During the first presidential debate, President Trump made a number of references to incidents across the country that he claimed were proof Democrats are trying to cheat their way to an election victory.
“If I see tens of thousands of ballots being manipulated, I can’t go along with that,” Trump said.
But the way the president piled reference upon reference in a blizzard of vague accusations made it sound scary. So Yahoo News is keeping track of each example of ballots found in lost or discarded mail, small-scale cheating and human error.
Learning the details of these incidents is important so that they can be understood in a larger context.
The first important point is that “you’d have to go back to the 1960s to find significant fraud on a large scale,” according to Rick Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine, and the author of “Election Meltdown.”
A big reason why it’s become harder to cheat, Hasen told Yahoo News, is “the professionalization of election administration and the use of voting machines.”
But despite this, we do have occasional incidents of cheating in local elections.
“It does happen, but it doesn’t happen on a widespread basis when it does happen,” said Michael Adams, a Republican election law attorney who has advised Vice President Mike Pence for years and is now Kentucky’s secretary of state.
“It typically happens in a small town. You’ve got a patronage job on the ballot. You’ve got mayor. You’ve got county executive. Those are the situations where you’ve got people trying to steal an election. No. 1, because there’s money there. And No. 2, because it’s a small race and it’s easier to try to steal a small race than a big one,” Adams told Yahoo News.
Perhaps most significantly, Adams said this: “You’re not going to see widespread fraud in a presidential or a Senate or a governor’s race. It’s just not feasible. And it hasn’t been in 70 or 80 years.”
Frank LaRose, the Republican secretary of state of Ohio, agreed: “The idea that a massive conspiracy could be undertaken that could actually change the result of a governor’s race or U.S. Senate race — or certainly a presidential race — is a very far-fetched idea and beyond, really, the realm of possibility,” he told Yahoo News.
Adams said that ballots are exceptionally hard to forge. “We use very specific types of papers, certain weights, certain colors. It’s very easy for the computers to recognize a fraudulent document. We’ve got pretty high-tech stuff here. Other states do too,” he said.
In addition, most states have hundreds of different versions of their ballots, because the ballot is different in each locality. Creating an operation to produce and mail out these many variations to the right people over a short period of time is a highly elaborate operation in all 50 states plus the District of Columbia.
The complexity of all this is one reason why experts say it’s not realistic to talk about rigging statewide elections, much less a national one.
A third point to keep in mind is that not all election officials are equal. Hasen wrote in “Election Meltdown” that “pockets of incompetence in election administration have enabled both Democrats and Republicans to raise cries of rigged or stolen elections.” He added that “the problem happens with some frequency in large American cities, which are often controlled by Democrats.”
This would appear to be the reason why nearly 100,000 New Yorkers recently received defective ballots.
Hasen advised that “a concerted effort to root out poor election administrators must be a priority, especially in large cities where the task of conducting elections is complex."
When it comes to voting by mail, several states conduct their elections entirely or mostly that way and have best practices for preventing double voting, fake ballots or other forms of cheating.
These measures include bar-code tracking of ballots, matching a voter’s signature on the ballot to the one in state files, and chain-of-custody protocols. That’s in addition to the fact that, in many states, every county creates its own unique ballot. States adapting to higher levels of mail-in voting than in previous years due to COVID-19 are using these other states as examples.
Here are the latest examples of incidents mentioned by Trump or others as examples of fraud. None contradict the context provided above, and many of the president’s comments about them are false or misleading.
“They found ballots in a wastepaper basket three days ago, and they all had the name military ballots. There were military. They all had the name Trump on them.” — Trump, first presidential debate, Sept. 29
In Luzerne County, Pa., nine ballots were found discarded in September. They were mail ballots sent from members of the military stationed overseas. Seven were reported to have been votes cast for Trump.
State election officials say an election worker opened them thinking they were applications for a ballot, which are supposed to be opened. The worker erred in discarding them, because when a mail ballot is accidentally or wrongly opened, it is supposed to be resealed and set aside for counting later.
That did not happen, and the worker who erred was fired. Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar said the incident was “not intentional.”
Trump has talked about this incident repeatedly as an example of cheating, which it is not. A Trump spokesman said this was an example of Democrats trying to “steal the election.” He later deleted that statement from Twitter, but not before it was shared many thousands of times.
“They’re sending millions of ballots all over the country. There’s fraud. They found them in creeks. … They’re being dumped in rivers.” — Trump, first presidential debate, Sept. 29
In Outagamie County, Wis., three trays of mail were found in a ditch on Sept. 21. Initial reports were that there were “several absentee ballots” mixed in with the batches of mail, according to the local sheriff. The U.S. Postal Service inspector investigated.
Trump referred in the first presidential debate to ballots “found in a creek.” Days earlier, he said that those same ballots were “thrown in a ditch.” In fact, further investigation revealed that there were no ballots at all in the batch of mail.
“Did you see what’s going on? Take a look at West Virginia, mailman selling the ballots. They’re being sold.” — Trump, first presidential debate, Sept. 29
In Pendleton County, W.Va., a mail carrier named Thomas Cooper pleaded guilty in July to changing the party affiliation on eight applications for a mail-in ballot. Cooper changed them from Democrat to Republican.
“The Pendleton County clerk called some of the voters after receiving the requests because she knew they were not Republicans,” the Associated Press reported. So not only was there no sale of any ballots, there were no ballots even involved — just applications for them.
