Washington: It was a week of relentless attacks by President Donald Trump and his allies on mail-in voting for the November election, and truth took a beating at every turn.
Fearing a pandemic-induced surge in such voting will work against him, Trump persisted in arguing that fraud is rampant for mail-in ballots yet quite fine and safe for absentee votes, which are also mailed. There is no functional difference between the two, and both have extensive verification systems.
He and his campaign also tried to cast a new Nevada law as allowing ballots to be “showered” across the state to any living person, regardless of age or citizenship, who would have the ability to vote after 3 November without their identities ever verified. Each of those claims is off the mark.
Meanwhile, on the coronavirus, Trump painted a far rosier picture than his own health experts on when a vaccine could become available. He asserted it could be ready by Election Day.
He also falsely claimed once more that kids are basically immune from the disease, prompting rebukes from both Facebook and Twitter for the misinformation.
A look at the rhetoric and the reality:
TRUMP: “You look at some of the corruption having to do with universal mail-in voting. Absentee voting is OK.” — Axios interview released Monday.
VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: “Absentee balloting is perfectly acceptable. You have to apply for an absentee ballot, signatures are checked, it’s confirmed, it is a long tradition. … But this universal mail in voting where you’re going to see literally ballots showered all across the state — it is ripe for fraud.” — Fox News interview on Monday.
THE FACTS: Trump and his vice president are making a false distinction. Mail-in ballots are cast in the same way as absentee mail ballots, with the same level of scrutiny such as signature verification in many states.
In more than 30 states and the District of Columbia, voters have a right to “no excuse” absentee voting. That means they can use mail-in ballots for any reason, regardless a person is out of town or working. In Florida, the Legislature in 2016 voted to change the wording of such balloting from “absentee” to “vote-by-mail” to make clear a voter can cast such ballots if they wish.
More broadly, voter fraud has proved exceedingly rare. The Brennan Center for Justice in 2017 ranked the risk of ballot fraud at 0.00004 to 0.0009 percent, based on studies of past elections.
Five states relied on mail-in ballots even before the coronavirus pandemic raised concerns about voting in person.
“Trump is simply wrong about mail-in balloting raising a ‘tremendous’ potential for fraud,” Richard L Hasen, an elections expert at the University of California, Irvine, School of Law, wrote recently. “While certain pockets of the country have seen their share of absentee-ballot scandals, problems are extremely rare in the five states that rely primarily on vote-by-mail, including the heavily Republican state of Utah.”
In an apparent turnabout, Trump later in the week urged voters in Florida to vote by mail despite his rhetoric against the practice, arguing in a tweet that its system is “safe and secure, tried and true.” Florida is a must-win state for Trump, where Democratic requests to vote by mail have been surging higher.
STEPHEN MILLER, White House senior adviser: “Here’s a shocking thing for your audience to consider. Nobody who mails in a ballot has their identity confirmed. Nobody checks to see if they’re even a US citizen. Think about that. Any — any foreign national, talk about foreign election interference, can mail in a ballot and nobody even verifies if they’re a citizen of the United States of America.” — Fox News interview Monday.
THE FACTS: He’s incorrect to assert that measures aren’t in place to confirm a voter’s identity or prevent fraud with mail ballots.
Ballots typically require voters to provide identifying information such as a birth date or Social Security or driver’s license number. In most states, voters also sign the back of the envelope, which is then verified with the signature on their voter registrations.
Many jurisdictions use a bar code on the envelope, which is used to help states identify any duplicate ballots and also let voters know if their ballot was received.
Miller ignores separate built-in safeguards for mail-in ballots. The ballots, for instance, are generally sent to registered voters, who have to provide identifying information at the time of registration, such as an address, birth date and proof of citizenship.
In Miller’s hypothetical scenario of a foreign national improperly casting a vote, that ballot would be flagged and rejected for not having a signature on file or for failing to match one that is. Based on the envelope’s bar code, state voting officials also could identify and eliminate any duplicate ballots, whether they were submitted mistakenly or fraudulently.
TRUMP, on the threat from Russia, China and Iran of meddling in the US presidential election: “The biggest risk that we have is mail-in ballots. It’s much easier for them to forge ballots and send them in, it’s much easier for them to cheat with universal mail-in ballots.” — news briefing Friday.
THE FACTS: Mail-in ballots aren’t the biggest risk for foreign interference.
Trying to influence a federal election through mail-in ballots would probably mean paying thousands of US citizens, carefully selected in pivotal states, who are willing to conspire with a foreign government and risk detection and prosecution.
