cast at polls. But the reason is rarely fraud. It is because the voter has not properly used an enclosure envelope, not signed in the correct place, or the ballot was not time stamped on time by the post office; the ballots were late.
Look at the examples cited by Trump (in quotes and smaller typeface):
- “In Brooklyn, 25% of mail-in ballots were ruled invalid in June’s Democrat primary after New York expanded mail-in voting because of COVID-19.”
84,000 ballots were invalidated, 21% of all ballots received, but because they were mailed late or lacked a date postmark or were missing information or signatures. Fraud was not the source of the problem.
- “In a special election in New Jersey, conducted by mail because of the COVID-19 crisis, 20% of the ballots were thrown out.” Four people, including one city council member, were subsequently prosecuted for fraud; hundreds of mail-in ballots were found in a mailbox in Paterson, N.J. Numerous additional ballots were found in a nearby mailbox in Haledon. Three of the four men indicted collected more than the three mail-in ballots allowed by law. Most of the 3,190 mail-in ballots were declared invalid because of errors. At most, about 900 ballots deemed invalid (5%) were potentially fraudulent.
- “35,000 mail-in ballots were rejected in Florida’s primary,” 1.5% of the total and mostly due to incorrect or late ballots, not fraud, two-thirds because they arrived late.
- “One hundred thousand (ballots) were rejected in California.” In California’s March presidential primary, 102,428 mail-in ballots were rejected, 1.5% of the almost 7 million mail-in ballots, but the largest reason was missing the deadline for posting a ballot or lack of a signature in the proper location or one that did not match the signature on record.
- “A week after Pennsylvania’s primary, half of the counties were still counting ballots, and you’ll be counting them here because this is a much bigger version of all of that.” Counting was protracted.
- “In Wisconsin, three trays of mail containing absentee ballots were found in a ditch.” Mail barcodes on absentee ballot mail ensure all ballots are tracked.
- “In North Carolina, voters are reporting receiving two ballots in the mail.”
500 voters received two ballots by mistake of 115,000 sent out; in any case, it is illegal to cast two votes.
- “In Iowa, they still don’t really know who the winner was. I think they called somebody eventually, but it was many, many weeks later.” Iowans vote in caucuses — voters join together in groups supporting their candidate — no mail-in voting.
What are the problems with mail-in ballots?
- Late mailing, especially in states which do not allow ballots to be opened, verified and sorted before election day.
- Signatures in wrong locations.
- Signatures that do not match the one on record.
- Errors by inexperienced officials.
Virtually never fraud.
On Wednesday, 30 September, a Washington Post webinar featured Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman and fashion designer Tory Burch on their efforts to encourage and support voting this fall. Kim Wyman and Jena Griswold listed the provisions to protect the integrity of the voting system, including preventing mail-in fraud:
- Post Office delays, many as a result of budget cuts; Griswold took the Postmaster General to court twice and won both times;
- Lack of uniformity in state laws; voters must check state rules;
- Voters must register;
- Voters should have plan to vote, when and how to get to a polling station or to ensure one’s ballot is mailed on time;
- With mail-in ballots, if necessary, attest on the absentee ballot form if there is one, ensure ballots are put in the security sleeve, sign in the correct place and with the same signature as the one on record; make sure your mailed ballot is postmarked on time;
Jena Griswold insisted mail-in balloting was accessible, safe and secure. Further, they avoid the cyber security problem. The system could be approved by states that do not now permit mail-in ballots to be processed prior to election day. Further, it has to be recalled that elections are never officially over on election night – military and overseas ballots still have to be counted. Kim Wyman insisted that after 4 years checking the cyber security system; spotting suspicious activity and preventing bad actors getting into the system, by using robust tests and having plans in place to respond to discovered irregularities, the entire voting system, including mail-in ballots, is safe and secure. There is a custody and audit trail.
Griswold stressed voter suppression, not voting of any kind, as the real problem. This included everything from laws making it difficult for some voters to register, intimidation of voters and making voters uncomfortable when they come to vote by means of unauthorized polling witnesses. Trump said, “I am urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully.” Asking militant groups to stand by and stand back was even scarier. Griswold, a Republican active in seven elections insisted that the system was robust and secure. It could benefit by more uniformity across states, though all those in charge in every state tried to learn from one another.
Tory Burch offered other techniques private enterprise could offer, as her firm does:
- Give voters time or even the day off to vote
- Pay workers to volunteer as poll workers
- Participate in getting-out-the-vote campaigns
- Urge the federal government to fund cyber security
- Inform voters that Trump’s instructions to vote both by mail and in person is illegal.
- Organize voters in groups to help ensure that everyone casts a ballot.
In the last election, 95 million eligible voters did not vote; the major reason – work and scheduling arrangements. Make voting accessible.
In the conclusion of the chaotic debate, Trump refused to promise to leave office peacefully when the election is independently certified. Biden, by contrast, answered with a clear and unequivocal affirmative and insisted, correctly, that Trump “has no idea what he’s talking about” when he pushes conspiracy theories about mail voting being used to rig the election against him. Both Trump’s appointed FBI Director and Director of Homeland Security agree with Biden.
The concern was not just a domestic matter. “The global reaction to Tuesday’s presidential debate was somber and disquieted, as countries considered anew the increasingly real possibility that the U.S. president could challenge the results of November’s election, rattling the foundations of democracy and roiling the global economy.”