As Democrats rally behind mail-in voting as a way to ensure Americans will be safe as they cast a ballot in November, President Donald Trump has begun arguing that an election conducted via the postal service would be riddled with fraud — an allegation based on a number of false or misleading claims.
"Mail ballots — they cheat. OK? People cheat," he said April 7. "There's a lot of dishonesty going along with mail-in voting."
There’s no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the United States, according to numerous investigations and studies. The president’s own voter fraud investigatory committee disbanded without producing evidence of any systemic issues.
But as the president repeatedly argues against expanding an already widely-used voting method, let's take a look at some of his recent claims — that ballots are frequently falsified, that voting absentee is very different than voting by mail, that only Democratic-led states employ such a system — and the facts.
Claim: Mail-in ballots are often 'fraudulent.' In fact, fraudulent ballots are rare, experts say.
"Mail ballots are a very dangerous thing for this country, because they're cheaters. They go and collect them. They're fraudulent in many cases,” Trump said April 7.
There are, of course, anecdotal and extraordinary reports of voter fraud that include the collection and illegal use of ballots — like the case of the Republican operative in North Carolina who investigators said collected and tampered with absentee ballots in 2018 — but experts stress that the numbers are exceedingly rare.
Richard Hasen, an election law expert and a professor at the University of California, Irvine, pointed to an exhaustive News21 review of voter fraud between 2000 and 2012, which found just 491 incidents of alleged absentee voter fraud among more than a decade of elections and 146 million registered voters.
“No means of voting is perfect, but the benefits of vote-by-mail — particularly during a pandemic — greatly exceed the risks of fraud associated with it,” he told NBC News.
Five states — Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah — already vote entirely by mail, sending a ballot to registered voters. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least 21 other states allow some smaller elections, like school board contests, to be conducted by mail.
Election officials in mail voting states say they don't have problems with fraud.
“We’re not seeing the rampant fraud that the president talked about,” Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman, a Republican, told NBC News in an interview this week.
Her office carefully crosschecks ballot and voter registration signatures and uses nationwide data sets to verify voters’ identity and discern whether any fraud has occurred. Any credible incidents of double voting are referred for prosecution, she said.
“We can look at commercial data and you can really see if the John Smith in Seattle has a different residence history than John Smith in Portland,” she said.
Wyman said she and her elections director have talked to officials in every state, as well as Puerto Rico, about the mechanics and practices of voting by mail on a large scale since the coronavirus pandemic erupted and upended the 2020 primaries just after Super Tuesday.
Despite the public health risks, Wisconsin's primary election went forward this week with in-person voting after two courts sided with the state's Republicans, prompting outcry from many residents and voting rights groups and increasing calls among Democrats to mandate the option of voting by mail in November's general election.
Kirsten Rappleye, chief of staff to Utah’s Republican Lt. Gov. Spencer J. Cox, who oversees the state’s elections, said in an email that “there is very little evidence of voter fraud within our mail-in system here in Utah.”
The deeply conservative state finished transitioning over to a fully vote-by-mail system this year.
Claim: Voting absentee is "very" different than mail-in voting. Not really.
"Absentee Ballots are a great way to vote for the many senior citizens, military, and others who can’t get to the polls on Election Day. These ballots are very different from 100% Mail-In Voting, which is 'RIPE for FRAUD,' and shouldn’t be allowed!" Trump tweeted April 8.
This is misleading. Absentee voting is mail-in voting on a smaller scale, sometimes with different rules on who is allowed to take advantage of the accommodation.
All states have absentee voting. Two-thirds allow voters to vote absentee for any reason, while a third of states require voters provide a valid excuse. Many require anyone who wants to vote absentee to proactively request a ballot by a certain deadline. In the handful of states with 100 percent mail-in voting systems, voters are typically sent a ballot where they've registered to vote.
"When 6 in 10 of your voters get an absentee ballot, you’re already vote by mail, you just don’t know it," Wyman said.
Claim: Only blue states vote by mail. This is false.
In response to a question from a reporter who named the states that already vote entirely by mail, Trump drew a partisan distinction, suggesting that mail-in ballots favor Democrats.
“Every one of those states that you mentioned is a state that happens to be won by the Democrats,” the president said April 8.
Not true. While Hawaii, Oregon and Washington typically send Democrats to Washington, D.C., Colorado has long been a purple state and it has a congressional delegation split evenly between the two parties.
Utah, meanwhile, is reliably a red state that Trump won in 2016. The state is currently represented by two Republican senators, a Republican governor, a Republican-controlled state Legislature, and a House delegation with three Republicans and one Democrat.
What's more, state Director of Elections Justin Lee, who works with Cox, said Utah has not seen evidence that the mail-in voting system benefits Democrats.
"It doesn't seem to benefit one party or another at all," he said. "One of the good indications of that is our one competitive congressional district — the fourth district — has flipped back and forth over the last few years from Republican to Democrat."
Claim: Mail-in voting allows people to collect ballots and vote more than once. This is false.
"There’s a big difference between somebody that’s out of state and does a ballot and everything is sealed, certified, and everything else. You see what you have to do with the certifications. And you get thousands and thousands of people sitting in somebody's living room, signing ballots all over the place. No, I think that mail-in voting is a terrible thing," Trump claimed April 7.
The picture Trump paints here is at odds with the reality on the ground, and there's no evidence of this occurring. States with all-mail voting systems employ numerous security measures to ensure that voters are casting their own ballots.
In Utah, Lee said voters must sign the envelope seal and that seal must match the voter's signature on file. The state has even built a system to catch potential fraud of the sort Trump alleges — directly contacting voters if their ballot signature doesn't match the voter registration signature and asking them to update it in their files if their signature has changed, for instance. Washington has a similar system.
Claim: A million fraudulent votes have been cast in California. There's no evidence of this.
Pressed by a reporter for evidence of mail-in voter fraud on April 8, Trump pointed to California, a state where he's previously alleged enormous voter fraud exists.
“There’s evidence that's being compiled just like it's being compiled in the state of California, where they settled with Judicial Watch, saying that a million people should not have been voting in — you saw that,” Trump said. “Judicial Watch settled where they agreed that a million people should not have voted, where they were 115 years old and lots of things, and people were voting in their place."
Here, Trump is making misleading remarks about a settlement between the government of California, which is led by Democrats, and Judicial Watch, a conservative group that often threatens legal action or sues in pursuit of aggressive voter roll maintenance. Judicial Watch argued in a 2017 suit that California was breaking the law in the way it handled inactive voter registrations.
In 2019, California agreed to begin a process of purging inactive voters off its voter rolls as part of that settlement. But none of this is evidence that inactive voter registrations — like those of voters who have died or moved away — are a sign of fraud in any election. California's settlement did not include an admission of any kind of wrongdoing.
Voter purges are a routine part of voter roll maintenance, though voting rights advocates maintain they should be judiciously and carefully done so as not to disenfranchise eligible voters who simply do not vote frequently.