Far easier and cheaper would be a social media campaign seeking to discourage certain groups of people from voting, which is something the FBI has warned about. Or a cyber attack on voter registration data that would eliminate certain voters from the rolls. That could cause havoc at polling places or election offices as officials attempt to count ballots from people who are “missing” from their voter databases.
On Friday, William Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, warned about foreign interference and said Russia was already trying to undercut Democratic candidate Joe Biden. Evanina cited in part Kremlin-linked figures who are “seeking to boost President Trump’s candidacy on social media and Russian television.”
Last month, Attorney General Bill Barr raised the possibility that a “foreign country could print up tens of thousands of counterfeit ballots.” He argued they would be hard to detect, but that’s been disputed by election experts.
Absentee and mail-in ballots are printed on special paper and must be formatted correctly in order to be processed and counted. Ballots are specific to each precinct, often with a long list of local races, and would be identified as fraudulent if everything didn’t match precisely.
TRUMP: With more mail-in voting, “it’s going to be months or years” until a presidential winner is known. — Fox News interview Wednesday.
THE FACTS: Not according to federal law. A presidential outcome will be known one way or another by mid-December.
It’s true that state election officials in some states have cautioned it may take more time to count an expected surge of ballots that people send by mail because they don’t feel safe showing up to the polls. In an election as close as the one in 2016, a delayed tally in some states could keep the outcome from being quickly known.
But for a presidential election, the Constitution gives Congress the power to set the day when each state’s electors, those chosen in November, must cast their electoral votes. Congress set that day for “the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December,” or 14 December this year.
Federal law also sets a presidential election for the Tuesday after the first Monday in November, which is 3 November this election cycle. That means each state will have five weeks to report its final election tally, whether its vote count is fully finished or not.
Delayed results are common in a few states where elections are already conducted largely by mail. But a presidential election hasn’t been left in limbo since 2000, when ballot irregularities in Florida led to chaos and court fights. Ultimately that dispute was settled by the US Supreme Court, which effectively ended Florida’s recount five weeks later on 12 December, 2000, saying that time had run out before electors were set to meet.
TRUMP, on issuing an executive order to address increases in mail-in voting, which he says will lead to more fraud: “I have the right to do it.” — news briefing Monday.
THE FACTS: Not according to the Constitution, which expressly gives states the right to run their elections, with oversight from Congress.
There is no precedent or apparent authority for Trump to try to curtail the use of mail-in ballots by executive order. Any such order from the president would certainly face constitutional challenges in court from voting rights groups.
Trump has previously floated a delay to the 3 November election. The date of the presidential election— the Tuesday after the first Monday in November in every fourth year — is enshrined in federal law and would require an act of Congress to change. Democrats, who control the House, will not support Trump on this. It appears Republicans won’t, either.
TRUMP, on mail ballots: “There’s no verification of signatures. So they don’t even know who’s going to sign this. They have literally a clause that you don’t have to verify the signatures — that they don’t have to do it.” — remarks Wednesday.
THE FACTS: Not true. Nevada’s existing law requires signature checks on mail ballots. A new law also spells out a process by which election officials are to check a signature against the one in government records.
In Nevada’s June primary, nearly 7,000 ballots were thrown out due to mismatched or missing signatures.
MERCEDES SCHLAPP, Trump campaign senior adviser: “Even come Election Day, you could still cast a ballot three days later if you don’t have a postmark, or seven days later if you have a postmark. Say you vote for Joe Biden, then you find out in Nevada that President Trump wins. You can go to your family members, you can go to your colleagues and say, ’Guess what, do you still have that mail-in vote? Let’s cast it, because you can cast it several days after the election.” — CNN interview Tuesday.
THE FACTS: It’s a distortion for her to assert that Nevada voters could still cast ballots several days after the election.
Under the new law, ballots must be postmarked or “cast” by Election Day to be counted. Election officials are given up to seven days to receive and count those ballots after the election. That additional time for receipt is routine practice in many states for overseas and military voters who submit ballots by mail.
Separately, the law states that if a mail ballot is received up to three days after the election, it can be counted if the date of the postmark is unclear or missing. The aim is to provide enough time for delivery and processing of ballots that are properly mailed on Election Day, though the Trump campaign alleges in a lawsuit filed this past week that the three-day provision would allow some ballots to be improperly mailed after the election and then counted.
That scenario is not the same as granting wide license to cast ballots “several days” after the election, as Schlapp asserts.
The campaign’s suit acknowledges that the window for alleged mischief is small because most mail in Nevada already takes at least one or two days to arrive. Some of those ballots may display postmarks showing they were sent late, which would disqualify them.
