Trump and Barr are making false claims about mail-in ballots to scare us out of voting
President Donald Trump votes by mail. As does Vice President Mike Pence, and so do more than a dozen senior Trump officials. Nearly 80% of voters in Arizona and over 60% in Montana — not known as liberal bastions — cast ballots by expanded mail-in voting.
Nevertheless, last month, when he wasn’t busy ineffectually trying to replace the U.S. Attorney in Manhattan with a Trump loyalist, Attorney General William Barr took out after voting by mail as rife with fraud. In this, he was echoing his master, President Trump.
In an interview he gave to Fox News, the attorney general said voting by mail “opens the floodgates to fraud.” He said that ballots can be stolen from mailboxes. He argued the vote by mail eliminates the secret ballot. And, he said that “right now, a foreign country could print tens of thousands of counterfeit ballots” that would be hard to detect. And so, he said, vote by mail would undercut public confidence in the integrity of the ballot.
None of that is true. Indeed, quite to the contrary, the one thing most likely to undercut public confidence in the integrity of the ballot is the false narrative being peddled by the attorney general and the president.
Public trust is part of election process
Elections are not just about the actual voting result — they are about whether or not people accept that result as legitimate. Put another way, the election process fundamentally relies on transparency and public trust. An adversary does not have to directly compromise the vote — for example, by hacking into a database or creating fraudulent mail ballots — to undermine our faith in the system. The adversary merely must give the impression that it could have happened or that the custodians of the election system are incompetent in order to cast doubt on the election.
That’s why Barr’s attack on the mail-in ballot system is so fraught with peril. Since much of his fear of the “floodgates of fraud” is nonsensical, one can only presume that his attack on vote-by-mail systems has a more insidious purpose.
To be sure, with mail-in voting there is a risk of lost confidence precisely because it has been, up until recently, uncommon. Large-scale voting by mail creates an inherent delay in counting the ballots. This coming election there is an abnormally large number of mail-in ballots. Americans are used to an election process that is resolved — absent controversy, like Bush v. Gore — in 24-48 hours. In a close election this year, the process might take one to two weeks. So, it is worthwhile talking about what to expect during the coming election cycle.
But it is vital that we clearly delineate the real concerns with vote-by-mail, rather than politicize the discussion with straw arguments like those advanced by Barr, this weekend. Let’s break down his errors one at a time, and don’t worry, we won’t lose count.
Dispelling the myths of vote-by-mail
First, is the myth of foreign intervention. On the one hand, perhaps we should be grateful that the Trump administration is taking election interference by foreign governments seriously — after all, we know that Russia has been taking it seriously for several years.
But, logistically, this fear is silly. Russia is not going to find a means of printing out and delivering via the U.S. mail tens of thousands of counterfeit physical ballots. Even though the effort might help the postal service with its funding shortfall, it is simply not realistic. Local election authorities know who is on their election rolls and can easily identify duplicates from Russia. If only because mail-in ballots are printed by the states with unique identification codes to assure veracity, this fear simply isn’t plausible.
Nor is it likely that legitimate ballots will be stolen from boxes, marked and returned. Leaving aside the fact that many citizens have locking mailboxes or delivery through home mail slots, it is utterly unrealistic to posit that dozens of Russian operatives, or for that matter operatives of a rival campaign, are going to surreptitiously harvest ballots from mailboxes around the country without being noticed. Nor will citizens whose ballots have not arrived stand silent — their complaints will, no doubt, raise the alarm.
Barr is also wrong to suggest that vote-by-mail impacts the secret ballot. Several states have been operating mail-in ballot systems for years without that problem. Signatures on the outer envelope to establish entitlement to cast a ballot are always disaggregated from the underlying ballots.
Indeed, that is really the much larger point. The attorney general paints voting by mail as if it were some novel “Newfangled Votin’ Method.” Because, of course, new and different is always dangerous and scary. But mail-in ballots have been around for years and have had no systemic fraud in state and federal elections. One study of Oregon’s mail-in ballot system found a fraud rate of less than 0.000004 percent — less than the rate of fraud for in-person voting. And, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, voting by mail has increased every year. In 2018, approximately 23% of ballots were absentee ballots.
In short, there are some things the public needs to be cognizant of as we shift to mail-in ballots. But the “floodgates of fraud” are not one of them. When the attorney general says otherwise, he is just trying to scare us for some political purpose.