Donald Trump | Mail in Ballots Getty Images/Salon
Though President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump cast mail-in votes in Florida's congressional primary from New Jersey this week, their ballots were reportedly delivered by an individual whom the couple designated to pick up and drop off the ballots at their Palm Beach precinct.
The timeline of events raises questions about the chain of custody of those ballots, and whether it met state requirements.
According to reports from CNN and The Washington Post citing Palm Beach County election officials, the Trumps' ballots were returned Monday — ahead of the deadline. Florida law allows registered voters to sign an affidavit authorizing an intermediary to pick up and drop off their mail-in ballots.
That affidavit is specifically titled, "Affidavit to pick-up vote-by-mail ballot for a voter." It is required for each individual election — and also requires the designated go-between to provide photo ID.
The Trumps reportedly signed the affidavits and had their ballots picked up last week. While the deadline had passed for mail-in ballot requests, voters could still retrieve ballots in person or have a designee pick them up.
The Trumps designated Alex Garcia, a member of the Florida Republican Party, to pick up and drop off their ballots, according to both CNN and The Post. Garcia reportedly performed the same service when the first family cast mail-in ballots back in March.
Ashley Houlihan, an attorney for the supervisor's office, told The Post that the completed ballots arrived Monday.
"The president and first lady just had their designee come in and pick up their ballot at the desk," Houlihan told the outlet. "Many of our voters do the same thing if they miss the deadline for the mail ballot to be sent to them. Or in some cases, we have so many snowbirds, and they're not sure which residence they'll be at; so it's just easier for them to come in and request their vote by mail ballot at the desk."
According to CNN host Ana Cabrera, however, records with the Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections showed that the Trumps' ballots were delivered Wednesday to Mar-a-Lago. But the Trumps have been staying since the weekend prior at the family club in Bedminster, N.J.
It remains unclear whether Garcia — who according to the terms of the affidavit would have had to retrieve the ballots from the precinct in person — delivered the ballots to Mar-a-Lago himself. Further unclear is the chain of custody to and from Bedminster.
The delivery method to Bedminster — courier or post — is not a minor detail, as the president has for months railed against mail-in ballots, falsely alleging that the practice is vulnerable to mass fraud. It is also unclear whether it would be a violation of Florida law to have someone other than the designated intermediary handle ballots. Florida election officials at the state and county levels did not reply to Salon's requests for comment.
The president declared his Florida residency last November — and may have violated federal election law in the process.
Trump, who views Florida as a critical swing state, cited "tax purposes" as the primary reason why he had changed his residence from New York. He cast a mail-in ballot during Florida's presidential primary in March, even though he reportedly drove by a polling place in person at least six times that month.
Reginald Stambaugh, an attorney in Palm Beach County involved in a dispute over a dock the president attempted to erect at Mar-a-Lago in recent months, told HuffPost in June that the move was "illegal."
According to that report, Trump had tried to register last fall as a Floridian while claiming 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington as his residence. Election officials in Palm Beach County denied the attempted registration, citing the fact that the White House was not located in the county.
Trump then filed anew, listing his residence at Mar-a-Lago and affirming with a signature that it was true. ("I live in Manhattan," Trump told U.S. governors in a conference call the week before.)
Trump, however, had in 1993 reached an agreement with the town of Palm Beach allowing him to repurpose his Mar-a-Lago estate as a club as long as he promised to never live there, The Washington Post reported in May. Registered voters in the state must also be Florida residents, and state law bars residents from registering to vote from a place of business.
Despite casting mail-in ballots, the president has spent months pushing baseless claims about voting by mail being ideal vehicles for election fraud. However, data shows otherwise.
An MIT analysis of the conservative Heritage Foundation's database of election fraud in the U.S. found that over the last 20 years, only 143 mail ballot fraud cases — out of 204 absentee cases, themselves a fraction of 1,200 fraud cases of any kind — ended with criminal convictions. On average, that's seven to eight cases a year across the nation — or about 0.00006% of the total number of votes cast.
The president, however, makes one exception: his new Republican-led home state, whose systems he claimed in an early August tweet, without providing detail, are uniquely "safe and secure."
"Whether you call it Vote by Mail or Absentee Voting, in Florida the election system is Safe and Secure, Tried and True. Florida's Voting system has been cleaned up (we defeated Democrats attempts at change), so in Florida I encourage all to request a Ballot & Vote by Mail! #MAGA," the president said.
Florida is represented by a governor and two U.S. senators from Trump's Republican Party.