TRUMP: “What they’re going to do is blanket the state, anybody that ever walked, frankly, will get one.” — Fox News interview Wednesday.
THE FACTS: His imagery of any living being in Nevada receiving a mail-in ballot, regardless of age or other eligibility factors, is false.
The new law requires that ballots be sent to “active” registered voters. “Active” registered voters are generally those with a current address on file with their local elections office.
There are additional requirements to be registered to vote. In Nevada, a person must be a US citizen and resident of the state, at least 18 years old, not currently in state or federal prison, and not found to be mentally incompetent to vote by a court.
NEW YORK VOTING
TRUMP, on two Democratic congressional primaries: “They don’t know what happened to them, is there fraud, is there — it’s a disaster.” — news briefing Tuesday.
THE FACTS: While there were vote-counting delays, there’s no evidence of fraud in the two Democratic congressional primaries in New York City that Trump refers to, which were won by city council member Ritchie Torres and Rep. Carolyn Maloney. Nor did Trump offer any proof of fraud.
New York state decided to allow anyone to vote by mail in the June primary because of the coronavirus pandemic. More than 400,000 people voted by absentee ballot in New York City, a figure that was 10 times the number of absentee ballots cast in the 2016 primary.
Opening and counting those ballots by elections officials took weeks. New York City’s Board of Elections ultimately certified the results six weeks after the election.
TRUMP, asked if a vaccine for COVID-19 could become available before the election: “I think in some cases, yes possible before, but right around that time. …I’m rushing it. I am. I’m pushing everybody.” — interview Thursday on the Geraldo Rivera radio program.
THE FACTS: He’s offering a more ambitious timeline than his health experts and omitting key facts.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious diseases expert, has said he is “cautiously optimistic” that a coronavirus vaccine will be ready by early next year. Even then, Fauci made clear that the vaccine would not be widely available right away.
“Ultimately, within a reasonable period of time, the plans now allow for any American who needs a vaccine to get it within the year 2021,” Fauci told Congress last week.
Under White House orders, federal health agencies and the Defense Department are carrying out a plan to deliver 300 million vaccine doses on a compressed timeline. That will happen only after the Food and Drug Administration determines that one or more vaccines are safe and effective. Several candidates are being tested.
The push for a speedy vaccine has drawn concern from some scientists that the White House will pressure US regulators to approve a vaccine before it’s ready.
In an op-ed this past week, FDA Commissioner Dr Stephen Hahn said his agency will not be influenced by any political pressure and will make decisions “based solely on good science and data.”
TRUMP: “Children are almost — and I would almost say definitely — but almost immune from this disease, so few. They don’t have a problem, they just don’t have a problem. And I’ve have watched some doctors say they’re totally immune.” — Fox news interview Wednesday.
THE FACTS: They aren’t immune. Although it’s true that children are less likely than adults to develop COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has nevertheless counted more than 250,000 infections by the virus in Americans younger than 18, or roughly 7 percent of all cases.
The number of kids who have been infected but not confirmed is almost certainly far higher than that, experts say, because those with mild or no symptoms are less likely to get tested.
Trump overlooks severe COVID-19 illnesses and some deaths of children in the US, even though kids in general tend to get less sick from it than adults do. He also glosses over the fact that kids can spread disease without showing symptoms themselves.
The CDC in April studied the pandemic’s effect on different ages in the US and reviewed preliminary research in China, where the coronavirus started. It said social distancing is important for children, too, for their own safety and that of others.
“Whereas most COVID-19 cases in children are not severe, serious COVID-19 illness resulting in hospitalisation still occurs in this age group,” the CDC study says.
The CDC in May also warned doctors to be on the lookout for a rare but life-threatening inflammatory reaction in some children who’ve had the coronavirus. The condition had been reported in more than 100 children in New York, and in some kids in several other states and in Europe, with some deaths.
Trump’s claim prompted Facebook to delete his post with a link to the Fox News video because of the misinformation. Twitter temporarily blocked the Trump campaign from tweeting from its account, until it removed a post with the same video.
TRUMP: “When you do a lot of testing, you have more cases.” — Fox News interview Wednesday.
THE FACTS: It’s not true that infections are high only because the US diagnostic testing has increased. Trump’s public health officials have repeatedly shot down this line of thinking. Infections are rising because people are infecting each other more than they were when most everyone was hunkered down.
Increased testing does contribute to the higher numbers, but there’s more to it. Testing in fact has uncovered a worrisome trend: The percentage of tests coming back positive for the virus is on the rise across nearly the entire country.
That’s a clear demonstration that sickness is spreading and that the US testing system is falling short.