Fact check: Trump pushes baseless conspiracy about foreign interference in mail-in voting

The president said the 2020 election will be "rigged" by foreign countries printing fake ballots. Here's why this is extremely unlikely, according to experts.
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A motorist drops off a mail-in ballot for a congressional special election in Maryland on April 28.Julio Cortez / AP

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By Jane C. Timm

President Donald Trump on Monday claimed without evidence that foreign countries will manufacture fake mail-in ballots in order to rig the 2020 election.

While this idea might make for the plot of a thriller, the facts don’t add up in real life. Even as the country braces for a surge in voting by mail because of the coronavirus pandemic, millions of Americans already vote by mail with no signs of widespread fraud, foreign or domestic.

Some 23.6 percent of Americans — more than 32 million people — voted by mail in 2016, according to a government estimate. What's more, there are a number of protections in place that make the scenario Trump describes not just difficult, but extremely far-fetched, given the likelihood that the scheme would be discovered, election experts said.

“It’s a ridiculous claim,” said Rick Hasen, a professor and an election law expert at the University of California, Irvine. “Not because tampering with absentee ballots is impossible, but because what he’s describing would be a ridiculous way to try to steal an election.”

There are numerous safeguards that keep American elections secure. Absentee ballots are printed on a particular paper stock — by specific vendors — and are traceable, sometimes with preprinted barcodes. They are then sent to registered, eligible voters. Once voters fill them out, most states use the voter’s signature to confirm that the eligible voter cast the ballot. They're also all paper, allowing for an audit or recount over any concerns.

“It would be quite difficult for a foreign country to try and make a perfect copy of such ballots. They would have to have accurate voter information including voter identifying information, such as signatures or the last four of people’s driver license numbers,” Hasen said. “There are just so many things that would make it obvious that these ballots would be fraudulent that such a scheme would be easily caught and deterred.”

In a second tweet Monday, the president also claimed that Americans had voted through two World Wars, seemingly suggesting that the coronavirus — which spreads through close contact and is a different threat entirely — shouldn’t stop in-person elections, either.

"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!" he wrote in one tweet.

While it's true that American elections took place during numerous wars, it's worth noting that absentee ballots were a huge part of them. Mail voting was created so that Union soldiers could vote in the Civil War and the system was expanded through subsequent wartimes.

“Some of the earliest uses of absentee ballots were to allow voters defending our country overseas to cast a ballot fairly and safely,” Hasen said.

By World War II, all states allowed soldiers to vote absentee, with about 3.2 million absentee ballots being cast by the military. That was nearly 7 percent of the total electorate in the 1944 presidential election.

Later, Trump appeared to suggest that the widespread protests against police brutality and racial disparities in policing sparked by the killing of George Floyd in police custody were akin to a national election.

Hasen said he feared that a foreign state would take up the president up on his suggestion — even though they would be caught — simply to damage the public's confidence in U.S. elections, something he suspects the president is also doing.

“The president is undermining confidence in the process. It could provide a path for him to try and contest the election if it’s close, and it potentially disenfranchises his own voters by discouraging them from voting in a safe way,” he told NBC News.