As the U.S. prepares itself for a November presidential election amid a global pandemic, Democrats in Congress have pushed to expand absentee, or mail-in, voting across the country. President Donald Trump and right-wing media figures have latched on to the issue as an opportunity to fearmonger about chaos around the election.
In recent months, Trump and his allies in right-wing media have repeatedly attacked the concept of expanded mail-in voting, arguing that it will lead to a “totally rigged” election with no confidence in the results. Trump’s Postmaster General Louis DeJoy also appears to be taking steps to undermine the U.S. Postal Service in anticipation of an increase in mail-in voting, although he announced an intention to walk back some of those steps after a nationwide outcry.
Many of pro-Trump media’s arguments against mail-in voting are rooted in misleading or false information. Here are the facts:
Fact: There is no significant difference between absentee and mail-in ballots
Trump and his right-wing media allies often allege that absentee ballots are safe but mail-in ballots are not; notably, Trump and several of his administration officials have voted absentee in the past. Trump’s explanation is that in order to vote absentee, one must “go through a very strict process” compared to general mail-in voting.
In reality, “absentee” voting refers to the practice of submitting a ballot by mail when one is unable to do so in person; in some states, an excuse is needed to vote absentee. For this year’s election, “mail-in” or “vote-by-mail” have evolved into catch-all terms for voting outside the polling place, since more people will be voting by mail without a stated excuse besides the ongoing pandemic.
Many voting experts agree that the terms “mail-in” and “absentee” voting are used relatively interchangeably, and there isn’t a significant difference between the two. The verification process is the same for both; law professor and election expert Darren Hutchinson explained that Trump’s argument is “misleading” and that “there is no rigid screening process that distinguishes the two methods of voting.”
Fact: There isn’t any evidence of significant voter fraud
While right-wing groups have a long history of pushing bogus narratives about widespread voter fraud, these myths have been repeatedly debunked. The Brennan Center for Justice has found, based on extensive research carried out by experts in the field, that while voter fraud is “very rare,” “repeated, false allegations of fraud can make it harder for millions of eligible Americans to participate in elections.” As the Brennan Center noted, numerous independent studies have reached this conclusion, including one commissioned by the Trump administration itself. Additionally, states that already primarily use a vote-by-mail system have not seen any evidence of significant fraud in past elections.
Pro-Trump media allies have also pointed to recent mail-in voting efforts as proof of flaws or fraud enabled by this approach, but the facts don’t line up with their claims.
Right-wing media figures -- including Fox News anchor Martha MacCallum -- touted a recent story about 846 absentee ballots that were excluded in the statewide Michigan primary in August because the voters were deceased, suggesting it proved the potential for rampant voter fraud in voting by mail. In reality, the 846 ballots, which represented about 0.03% of the total vote in Michigan, were submitted by “voters who died after casting their absentee ballot but before Election Day.”
Trump and his allies in right-wing media have also tried to point to significant delays and confusion in New York City’s June primary as evidence that expanded voting by mail will lead to widespread voter fraud and a nightmare scenario across the country come November. An extensive New York Times report on the primary said that while there were notable issues in the election, they were largely due to insufficient preparation to process a massive increase in mail-in ballots -- “more than 10 times the number of absentee ballots received in recent elections in the city” -- a challenge that could be curbed with greater preparation ahead of Election Day. There were zero indications of fraud at play in the city’s primary, as the report also noted: “There is no evidence that the primary results were tainted by criminal malfeasance, according to a wide array of election officials and representatives of campaigns.”
Fact: There is no evidence that mail-in voting would significantly help Democrats win elections over Republicans
Despite some conventional wisdom, there isn’t significant evidence to support the idea that an increase in mail-in voting would help Democratic candidates. It’s unclear who exactly would benefit the most, but existing studies suggest that expanded mail-in voting would benefit Republicans and Democrats about the same amount. (Although in the wake of the president's recent attacks on the practice, some GOP leaders are fearful that Republican voters will be discouraged from voting by mail).
Fact: Trump and his postmaster general did take steps that undermine mail-in voting
Many conservative media figures insist that concerns over recent actions by Trump and Postmaster General Louis DeJoy to disrupt the U.S. Postal Service have been overblown to hurt the president. Some insist that Trump isn’t withholding funds from the Postal Service and that anything he and DeJoy are doing is unrelated to undermining mail-in voting; The Daily Wire pointed in part to a $10 billion coronavirus relief loan by the Trump administration to the Postal Service as evidence that these concerns are not valid. Others have insisted that concerns over the Postal Service are merely a “conspiracy theory.”
