Bright and early Monday morning, the Tweeter-in-Chief was pushing a new conspiracy theory about voter fraud in all-caps: "RIGGED 2020 ELECTION: MILLIONS OF MAIL-IN BALLOTS WILL BE PRINTED BY FOREIGN COUNTRIES, AND OTHERS. IT WILL BE THE SCANDAL OF OUR TIMES!"
This is a new twist on an old obsession: not just the debunked issues of widespread voter fraud but that foreign powers would commit fraud through fake mail-in ballots.
Where did he get that idea? Well, it seems to be a claim first advanced by Attorney General Bill Barr in a New York Times interview a few weeks back. In it, Barr said "We've been talking about how, in terms of foreign influence, there are a number of foreign countries that could easily make counterfeit ballots, put names on them, send them in. And it'd be very hard to sort out what's happening."
Sounds ominous, right? Except that Barr cautioned that he hadn't actually "looked into that." And he offered no evidence to substantiate the claim.
So, this is just the attorney general speculating about a hypothesis. Not surprisingly, he took a lot of heat from folks who actually study election security. The Washington Post published a blistering pushback, with the elections chief of Colorado saying "there is zero chance" it could happen in his all-mail-in vote state because of security precautions in place there, calling Barr's scenario "preposterous to the point of humor." But Ellen Weintraub, a George W. Bush-appointed member of the Federal Election Commission, was not at all amused, taking to Twitter with a 66-tweet thread debunking the assertion saying, "There's simply no basis for the conspiracy theory that voting by mail causes fraud. None."
Here are the facts:
First, roughly a quarter of Americans voted absentee by mail in 2016. Among their ranks in recent years are President Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, the first lady, Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany and the attorney general himself.
Currently five states have all-vote-by-mail -- Utah, Colorado, Oregon, Hawaii and Washington. And in the 20 years that Oregon has done mail-in ballots, it's had a grand total of roughly a dozen proven cases of voter fraud out of 100 million ballots cast ... That's a 0.000012% fraud rate.
One important reason for this is that in many states, the mail in ballot has a unique bar-code for each voter, meaning that counterfeit ballots by foreign powers would be almost impossible to pull off.
Trump's also arguing that vote-by-mail is fundamentally insecure, tweeting: "We voted during World War One & World War Two with no problem, but now they are using Covid in order to cheat by using Mail-Ins!"
Someone should tell him that soldiers have voted by mail since the Civil War and it's worked pretty darn well...
Of course, beneath it all is Trump's stated belief that mail-in-voting would benefit Democrats -- but there's little evidence of that. It stands to reason that in a pandemic election, older voters would be most likely to avail themselves of mail-in ballots, and those folks tend to pull the level for Republicans (though Joe Biden is besting Trump 51% to 47% among voters over 65 in the latest CNN poll). More to the point, California Republican Mike Garcia just won a special election to Congress in that was dominated by mail-in votes.
Finally, Trump is arguing that foreign powers will interfere in our elections on Democrats' behalf. This is classic deflect and project. We all now know that Donald Trump didn't only expect to benefit from Russian interference in the 2016 election, as newly unredacted sections of the Mueller report shows, but John Bolton's book confirms that Trump insisted on withholding Ukraine military aid until they announced an investigation into Joe Biden's family.
Arguably even worse, according to Bolton, President Trump was "pleading with (Chinese President) Xi to ensure he'd win" re-election this fall.
To be clear, after Russia's success in 2016 with social media disinformation campaigns, there will be foreign attempts to meddle in our elections. China and Iran have already been active in trying to hack presidential campaigns, according to Google. Trump's fear-mongering attempts to deflect and project the issue of foreign interference onto a bogus topic actually mocks the seriousness of the threats that do exist.
So, why would he do it? According to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, the answer is obvious: "I think this is a setup," he told CNN's Jim Sciutto on Monday. "I think they're going to lose the election. I think they're going to claim fraud and they're going to go back to these states with the mail in-voting and they're going to use that as an argument ... I'm sorry to say that, and it may sound cynical, but after watching this administration, sometimes cynicism is merited."
The unprecedented demand for mail-in voting during the Covid-19 crisis means that it is unlikely we will definitively know who won on election night, barring a blow-out. But all that makes ensuring access to mail-in ballots and resources to count them all the more important. It also increases the importance that the kind of primary election fiasco we saw in Georgia, where voters in predominantly Black districts had to wait in line for hours, totally unacceptable. On Tuesday, June 23, we could see a similar replay of systemic voter suppression in Kentucky, where the number of polling places have been cut from 3,700 to 170 locations -- with particular impact on predominantly African American districts.
But rather than trying to address those very real problems -- magnified by voting in a pandemic -- Attorney General Bill Barr has been raising the volume on his scenario of foreign influence in mail-in voting fraud, telling Fox News that it could "open the floodgates to potential fraud," stirring the pot while sounding sanctimonious: "People's confidence in the outcome of the election is going to be undermined. And that could take the country to a very dark place, if we lose confidence in the outcomes of our elections."
But Barr and Trump are doing just that: undercutting confidence in the outcome of the election by floating baseless conspiracy theories while trying to suppress the vote during a pandemic.