WASHINGTON – Voting rights experts sounded the alarm over outrageous claims President Donald Trump made about mail-in voting during Tuesday night’s presidential debate and his refusal to say that he would accept election results.
From claiming mail carriers in West Virginia are “selling the ballots” to arguing that mail ballots are being “dumped in rivers” and “creeks,” Trump ramped up his yearlong assault on mail-in voting with misleading and conspiratorial statements in his first debate against Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
“This is not going to end well,” Trump warned, continuing his long line of attacks about mail-in voting throughout the campaign intended to cast doubt over the legitimacy of the November election.
Election experts pushed back Wednesday.
“What he said was full of misstatements and inaccuracies,” Lawrence Norden, director of the Election Reform Program for the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York School of Law. “Mail-in ballots are safe and secure. We’ve been voting in some form by mail since the Civil War.
“It’s dangerous to be making these false statements and accusations so close to the election.”
Trump would not commit to refraining from prematurely claiming victory before all absentee ballots are counted. He also warned he could challenge the legitimacy of mail-in ballots to the Supreme Court to settle the election.
“I think I’m counting on them to look at the ballots, definitely,” Trump said.
Here’s a rundown of some of Trump’s falsehoods and misleading statements about mail-in voting:
Trump misleads on ‘unsolicited’ mail-in ballots
Trump claimed his objection to mail-in voting is only with “unsolicited” mail ballots, adding that they’re “sending millions of ballots all over the country.”
Yet in the vast majority of states, including nearly every battleground state, voters simply have the option to request mail-in ballots. This includes Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Florida and Arizona – the six states most likely to decide the election.
Millions more people are expected to vote by mail because of the coronavirus pandemic. But only nine states and the District of Columbia are holding universal mail-in elections – in which ballots are automatically mailed unsolicited to all registered voters without needing to first request one.
Five of those states, Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Utah and Hawaii, planned to hold all-mail elections even before the pandemic and only one of those states – Nevada – is considered a swing state in the race for president. By far, the state that will account for most of the unsolicited mail-in ballots in the U.S. is California, which Biden is expected to win easily.
Ballots dumped in ‘creeks’ and a ‘wastepaper basket’
Decrying mail-in voting, Trump said, “There’s fraud. They found them in creeks. They found some, just happened to have the name Trump just the other day in a wastepaper basket.”
It appears Trump was referring to two separate cases from last week – but neither amounts to clear examples of widespread voter fraud.
Fox News reported three trays of mail that included some absentee ballots were found in a ditch – which Trump may have been referencing when he said “creek” – in Outagamie County, Wisconsin. The mail was en route to the post office and was returned to the postal inspector when discovered. Investigators did not say whether the ballots were being sent to voters or turned in by voters.
Trump’s reference to “wastepaper baskets” stems from federal authorities announcing an inquiry into nine discarded mail-in military ballots recovered from a county elections office in northeast Pennsylvania. Seven of the ballots were cast for Trump.
But the FBI said there was no evidence of a “coordinated” voter fraud campaign.
Norden pointed to several security measures in place to ensure that mail-in ballots cast by voters make it to election officials: representative of both parties are assigned to monitor absentee ballots; a process that exists to ensure the number of voters who sent back ballots matches the number counted; and systems that allow voters to track their ballots after returning it.
“These kind of baseless accusations don’t have any basis in reality,” Norden said.
West Virginia officials correct Trump on false claim
Trump singled out West Virginia, saying, “Take a look at West Virginia, mailmen selling the ballots. They’re being sold. They’re being dumped in rivers. This is a horrible thing for our country.”
The president was referencing a case from July in which a postal carrier in Pendleton County, West Virginia, pleaded guilty to mail and election fraud for changing the political affiliation on five voter absentee ballots applications – not ballots – from Democrat to Republican during the state’s primary.
West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner, a Republican, issued a statement Wednesday to offer “clarification” about Trump’s statements, noting that the case did not involve mail ballots.
“Voters should be confident that this election will be safe, secure, and fair,” Warner said. “This was a prime example of a dedicated clerk, closely watching her election process, and quickly reporting an anomaly as she had been trained to do. The system worked, and we were able to rapidly assure the voters of West Virginia that the election was secure.”
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., was more pointed in his remarks.
“It’s plain wrong that President Trump would mislead Americans to think mail-in voter fraud is happening in West Virginia,” Manchin. “There is no widespread voter fraud in West Virginia and any claim to the contrary is false. “
Trump states falsehoods on why ballots are rejected
At another point in the debate, Trump said, “I read today where at least 1% of the ballots for 2016 were invalidated. They take them. We don’t like them. We don’t like them. They throw them out left and right.”
The president was accurate about the number of invalidated ballots. According to a report from the U.S. Assistance Election Commission, 318,728 absentee ballots, around 1%, were rejected in the 2016 presidential election.
But there is no evidence to suggest that election officials discarded ballots because they “don’t like them.”
The same report found 27.5% of ballots were rejected because of non-matching signatures; 23% because of missed deadlines; and 20% because of no signatures, among other valid reasons. Each requirement is meant to limit voter fraud.
It was safeguards designed to ensure the authenticity of absentee ballots that led to 1% of them getting rejected in 2016. Rejected mail ballots are usually the result of user error by the voter, not fraud.
Trump leaves out key point on extended deadlines
Trump bemoaned how some states allow mail-in ballots to be received days after the election.
“Can you imagine where they say, ‘You have to have your ballot in by Nov. 10?’ Nov. 10,” Trump said. “That’s seven days after the election, in theory, should have been announced.”
But Trump did not mention that mail-in ballots in all states must still be postmarked by Election Day – and, in many states, days before Election Day. No one will be actively voting after Election Day.
Two ballots don’t mean two votes
As he railed on “unsolicited” mail-in ballots, Trump brought up a recent case in which voters in a “Democrat area” received two ballots. It appears he was talking about Fairfax County, Virginia.
“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,” Trump said.
Around 1,000 voters in Fairfax County – and at least 1,400 voters overall in Virginia – received duplicate ballots in recent weeks because of a printing issue, the Washington Post reported. Local officials blamed the high volume of mail-in ballot requests for the error.
But Virginia election officials stressed that safeguards are in place to ensure that voters won’t be able to vote twice. That includes a verification system that would reject the extra ballot if an individual tried to vote more than once.
Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.