“I’m urging my supporters to go in to the polls and watch very carefully, because that’s what has to happen. I am urging them to do it. As you know, today there was a big problem. In Philadelphia, they went in to watch. They’re called poll watchers, a very safe, very nice thing. They were thrown out. They weren’t allowed to watch. You know why? Because bad things happen in Philadelphia. Bad things.” — Trump, first presidential debate, Sept. 29
Philadelphia opened “satellite” voting centers for the first time on Sept. 29, and in at least one location a woman who said the Trump campaign had hired her to “oversee the integrity of the election” was turned away by election officials.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the Trump campaign currently does not have any poll watchers approved in Philadelphia, and the woman did not present a certificate stating that the campaign had selected her to be a poll watcher. But even if she had, the 17 satellite voting centers in Philadelphia are different from the fully operational early polling locations, and poll watchers are not allowed to observe at them, city officials said.
And as for “bad things” in Philadelphia, that’s a pretty vague statement. But like in just about every large city — or really anywhere else in the country — there are examples of malfeasance one could point to.
In May, an election judge in Philadelphia pleaded guilty to adding a total of 113 votes over three elections from 2014 to 2016 to help judicial candidates running for a local court.
Domenick DeMuro was an election judge in one of Philadelphia’s 1,692 ward divisions. He was paid a few thousand dollars by a former congressman, Michael “Ozzie” Myers, who served four years in Congress during the 1970s before becoming the first representative in over a century to be expelled from Congress for taking bribes. He served three years in federal prison.
Myers was indicted in July for his role in the scheme.
“What about Omar where she gets caught harvesting? What the hell is going on? I hope your U.S. attorney is involved. What is going on with Omar?” — Trump, rally in Duluth, Minn., Sept. 30
Trump was referring to a series of videos released by a right-wing activist named James O’Keefe that claimed to show evidence of illegal behavior.
O’Keefe and his group, Project Veritas, alleged that the videos showed illegal ballot collection, referring to it as “ballot harvesting.” Ballot collection is legal in Minnesota, with a limit of three ballots per person doing the collection, but for a roughly two-week period leading up to the Aug. 11 primary that limit was not enforced. Project Veritas claims its video evidence shows that a Minneapolis activist collected more than three ballots outside that window.
The group also said that the videos depicted a scheme to pay people for their ballots in Minneapolis, which would be illegal, and tried to connect that accusation to Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar’s reelection campaign. But O’Keefe’s video did not offer verifiable proof of these allegations.
O’Keefe has a history of making misleading and exaggerated claims, and this latest story has become increasingly shaky under further inspection. The Minneapolis Police Department has said it is “looking into the validity” of the claims made.
“Take a look at what happened in New Jersey.” — Trump, first presidential debate, Sept. 29
In August, the results of a city council race in Paterson, N.J., were overturned and a new election was ordered by a judge who determined that the result was tainted by cheating.
William McKoy, the incumbent, lost the Democratic primary in May by 240 votes but alleged that his opponent, Alex Mendez, stole ballots out of mailboxes and submitted them fraudulently. New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal in June charged Mendez and three other men with unauthorized possession of ballots.
“Take a look at what happened in Manhattan.” — Trump, first presidential debate, Sept. 29
On Sept. 29, the New York City Board of Elections admitted that it had sent defective absentee ballots to nearly 100,000 voters, mostly in Brooklyn. The voters received ballots with the correct address but with another person’s name on them.
The city is reprinting and resending these ballots, and blamed the vendor it used. The New York City Board of Elections, however, does have a long and troubled history of incompetence.
“Tremendous problems with the ballots. Fifty thousand in Ohio. Twenty-five thousand — you have to see it. I mean, every day, there’s a story about ballots. Some thrown out; they happen to have the name ‘Trump.’ Military ballots were thrown out with the name ‘Trump’ on them. Okay?” - Trump, remarks at White House rally, October 10
Almost 50,000 defective absentee ballots were sent to voters in Franklin County, Ohio. County officials said on October 9 that they were sending postcards to every voter affected and were moving as quickly as possible to send them corrected ballots.
Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, a Republican, told Yahoo News in August that Trump’s complaints about possible fraud are baseless in his state. “None of the things that he's raised are valid points here in Ohio. In Ohio, both Republicans and Democrats have trusted absentee voting for a long time,” LaRose said.
The mention of military ballots by Trump here is a reference to the ballots in Luzerne County, Pa., that is explained above.
Problems not yet mentioned by Trump
On Sept. 24, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (who is now himself accused of bribery and abusing his office) brought charges against a county commissioner in Gregg County and three others, accusing them of arranging for able-bodied voters to claim that they are disabled so they could vote by mail.
There were reportedly a number of ballots in a batch of mail found next to a dumpster in North Arlington, N.J., on Oct. 2. The U.S. Postal Service is investigating. On October 7, a 26-year old mail carrier was arrested and accused of discarding 1,875 pieces of mail, including 99 mail ballots that were due to be delivered to voters. He was charged with one count of delay, secretion, or detention of mail and one count of obstruction of mail.
Clarification: An earlier version of this story stated that ballot collection in Minnesota was legal for only a two-week period this summer. It has been updated to clarify that a limit on ballot collection was not enforced during that time.
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