Voter Fraud and Bogus Ballots: The Conspiracy That Isn't

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In recent years, in nearly every election, claims of voter fraud have permeated the polls and in nearly every case, they have proven to be false.

But nothing is like the 2020 presidential election, conducted during the coronavirus pandemic, with the president saying, without substantiation, that voting by mail is rife with fraud and corruption. 

Studies have shown that instances of voter fraud are extremely rare, and usually occur in local elections. Many are simply the results of human error: someone votes by mistake, as was the case of a naturalized citizen who mistakenly thought she was eligible to cast a ballot but wasn't, and a person released on parole from prison who didn't know they couldn't legally vote until their parole time was up.

California is currently embroiled in a legal battle between state officials and Republican party members, who placed drop boxes, which the state has called illegal, to collect mail ballots in GOP-friendly sites, including at churches and gun shops. 

The governor, attorney general and secretary of state sent cease-and-desist orders to state Republican officials, who have defied them, setting the stage for legal fights during an already contentious and confusing campaign.

President Donald Trump, in press conferences and campaign stops across the country, has claimed "millions and millions" of ballots were being mailed out willy-nilly, and they were being sent to "dogs" and to "people who have dead for 25 years."

He has said the Nov. 3 election, in which millions of Americans have requested mail-in ballots as a precaution against contracting COVID-19, is "going to be the greatest fraud in the history of elections."

“Mail ballots, they cheat,” Trump said at the White House in September. “Mail ballots are very dangerous for this country because of cheaters. They go collect them. They are fraudulent in many cases. "

He made similar claims in the 2016 election, despite winning it. Afterward, he alleged three to five million people illegally voted in the presidential contest, an accusation that was never proven, even by a voter fraud commission he formed to investigate the election.

Before he disbanded the commission in 2018, its members found no evidence that the American election system was corrupt.

The stakes are unprecedentedly higher in the 2020 election, as a deeply divided country struggles under coronavirus fallout that has caused record unemployment and financial crises, and cities across America witness protests and outrage over police conduct and race relations.

The Federal Election Commission is tasked with investigating illegal campaign spending and administering public funding for presidential elections. Its longest-serving member, Ellen Weintraub, has been monitoring White House contests since 2002, when she was appointed to the commission by then-President George W. Bush.

This summer, she chastised Trump after he suggested the November election because of widespread fraud in voting by mail.

"With Universal Mail-In Voting (not Absentee Voting, which is good), 2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history. It will be a great embarrassment to the USA. Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???" Trump tweeted.

Weintraub fought fire with wry ire. "No, Mr. President. No. You don't have the power to move the election," Weintraub tweeted back. "Nor should it be moved. States and localities are asking you and Congress for funds so they can properly run the safe and secure elections all Americans want. Why don't you work on that?"

She has also unleashed a Twitter attack against false claims that mail-in ballots are rife with fraud.

"I put together a 66-part tweet storm just with a whole bunch of links to different sources debunking the notion of voter fraud. And I could do it again today and come up with another whole slew," Weintraub recently told Inside Edition Digital.

"We've been conducting some form of mail-in voting literally since the civil war. Abraham Lincoln started this because they didn't want soldiers to have to come home from war in order to vote," she said. 

“If you talk to people in the civil rights community, they will tell you this, that sometimes this talk of voter fraud is really an excuse to try and limit the franchise in ways that have a disproportionate impact on people of color," the commissioner said.

"And that is just really disturbing given the history in this country of slavery and Jim Crow laws. This is something that we really need to leave behind us.”

There are currently at least nine states, and the District of Columbia, planning to hold all-mail ballot contests in November: California, Nevada, New Jersey, Vermont, Utah, Hawaii, Colorado, Oregon and Washington.

In the latter, where all voters have used mailed-in ballots since 2005, Washington officials have said they've not seen any evidence of wholesale fraud.

There have been some ballots pulled for inspection because of irregularities, but none rose to the level that Trump claims is prevalent. In 2016, for example, a Washington woman opposed to mail voting successfully registered her dog to vote as a way to prove her point.

A 2017 study by the Brennan Center for Justice, in response to the president's accusations, found the rate of voter fraud was between 0.00004% and 0.0009%.

"People have been talking about voter fraud for decades," Weintraub said. "And yet they have not been able to come up with any hard evidence of any substantial amounts of voter fraud.”

Trump himself has voted by mail. As a registered voter in Florida, he cast a ballot in the state's 2020 primary election, even though he lives in Washington, D.C.

Lorraine Minnite, a public policy professor at Rutgers University, has been studying voter issues since 2000. She is author of "The Myth of Voter Fraud" and "Keeping Down the Black Vote: Race and the Demobilization of American Voters."

“The idea that there's widespread voter fraud is simply unsupported by any evidence," Minnite told Inside Edition Digital. "We just had the Trump administration's FBI director confirm that in sworn testimony before a US Senate Committee hearing in which he said, "We don't have this problem."'

FBI Director Ed Wray testified before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in September. He was asked by a member, "Is voting by mail secure?"

Wray answered, "We have not seen historically any kind of coordinated national voter fraud effort in a major election, whether it's by mail or otherwise.”

His response undercut the unverified claims of his boss, Trump, and of Trump administration officials including Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany and Attorney General William Barr, both of whom have echoed the president's fraud accusations, without providing evidence.

Barr told the Chicago Tribune in September that voting by mail could result in postal carriers being bribed into selling ballots. "Here’s a few hundred dollars, give me some of your ballots," the attorney general said. In a September White House press briefing, McEnany accused Democrats of seeking a "whole new fraudulent system of mail-in voting" by trying to expand access to mail-in ballots during the coronavirus pandemic.

It all feeds into a very deliberate agenda, Minnite said.

“It's conspiracy, it's propaganda, it's very deliberate. It's a very deliberate effort to divide people and to make it a blood sport and to make it like it's going to be the end of the earth and end of the world," she said.

And the banality of conspiracy theories is that it provides an easy answer to every perceived enemy, whether it be unfounded claims of a rigged presidential election or the sorry state of your personal existence.

"It's easier to divide people if you give them simple stories, if you tell them there's a conspiracy against them that is so vague and so shadowy and so unknown in the way it works, but it's there," she said.

"It then becomes the thing that explains everything that's wrong in your life."

Like Weintraub, Mennite says false allegations about vast voter fraud most often targets minorities, who historically tend to vote Democratic.

“It's a part of partisan politics in the United States," she said. "It's very much tied to the idea that black people, poor people, immigrants who are citizens are going to defraud other people of their right to vote by cheating.

"And it resonates with people because of racist stereotypes about people of color, frankly."

Yet, Minnite believes the electoral system, with its myriad systems of checks and balances, will prevail in November. "I do think it's going to be messy, but I do also ultimately have faith in our election officials, in their efforts, in this extraordinary time with this pandemic," she said.

"They understand the gravity of the situation and they're going to do the best job they can. We're going to have to try to have patience," she said, "and pay close attention."

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