In the closing section of last night’s unhinged presidential debate, moderator and Fox News anchor Chris Wallace raised a discussion about election integrity. “What are you prepared to do to reassure the American people that the next president will be the legitimate winner of this election?” he asked. In keeping with his prior statements and tweets, Donald Trump made clear that he will offer no reassurance of any kind. Instead, he launched into an extended assault on mail voting filled with nearly a dozen false claims.
As he has repeatedly in recent months, Trump mischaracterized, exaggerated, and lied about the risks of fraud in mail voting. And he doubled down on the idea that any delayed results caused by the extra time it takes to count mail ballots will inevitably signal a “rigged” election—an assertion that election officials and researchers strongly dispute, given that it can take time to process and count mail ballots accurately and fairly. That Trump did so in so bright a spotlight has election-watchers especially concerned.
“At the end of the day, elections are legitimate because the public accepts them as legitimate. Putting out a lot of disinformation meant to confuse people and sow unfounded doubt undermines our democratic system,” says Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program at New York University School of Law. “We’ve been conducting vote-by-mail in some form in this country since the Civil War. The president uses it to vote in Florida, and our military relies on it. Many states have had extremely robust systems for decades. The system is safe and secure.”
Following are the 11 lies, exaggerations, and mischaracterizations that Trump managed to squeeze into one eight-minute stretch of the debate. If you exclude the times other people were talking, he hit well over two lies per minute:
“As far as the ballots are concerned, it’s a disaster. A solicited ballot, OK, solicited, is OK. You’re soliciting. You’re asking. They send it back. You send it back. I did that. If you have an unsolicited … They’re sending millions of ballots all over the country. There’s fraud.”
Trump started out by trying to draw a distinction between states where voters must request an absentee mail ballot (“solicited”) and states where ballots are automatically mailed to all registered voters (“unsolicited”). He claims that his own absentee voting in Florida is exempt from his criticisms about fraud, because he requests the ballot. But fraud in states that historically vote only by mail—Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, and Utah—is extremely low. A Washington Post analysis found that it affected just 0.0025 percent of ballots in the Colorado, Oregon, and Washington 2016 and 2018 general elections.
Trump additionally criticizes the handful of states, like Nevada and California, that are sending mail ballots to all registered voters in 2020 for the first time because of the pandemic. But there’s no proof that this approach has caused significant problems. Later in the debate, Trump would cite examples of supposed mail ballot fraud in states like New York and Virginia that do not proactively send ballots—and are therefore conducting mail-in voting in a way that passes muster, by his definition.
“They found them in creeks.”
There is no evidence that mail-in ballots have been dumped in creeks, or any body of water for that matter.
“They found some with the name Trump—just happened to have the name Trump—just the other day in a wastepaper basket.”
Trump is referring to nine military ballots that were improperly (but accidentally) discarded by a temporary employee in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, in mid-September. On Thursday, the Justice Department made an initial statement about the incident that it later took down. It is extremely unusual for the DOJ to provide details of an open investigation. Ultimately the agency said that seven of the nine ballots were marked for Trump, but it did not share any evidence of foul play and pointed instead to the role of administrative error.
“They sent two in a Democrat area. They sent out a thousand ballots. Everybody got two ballots. This is going to be a fraud like you’ve never seen.”
It’s tough to know which “area” Trump was referring to here, but election officials recognize that a small number of voters may attempt to vote twice in any election, either because of clerical errors, earnest confusion on the part of the voter, or, yes, malign intent. Therefore, each state has systems in place to monitor for double voting and reconcile any irregularities.
“We might not know [the winner] for months because these ballots are going to be all over. Take a look at what happened in Manhattan. Take a look at what happened in New Jersey. Take a look at what happened in Virginia and other places.”
The examples Trump cites took weeks, not months, to resolve. And while it’s almost certainly true that it will take much longer than usual to get accurate results from every state due to increased mail-in voting, “that doesn’t mean anything nefarious is going on,” the Brennan Center’s Norden says. “It just means election officials are doing exactly what they’re supposed to do.”
“They’re not losing 2 percent, 1 percent [of ballots], which by the way is too much. An election could be won or lost with that. They’re losing 30 and 40 percent. It’s a fraud, and it’s a shame.”
Set aside that “losing” implies misplacing, and allow for the more generous interpretation that Trump means those ballots weren’t counted. Nationwide, it’s true that mail ballots are typically rejected at higher rates than those cast in person. If a ballot is filled out incorrectly, isn’t signed, or is received too late, election officials will flag it (to reduce the risk of ballot manipulation or fraud!), and this can mean that certain votes aren’t counted. But some states have already implemented mechanisms for notifying voters if their ballots were rejected and giving them an opportunity to remedy the issue; other states are working to quickly add such protections. Around 1 percent of mail ballots weren’t counted in the 2016 general election, so under any circumstances Trump’s assertion of “losing 30 and 40 percent” is baseless.
“It’s a rigged election.”
This is Trump’s grievance in a nutshell. He claims that the election is rigged against him and that mail voting is the apparatus through which it will be manipulated. At the end of the day, this means he is accusing election officials of abdicating their most sacred responsibility to conduct elections in a fair and nonpartisan manner. He has no proof of significant fraud, but he also shies away from articulating the core of his allegation, perhaps because, in truth, election officials are overwhelmingly honest and dedicated.
“Take a look at West Virginia, mailman selling the ballots. They’re being sold.”
Folks, truly, this is not a thing!
“They’re being dumped in rivers.”
Again, there is no indication that ballots have wound up in bodies of water.
“Hey, they found ballots in a wastepaper basket three days ago, and they all had the name military ballots. They were military. They all had the name Trump on them.”
Again, nope. See above.
“[Fraud has] already been established. Take a look at Carolyn Maloney’s race.”
It took six weeks to certify the results of the June Democratic primary in New York’s 12th congressional district, a delay that Trump has presented as evidence of fraud. It was not. A glut of mail ballots and a legal fight over thousands of disputed ballots lengthened the process. The New York state legislature has since passed reforms aimed at giving voters more time to request absentee ballots and giving them notice if their ballot is disqualified. Meanwhile, in spite of the turmoil, neither Maloney, challenger Suraj Patel, nor state election officials saw evidence of actual fraud in the race.
As Tuesday night’s voting discussion raged on, Trump invoked a prediction that can’t be fact-checked right now but could be dangerously self-fulfilling: “This is not going to end well. This is not going to end well.”
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