Trump ramps up attack on mail-in voting with unfounded warning about false ballots from 'foreign countries'

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent

WASHINGTON — President Trump on Monday repeated an unsupported claim, first made by Attorney General William Barr a day earlier, that foreign governments could send fraudulent mail-in ballots to U.S. voters, a scenario that Trump warned in an all-caps tweet would be “THE SCANDAL OF OUR TIMES!”

Yahoo News asked the White House, the National Security Council and the Justice Department whether there is any intelligence warning of such a possibility and has not received a response.

Several states already vote entirely or mostly by mail, and have been able to hold safe and secure elections that way. They have multiple measures in place for tracking and security, including a unique bar code on each ballot and a practice of matching voter signatures on the ballot to those on file.

Barr on Sunday told Fox News that if Americans lose faith in their elections, it “could take the country to a very dark place.” But moments later in that same interview he engaged in loose speculation about ballots mailed by foreign governments, and called into question the integrity of American elections.

“Those things are delivered into mailboxes. They can be taken out,” Barr said. “Right now, a foreign country could print up tens of thousands of counterfeit ballots, and be very hard for us to detect which was the right and which was the wrong ballot.”

Attorney General William Barr. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Barr offered no evidence for his claim, and the Justice Department did not respond when asked if the U.S. government has any intelligence suggesting plans to this affect. Bar-code tracking of ballots is meant to prevent any duplicate or forged ballots being accepted by election officials.

On Monday morning the president repeated and amplified Barr’s comment, and also went further. Barr had said a foreign power could theoretically interfere in voting by mail, but the president predicted it will happen, even though he also offered no evidence. The White House also did not respond to questions about whether there is any intelligence to support this claim.

The president tweeted a warning of a “RIGGED 2020 ELECTION” in which “MILLIONS OF MAIL-IN BALLOTS WILL BE PRINTED BY FOREIGN COUNTRIES, AND OTHERS.”

“This is patently false. Misinformation about an election plagued the 2016 election & now it threatens the #2020elections,” tweeted Amber McReynolds, CEO of the Vote at Home Institute, a nonprofit group formed to promote mail-in voting and increase voter participation. McReynolds was Colorado’s director of elections from 2011 to 2018, during the state’s move to an all-mail electoral system.

President Trump and one of his tweets. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP, Getty Images)

Trump said in a second tweet that the fall elections “will be the most RIGGED Election in our nations history” because of mail-in voting. In an apparent reference to Democrats, he said that “they are using Covid in order to cheat by using Mail-Ins!”

“It’s very sad and very disappointing that with almost five months to go, the president seems to [want to] try to delegitimize the Nov. 3 election,” former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, a Republican, said Friday. “It just seems to me that this may be an indication he’s more worried about the outcome than he’s worried about fraud.”

On Monday, after Trump’s tweets, a spokesman for Ridge added in an email to Yahoo News: “While absentee ballots are safe, secure, and do not benefit one party over another, this dangerous rhetoric does. Scaring his own voters away from a proven method that dates back to the Civil War will have a toll on Republicans up and down the ballot.”

Results from the June 2 Pennsylvania primary might offer some evidence as to why Trump is nervous about increased voter participation through voting by mail, even though research does not prove that the practice gives an advantage to one party or another.

The Republican-controlled Pennsylvania Legislature passed a law this year allowing any voter who wants to vote by mail to do so. But mail-in-ballot requests for Republicans lagged far behind those for Democrats in the primary, in part because Republican voters were listening to Trump rather than to Republican officials, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported. And Democratic turnout in the primary was considerably larger than it was for Republicans, with 1.6 million Democratic votes for president compared with only 1.1 million Republican votes.

Furthermore, 1,051,538 Democrats cast a ballot by mail compared with only 396,789 Republicans, according to data provided to Yahoo News by the Pennsylvania Department of State.

A worker at the Bucks County Board of Elections processes mail-in ballots prior to Pennsylvania's 2020 primary. (Matt Slocum/AP)

The president has made false claims about mail-in voting numerous times this year, claiming it will lead to voter fraud, although actual instances of fraud are rare and are usually the work of political insiders in local elections. A month ago, Trump made wild claims that “mail boxes will be robbed, ballots will be forged & even illegally printed out & fraudulently signed.”

But Trump’s claim Monday marked the first time he had said foreign governments or other outside actors would seek to meddle in mail-in voting.

The 2016 presidential campaign was marred by foreign interference from the Russian government in the form of hacking Democratic email accounts and creating social media disinformation campaigns. But the integrity of voting itself was not called into question by any of the U.S. intelligence agencies or the multiple reports that were issued by Congress and by the intelligence and law enforcement communities.

Trump himself, however, did claim “millions of people … voted illegally” in the 2016 election. That is a lie based on all available evidence, which shows nothing of the sort, but it supports his obsession with denying that Hillary Clinton received nearly 3 million more popular votes than he did. Trump won the election based on Electoral College votes.

Five states already conducted their elections entirely by mail before COVID-19: Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Utah and Hawaii. In other states, such as Arizona, California and Montana, the majority of voters cast ballots by mail. And even before the COVID-19 crisis, the majority of states allowed any registered voter to cast a ballot by mail if they chose. Only 17 states required a specific excuse such as serious illness or unavoidable travel.

Matilda Jagger drops off a ballot in Seattle for Washington state's March 10 primary. (John Froschauer/AP)

Since COVID-19, most of those 17 states removed the excuse requirement for their primaries, but many questions remain about how the fall elections will be handled.

But no matter what each state decides, demand from voters to cast ballots by mail is high. Numerous recent polling surveys show a consistent trend: about two-thirds of Americans support allowing anyone who wants to vote by mail to do so. One Pew survey found 52 percent support for conducting all elections by mail.

That does mean some states with less experience in conducting most of their vote this way will need several days after Election Day to fully count all their ballots. If the election is close, that means Americans might not know who won the election on election night. Trump’s constant false claims about the election now, five months before Election Day, raise serious concerns about what kind of conspiracy theories he might promote in the days after a close election as the vote is being counted. 

Voter fraud on a scale large enough to affect the results from an entire state — the only kind that could matter in a presidential election — has almost never happened, and certainly not in the modern era, as voting security and integrity have actually gotten better and better. One notorious case dates back to 1948, when Lyndon Johnson won the Texas Democratic primary for U.S. Senate by 87 votes, with one county reporting 200 votes for Johnson nearly a week after Election Day.

And even as Trump has made inaccurate claims about the likelihood of widespread fraud, Republicans at the state level are telling their own voters that voting by mail is “an easy, convenient and secure way to cast your ballot,” as the Republican Party told Pennsylvanians earlier this year. The Republican National Committee sent a mailer urging Republican voters to “avoid lines and protect yourself from large crowds on Election Day” by voting through the mail.

Voters in Indianapolis wait to vote in the Indiana primary on June 2. (Michael Conroy/AP)

In several states, Republicans have actually passed laws that allow for voting by mail for voters over 60 or 65, a demographic that generally tends to vote their way.

And Republican election officials in numerous states are pushing to expand vote-by-mail in the fall.

“We’re fortunate that we’ve been doing vote-by-mail for a long time. We know how to do it, and we know how to get it done securely,” Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, a Republican, said.

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