It’s misleading to deny that the Trump administration has enacted changes that will undermine the Postal Service ahead of the election. While the Trump administration did sign off on a $10 billion loan, it also included several restrictions on the post office’s functionality and an exchange of the agency’s private contracts with companies like Amazon and FedEx to “the U.S. Treasury, which has previously recommended selling and privatizing parts of the USPS.” Democrats are now trying to remove these restrictions and hold out for “no-strings attached” funding.
Additionally, Trump overtly told Fox Business anchor Maria Bartiromo that he plans to reject $3.5 billion in funding for mail-in voting and $25 billion in broader aid for the Postal Service that has been proposed by the Democrats. In case his intentions behind the decision were unclear, Trump explained that “if they don’t get those two items that means you can’t have universal mail-in voting because they’re not equipped to have it.”
Finally, additional reporting has revealed that specific steps taken by DeJoy have slowed down the functionality of the postal service. Politico reported that DeJoy has “faced criticism this month for substantially adjusting postal services in what he has characterized as cost reduction efforts. Postal workers have complained that the measures severely hamper their ability to deliver the mail on time, potentially hamstringing the service just as an unprecedented number of voters are expected to request and submit mail-in ballots.”
On August 18, DeJoy announced that he would be suspending certain changes until after the election “to avoid even the appearance of any impact on election mail” -- although journalists were quick to point out that many changes had taken place already, and it was unclear if those would be rolled back.
Fact: Trump and DeJoy are not addressing the actual source of most of the Postal Service’s financial troubles
Many in Trump’s media orbit have taken the opportunity to bash the functions of the Postal Service, insisting that it is poorly run and regularly loses revenue and claiming that Trump and DeJoy are merely trying to solve these issues.
In reality, postal worker union officials reject Trump’s “repeated framing of the Postal Service as a business, and stress that it's a quasi-government service. By thinking of the USPS as a business, the goal becomes increasing revenue at the cost of servicing Americans, they say.”
Critics have also pointed to a law enacted by former President George W. Bush in 2006, which requires the Postal Service to prefund employee retiree health benefits for up to 75 years in the future. Critics point to this as a reason why the Postal Service is viewed as being poorly run and suffering from a revenue loss; before the pandemic, the rule accounted for an estimated 80-90% of the agency’s losses, and some say the law was created to push the agency toward privatization.
Additionally, since DeJoy’s changes have been enacted, 19 states have seen a slowdown in mail delivery, which actually leads to a loss in revenue.
Fact: Democrats are not illegally ballot harvesting to steal the election
“Ballot harvesting” is a practice in which a designated person assists absentee voters by collecting their filled-out, sealed ballots and transporting them to a collection site. Some in right-wing media have accused Democrats of trying to harvest ballots in order to steal the election, arguing that nationwide ballot harvesting would suppress Republican votes.
This pejorative use of “ballot harvesting” lumps together absentee ballot fraud with this method of ballot collection, which is legal in more than half the country. Twenty-six states allow ballot collection because it helps voters who have a difficult time with mobility or otherwise cannot physically reach a polling place; for instance, the Native American Rights Fund wrote in 2019 that “native voters, especially tribal elders, often lack reliable transportation and reside in geographically remote areas in which they rely upon friends and neighbors to pick up and return their mail.”
Both political parties and some nonpartisan groups participate in the practice where it is legal, and absentee ballot fraud cases that utilize fraudulent ballot collection schemes are few and far between. Additionally, the Brennan Center for Justice notes that “ballot tampering is illegal everywhere. That includes practices like stealing ballots from mailboxes, filling out other people’s ballots without their consent and direction, and changing or throwing out other people’s ballots.”
Fact: Voting in person can pose a health risk during the pandemic
Many in right-wing media argue that if someone can do things like safely go to the grocery store while tens of thousands of new coronavirus cases are recorded daily, they should also be able to vote in person -- but the two situations are not analogous.
Voting in person will remain an option during the pandemic, but it requires coordinated and extensive safety efforts to ensure it does not pose a significant public health risk. In Wisconsin’s April 7 primary election, near the beginning of the pandemic, voters had to stand in lines for hours after multiple polling locations were unable to open due to insufficient staffing, which may have led to some voters later testing positive for the coronavirus. In Illinois, one county clerk is encouraging more mail-in voting in order to prevent the same issue.
The pandemic also poses a health threat to poll workers, who are usually older than the general population, leading to a shortage of volunteers. This could force polling stations to close, making lines and wait times to vote in person even longer and riskier. Accessible and reliable mail-in voting relieves pressure on both immunocompromised people and local election offices.