Fact-checking falsehoods on mail-in voting

(Scott McIntyre | The New York Times) Election workers process mail-in ballots for Florida's primary election in Doral, Fla., Aug. 18, 2020. Voters are facing a deluge of misinformation about voting by mail, some prompted by the president. Here's a guide to those false claims.

If you are among the tens of millions of Americans who intend to vote by mail this year, you’re facing a deluge of misinformation about the integrity of that voting method.

Much of it is coming from President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly attacked state efforts to expand voting by mail. He uses language meant to discourage it, mischaracterizing mail-in ballots as “dangerous,” “unconstitutional,” “a scam” or rife with “fraud.”

His comments are not true. There have been numerous independent studies and government reviews finding voter fraud extremely rare in all forms, including mail-in voting. The president is making these claims to lay the groundwork for possibly not accepting the voting results, going so far as refusing to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses.

Here’s a fact check to help debunk some of the common misperceptions and falsehoods.

Absentee ballots are more secure than mail-in ballots. False.

Trump, in explaining why he favored mail ballots in one state and not in another, has claimed that states like Florida — where he has voted by mail — are more secure because they use “absentee ballots” rather than mail-in ballots. (The state itself refers to them as “vote-by-mail ballots.”)

There have also been viral Twitter posts claiming that mail-in ballots cannot be “verified,” pose a greater threat to election integrity than “absentee ballots” or are not handled through a “chain of custody,” meaning they are not properly tracked.

[Read more: Utah’s mail-in ballots are printed by private companies and some have had screw-ups]

Despite these claims, which sound consequential, there is no meaningful difference between “absentee ballots” and “vote-by-mail ballots.” The terms are often used interchangeably. Moreover, they are both secure forms of voting.

In terms of security, both mail-in and absentee ballots are paper ballots hand-marked by the voter, which the National Conference of State Legislatures considers the “gold standard of election security.” Forty-four states have signature verification protocols for mail ballots.

Because some states will automatically send mail-in ballots to registered voters, Trump sought to draw another misleading distinction. He claimed Democrats were “cheating” by mailing what he called “unsolicited ballots,” tweeting: “Sending out 80 MILLION BALLOTS to people who aren’t even asking for a ballot is unfair and a total fraud in the making.”

Before the election, nine states and Washington, D.C., will indeed automatically mail ballots to voters — but only to those who are registered and not, as Trump has said, to “anybody in California that’s breathing,” “people that aren’t citizens” or “people that don’t even know what a ballot is.” Those automatic ballots will reach 44 million voters — not 80 million — including in the heavily Republican state of Utah, as well as Washington, which has a Republican secretary of state overseeing the election.

Votes are being cast on behalf of dead people and pets. False.

In August, some of Trump’s supporters and family members began circulating misleading claims that “846 dead people tried to vote in Michigan’s primary,” pointing to a news release by Michigan’s secretary of state to suggest that there had been a scheme by voters to cast ballots on behalf of the deceased. But the release itself did not say this, and had only pointed out that there were 846 “voters who died after casting their absentee ballot but before Election Day.”

Similarly, a Facebook post that has since amassed over 100,000 shares, likes and comments — and has been repeated by the president — falsely claimed “500,000 mail in ballots found in Virginia and 200,000 in Nevada with dead peoples names and pets.”

What had occurred was that a nonprofit in Virginia sent out 500,000 ballot applications with a wrong address on the return envelopes. In a story about the mistake, a local radio station quoted the leader of another civic organization as saying “one person stated that a dead person received one and a pet received one.” Similarly, a conservative legal group found that during primary elections in June, two counties in Nevada sent out more than 250,000 ballots that were undeliverable because of outdated or wrong addresses.

In buttressing his claim that mail ballots are not secure, Trump has repeatedly said that a friend in Westchester County, New York, received a ballot for his deceased son. This is improbable as New York is one of seven states that require voters to have a reason to request and vote by an absentee ballot; it is not mailing out ballots to voters unprompted.

As for pets voting? A database of proven election fraud cases maintained by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, includes just one example of a woman requesting and then casting an absentee ballot for her dog. That database also notes that since 1991, there have been only 11 cases where someone filled out an absentee ballot on behalf of a dead person.

Mail-in ballots will lead to a ‘rigged’ election. False.

Numerous studies have found little evidence that mail-in ballots help one party over another. Of the 16 states where more than half of voters voted by mail in the last presidential election, Trump won nine. Several Republican states like Iowa, Missouri and Alabama have expanded mail-in ballots this year.

And yet, Trump continues to claim, without evidence, that “Democrats are also trying to rig the election by sending out tens of millions of mail-in ballots” or that “they’re not sending them to Republican neighborhoods.”

Nevada and its election system, in particular, has become a target, particularly after Gov. Steve Sisolak blocked plans for the Trump campaign to hold an outdoor rally in the state. Trump has falsely claimed 14 times that Nevada officials “don’t even want verification of the signature” (they do) and seven times that Sisolak was “in charge of ballots” and therefore “can rig the election” (the Republican secretary of state supervises elections, and local officials handle the ballots).

The president’s unfounded suspicions that mail-in voting harms Republicans have been further amplified online with viral posts claiming that a “Trump Landslide Will Be Flipped By Mail-In Votes Emerging A Week After Election Day.” These claims were based on misconstruing the findings of a Democratic data and analytics firm. The firm’s chief executive had simply warned that in-person voting by Republicans would create a “mirage” of Trump leading on election night, but that results could change once “every legitimate vote is tallied.”

But there was this one time ...

With election officials running thousands of local, state and national elections, mistakes are bound to happen. These isolated incidents, however, are not evidence of widespread wrongdoing. But they can be taken out of context.

Last week, for example, Trump and others highlighted ballot printing and mailing errors that affected fewer than 1,000 ballots.

In Michigan, more than 400 ballots listed the wrong person as Trump’s running mate. The issue was fixed and alerted within two hours, and officials said the state would still accept any affected ballots that were returned. There is no evidence that the misprint was widespread or that the Democratic secretary of state had “purposely” printed the wrong name, as Trump claimed.

In another instance of error, Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, accidentally sent roughly 500 voters two ballots. Election officials said the mistake was unlikely to lead to double voting, as the ballots contained specific codes for each individual voter.

Even in the rare example where there was malfeasance, as there was during a May special election for seats on the City Council in Paterson, New Jersey, where four men were charged with fraud, Trump has exaggerated the situation nonetheless.

“In New Jersey, 20% of the ballots were defective, fraudulent, 20%,” he said at a rally in Pennsylvania in August. “And that’s because they did a good job. OK? So this is just a way they’re trying to steal the election and everybody knows that.”

The local board of elections in fact rejected 3,200 ballots or 19% — but not 23%, 30% or 40%, as Trump has gone on to claim. And those in both parties told The Washington Post that not all were fraudulent. Ballots can be disqualified for mismatched signatures or for other user errors.