There is zero evidence that vote-by-mail leads to widespread fraud. Even a commission convened by Trump himself found no real evidence of fraud before it was disbanded in 2018.
Days after a poll from Republican-friendly Fox News showed him losing to Joe Biden by 12 points, President Trump has launched yet another attack on vote-by-mail. In doing so, he aims to delegitimize a leading method of voting that has been used safely for decades.
“Because of MAIL-IN BALLOTS, 2020 will be the most RIGGED Election in our nations history – unless this stupidity is ended,” Trump wrote in a Monday morning tweet. “We voted during World War One & World War Two with no problem, but now they are using Covid in order to cheat by using Mail-Ins!”
There is zero evidence that vote-by-mail—or any form of voting—leads to widespread fraud. In fact, studies have shown that all forms of voting fraud are extremely rare in the United States. Even a commission convened by Trump himself found no real evidence of fraud before it was disbanded in 2018.
Trump’s comments on the World War also proved ironic, since voting by mail actually expanded because of the nation’s conflicts. “People have been voting by mail since the Civil War. We sent ballots to soldiers during the Civil War, and they returned them by mail,” ProPublica’s Jessica Huseman told NPR earlier this month.
Absentee voting was also widely used during World War I, as 28 states permitted the practice during the battle. By World War II, every state let soldiers vote remotely and the military was responsible for roughly 3.2 million absentee ballots cast, nearly 7% of the total electorate in 1944.
“This is certainly not something that’s new in American history. And in the last several years, it’s gotten even more common,” Huseman said.
Vote-by-mail has expanded in recent decades, and five states conduct all their elections by mail, including the Republican stronghold of Utah. California, Nebraska, and North Dakota also allow counties to opt into conducting all elections by mail. All 50 states allow some version of absentee voting as well, though restrictions on who can qualify to vote by mail vary from state to state.
Despite the entrenched history of voting by mail in the U.S. and countless studies showing its safety, Trump has repeatedly lied, saying the process is rife with fraud and calling mail-in voting the biggest threat to his re-election.
Trump’s attacks on mail-in voting come as states across the country are working to accommodate a surge in mail-in voting due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has raised anxiety about the possible health consequences of voting in person and left counties struggling to find poll workers.
Democrats have sought to ease restrictions on voting by mail in order to accommodate those concerned about contracting COVID-19 at voting sites, but Trump and his campaign allege, without evidence, that widespread mail-in voting will help Democrats.
Multiple studies have debunked this claim. A Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research survey published in April studied mail elections in three states from 1996 to 2018 and found the partisan effect to be “neutral” in both turnout and vote share for either party. The study did find that vote-by-mail “modestly increases overall average turnout rate”—which Trump argues will help Democrats—but the study determined that no party tangibly benefited from it.
That finding has been borne out in recent primaries in Georgia, Iowa, and other states, which saw dramatically higher turnout than in 2016 amid a surge in mail-in voting. In Iowa, for example, total turnout reached 24%, up from roughly 15% in the state’s 2016 primaries. That surge was largely driven by absentee ballots, which made up 78% of the 524,000 votes cast in the primaries.
Increases in turnout also occurred in deep-red states, further negating Trump’s argument. In South Dakota, where Republicans control the state government, turnout rose to 28% from 22% in 2016. Of the more than 154,000 votes cast, mail-in ballots accounted for about 89,000 of them, according to the South Dakota Secretary of State’s Office. That is far more than the roughly 19,000 mail-in ballots requested for the 2016 primary.
Rather than try to encourage their own voters to vote by mail, the Republican Party has committed to spending $20 million on legal fights to limit mail-in voting across the country. Trump, whose poll numbers have plummeted in recent months amid the coronavirus crisis and the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd, views these lawsuits as the key to his re-election.
“My biggest risk is that we don’t win lawsuits,” Trump told Politico last week. “We have many lawsuits going all over. And if we don’t win those lawsuits, I think — I think it puts the election at risk.”
Republicans have even blocked 90% of the $4 billion that Democrats in Congress are trying to direct to state and local governments to prepare for November’s elections. Trump did not mask his naked partisan reasoning for opposing the aid, saying it would produce “levels of voting that, if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
Democrats and even some Republicans have blasted Trump’s attacks on voting-by-mail. Tom Ridge, the former Republican governor of Pennsylvania and nation’s first homeland security secretary, was among those to criticize Trump’s campaign against mail-in voting.
“I think it’s very sad and very disappointing that with almost five months to go, the president seems to [want to] try to delegitimize the November 3 election,” Ridge told NPR last week. “It just seems to me that this may be an indication he’s more worried about the outcome than he’s worried about fraud.”
Ridge, who now co-chairs a bipartisan group pushing to expand vote-by-mail, pointed out that in the 2016 election that Trump won, 25% of ballots were cast by mail. He also noted that Trump himself voted absentee this past spring.
Democrats have also criticized Trump, accusing him of trying to suppress the vote.
“It’s entirely his intent to undermine the process of voting,” Stacey Abrams, a former Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Georgia, told MSNBC on Monday. “We know that vote by mail is a critical part of how voting has to occur in 2020 to ensure that as many people as possible can vote safely from home.”
Other lawmakers and legal experts echoed her argument on Twitter on Monday.
Trump also claimed on Monday that foreign countries would somehow print “MILLIONS OF MAIL-IN BALLOTS,” which would be “THE SCANDAL OF OUR TIMES!”
As the Washington Post pointed out, this is not a credible argument either. Such an effort would require foreign entities to identify millions of active voters who have not recently voted—in order to avoid duplicating ballots—and then somehow submit ballots on their behalf without getting caught, an extremely implausible idea given the nation’s decentralized voting system.
Ballots are also directly linked to voters, who have to register with their local county registrars. Those registrars then verify the ballots against existing information, typically by matching it to a voter’s handwritten signature, before authenticating the ballot as valid.
“In other words, not only would this foreign government need to identify nonvoters or get lucky by not duplicating ballots; it would also have to somehow ensure that the ballots it was submitting didn’t include obviously forged signatures,” wrote WaPo’s Philip Bump.
Even though Trump’s claims are plainly false, his repeated attacks on mail-in voting pose an enormous threat to November’s elections. A study from Dartmouth concluded that unfounded claims of fraud from Trump and his allies dramatically undermine confidence in the American election system, especially among Trump voters. Ridge pointed out that Trump’s attacks could backfire.
“You potentially jeopardize your own interest by ignoring the reality that there are literally millions of men and women who want to vote absentee,” Ridge told NPR. Recognizing this possibility, some local and state Republicans have continued to urge supporters to vote by mail during the recent primaries,
While Democrats are pushing for expanded vote-by-mail, they’re also aware that it’s likely to lead to a potential nightmare scenario: With a huge increase in mail-in votes, the odds of knowing who the winner is on Election Day are slim. And with Trump attacking mail-in voting, it’s plausible that he could lead the Election Day tallies in key swing states and claim victory long before the presumably Democratic-leaning mail-in ballots are counted.
Such an outcome could once again prompt Trump to claim voter fraud if those mail-in ballots put Biden ahead. Just weeks before his victory in the 2016 election, Trump hedged his bets for a potential loss, falsely stating that “people that have died 10 years ago are still voting” and that there is a massive problem with “illegal immigrants [who] are voting.”
Neither was true.