by Philip Bump
The emergence of the importance of alternatives to in-person voting, spurred by the coronavirus pandemic, has resulted in President Trump repeatedly attacking vote-by-mail efforts. Those attacks should be considered only in light of Trump’s track record on the issue of the country’s voting process, a track record that has been uniformly dishonest, divorced from reality and motivated primarily by his own political interests.
As voters in Wisconsin went to the polls on Tuesday — against the wishes of Gov. Tony Evers (D), who’d tried to postpone in-person voting — Trump was asked about the use of mail ballots in elections.
First, Trump claimed that Evers tried to move the election because Trump endorsed a judicial candidate, which has no basis in reality. Then Trump turned his attention to voting by mail.
“Mail ballots, they cheat. Okay, people cheat,” Trump said. “Mail ballots are a very dangerous thing for this country because they are cheaters. They go and collect them, they’re fraudulent in many cases. You’ve got to vote. They should have voter I.D., by the way, you really want to do it right, voter I.D.”
He then called mail ballots “corrupt” and said the process was a “horrible thing.”
This line of argument, such as it is, was reinforced in a tweet on Wednesday morning.
Republicans should fight very hard when it comes to state wide mail-in voting. Democrats are clamoring for it. Tremendous potential for voter fraud, and for whatever reason, doesn’t work out well for Republicans. @foxandfriends— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 8, 2020
That tweet, by itself, makes clear what Trump’s focus is: his concern is that voting by mail “doesn’t work out well for Republicans.” He’s probably trying to reinforce his vague claims that there is “[t]remendous potential for voter fraud,” but this is his fundamental concern: easier access to voting is bad for his party and, by extension, himself.
How do we know this is his concern? Because he said it was last week.
Calling in to “Fox and Friends,” Trump complained about efforts by Democratic members of Congress to include voting access issues in legislation aimed at addressing the coronavirus pandemic.
“The things they had in there were crazy,” Trump said. “They had things — levels of voting that, if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
For some, voting is a right which should be broadly encouraged. For others, voting is primarily a means to political power, and constraining voting to protect that power is part of the game. For Trump, voting is a means to his own political power. Undercutting confidence in voting to protect or preserve that power is simply part of how he operates.
That’s been the case since the 2016 election. Then, worried about losing, he claimed repeatedly that the vote in Pennsylvania had in the past been tainted by voter fraud. (It hadn’t been to any significant extent.) When he won Pennsylvania, he turned his accusations of fraud to California (where he got clobbered) and New Hampshire (which he lost narrowly). He always alleged that just enough fraud had occurred that it cost him the state; he never offered any actual evidence for his claims.
There isn’t any evidence of any significant fraud in that or nearly any other recent election, of course, but that hasn’t stopped Trump from continuing to allege that fraud is a problem. Except, we should note, in Michigan after the 2016 election where a recount was underway. Then, his lawyers filed a brief stating explicitly that “[a]ll available evidence suggests that the 2016 general election was not tainted by fraud or mistake.”
After his inauguration, he formed a committee tasked with uncovering fraud. It quickly collapsed due to a combination of incompetence, overreaching and opposition from even Republican states. At its heart, the commission reflected a years-long effort by primarily Republican legislators to build a case for mandated voter identification, an effort that has been shown to tamp down turnout among heavily Democratic voters. It also sought to replicate the work of past efforts to uncover fraud, like one initiated by George W. Bush in 2002. After five years, that investigation turned up no evidence of organized efforts to affect the results of federal elections.
There’s simply no evidence that the type of fraud which has been the focus of Trump’s attacks since 2016 — fraudulent in-person voting — exists to any significant degree. Trump’s once-common argument that people go to a polling place, vote, leave, put on a hat, come back in and vote again is nonsensical, if we’re being generous.
Experts on voting law do note that fraud can be more of a problem with absentee or mail-in ballots. This makes some sense, given how much easier it is to pretend to be someone else from the privacy of your own home. (No change of hat needed!) We have a recent example of this, in fact. The results of a 2018 congressional race in North Carolina were thrown out when it was revealed that a worker for the winning campaign had engaged in an alleged effort to fraudulently collect and complete absentee ballots, just as Trump warned in his comments on Tuesday.
The candidate who benefited from that effort was the Republican.
Despite the increased risk of fraud from mail-in voting, there’s still not robust evidence that widespread fraud occurs with any regularity — or, despite Trump’s tweet, that Republicans necessarily suffer as a result of the practice. Five states conduct all of their elections by mail: Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington. Colorado is generally considered a purple state; Utah is dark red. (One elections expert noted on Twitter that Trump won three of the states which in 2018 had the highest percentage of mail voters.) As Utah’s Republican secretary of state said last year, the problem with mail-ballot fraud in the state isn’t organized efforts to throw the result but, instead, people not knowing that it’s technically illegal for them to send in a family member’s ballot.
All of this presentation of reality is relatively useless, since Trump’s motivation in arguing that mail-voting is suspect is rooted not in an honest assessment of the evidence but, instead, on his wanting to tamp down on efforts by Democratic officials to ensure that more people, including more Democrats, can vote. Trump’s criticisms are not offered in good faith and should not be treated as though they are.
After all, consider how he answered another question on Tuesday.
“Mr. President, you were highly critical of mail-in voting, mail-in ballots for voting, but you voted by mail in Florida’s election last month, didn’t you?” a reporter asked.
“Well, sure,” Trump replied.
“But how do you reconcile that?” the reporter asked.
“Because I’m allowed to,” Trump replied. “Well that’s called out of state — you know why I voted? Because I happened to be in the White House, and I won’t be able to go to Florida and vote.”
“What is the difference between mailing within state or mailing outside?” the reporter asked.
“Well, there’s a big difference between somebody that’s out of state and does a ballot and everything’s sealed, certified and everything else,” Trump said. “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.”
Big living room.
“I think if you vote,” he added, “you should go — and even the concept of early voting is not the greatest because a lot of things happen, but it’s okay. But you should go, and you should vote. I think you should go, and you should vote.”
Unless you happen to be unable to get to the polling place because you are president.
If you’re a Democrat concerned about contracting a potentially deadly virus? You have to take that risk and go out to vote. Not because Trump’s claims about rampant, undetected fraud are true, but because it’s useful for him to make those claims if it reduces the number of Democrats who vote.
Philip Bump is a politcal correspondent for The Washington Post based in New York.