Reality check: Trump claims mail-in ballots will cause ‘rigged election’

Click to play video: 'Trump claims voting by mail-in ballots can result in ‘tremendous fraud’'
Trump claims voting by mail-in ballots can result in ‘tremendous fraud’
WATCH: Trump claims voting by mail-in ballots can result in ‘tremendous fraud’ – May 20, 2020

U.S. President Donald Trump says mail-in voting amid the novel coronavirus pandemic could lead to a “rigged 2020 election,” but experts disagree, saying the practice is safe and voter fraud is rare.

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In a tweet on Monday, Trump claimed “millions” of mail-in ballots will be printed by “foreign countries, and others,” if the country opts to vote in this manner.

“It will be the scandal of our times!” Trump wrote.

But, Matthew Lebo, chair of political science at Western University, said mail-in voting does not substantially increase voter fraud, and if it does at all, it would be by a “tiny, tiny amount.”

Lebo said voting by mail is “very safe,” like voting in person, and noted that five U.S. states — Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington — have been voting by mail for years.

All states allow at least a portion of the population to vote by mail.

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Lebo said overall voter fraud happens “extremely rarely.”

“It happens a few dozen times in the United States, over a billion ballots cast in the 21st century,” he said. “It’s a crime that does nothing for the criminal.”

Charles Stewart, a distinguished professor of political science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), said mail-in voting opens “more potentials for fraud” because the ballots are not in the control of election officials the same way they are during in-person voting. But he added there are “fail-safe” mechanisms to ensure things are done correctly.

“First of all, they start with most states requiring voters to request an absentee ballot so that there’s a way to verify that request and the address the ballot is going to,” he explained. “And then on top of that, when the ballot comes back, there is an opportunity to validate the signature on the ballot and to verify that the ballot is coming back from the person intended.”

He said there is “periodically a small amount of fraud,” but that it is “almost never wholesale.”

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“The ones that are reported are minuscule, especially when compared to the volume of mail balloting,” he said.

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‘Conspiracy theory talk’

Stewart said it is “ludicrous” and “laughable” to consider that a foreign country or group could flood the U.S. with fraudulent ballots, as Trump has claimed.

“There are just so many logistical hurdles that any actor would need to jump over, whether they be foreign or domestic, to flood the United States with fraudulent mailed ballots,he said.

Stewart said such an actor would have to figure out how to print the ballots, and how to forge the signature of hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of voters.

“So it just makes no sense logistically,” he said.

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Lebo said Trump’s claim is about “setting the stage of who to blame” should he lose the election, and is “conspiracy theory talk.”

“It’s just digging into people’s paranoia about outside influences,” he said. “A huge proportion of the population in the States believes in conspiracy theories, [and] in Canada, too, and the idea of outside influences trying to try to undermine American elections, that’s certainly something that people have heightened sensitivities about.”

The Florida recount

Lebo said the “best example” of voter fraud or manipulation concerning absentee ballots or mail-in ballots happened within the U.S., during the 2000 election in Florida under Republican Secretary of State Katherine Harris.

Lebo said when absentee ballots came in from overseas, if they had from a ZIP code from a known Democratic area, it was less likely that they would be counted.

It was done by the vote counters to help Republicans,” Lebo said. “It was not done by voters stealing ballots or trying to vote with someone else’s absentee ballot rate.”

The state was forced to recount votes in what is now known as “The Florida Recount of 2000.”

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Voter suppression

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Lebo said one reason Trump is making these claims about mail-in voting is to try to suppress the vote.

He said mailed ballots make voting easier, leading to an increased turnout.

As it becomes easier to vote, people who then are voting more are more Democratic than they are Republican,” he said.

But, Stewart said while that is a common conception among Republican campaigns, it’s not necessarily true.

There is very little difference in the fraction of Democrats who vote by mail versus the fraction of Republicans that vote by mail, he said.

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Stewart said the largest users of mail ballots are elderly people, a group that has historically — or at least in the last several elections — trended toward the Republican party.

“And so if you drill down to the facts, the facts just don’t verify that mail balloting is an unalloyed advantage to Democrats,” he said.

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Lebo said Trump is also trying to “undermine faith in the election,” with his tweets, something he has been doing since 2016.

“I think he’s also setting things up so that he can say, ‘Well, I warned you months and months in advance that you allowed all this vote by mail and now there’s fraud.'”

If Trump should lose, Lebo said he may fight the election results, making it “much more difficult for there to be a peaceful transition of government.”


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