Even some of President Donald Trump’s most ardent defenders on radio shied away from endorsing the autocratic suggestion he tweeted last Thursday to delay the upcoming election. But that didn’t stop both nationally syndicated and local radio hosts in battleground states from wholeheartedly endorsing the tweet’s equally dangerous attacks on mail-in voting, and many used the subsequent news cycle to push false information designed to undermine voter confidence.
Voter fraud, including fraud involving mail-in ballots, is extremely rare. Many talk radio hosts today are simply carrying on a long tradition in conservative media — spreading lies about voter fraud to damage faith in our elections and suppress turnout. But now the stakes are higher, with a record number of Americans expected to rely on mail-in voting given the coronavirus pandemic. Still, right-wing media are insisting individuals vote in person, implying that Democrats’ support for mail-in voting is an attempt to steal the election rather than protect voters from potential health consequences.
The day Trump tweeted about election delay and mail-in voting, Rush Limbaugh assured his audience that Trump’s suggestion about postponing the election was nothing more than a tongue-in-cheek comment designed to infuriate the president’s opponents and falsely claimed that mail-in voting would allow Democrats to “flood the system with fake ballots, fake votes.” The host — who had an estimated 15.5 million unique weekly listeners in June according to Talkers magazine — continued, arguing, “It is a recipe for disaster. The Democrats have cooked this thing up because they don’t feel confident that they can win in a traditionally fair and normal election.”
Mark Levin — speaking to an estimated weekly audience of 11 million — claimed on July 31, “The Democrats don’t just want it easier to vote, they want it impossible to know who’s voting,” later stating, “The president’s right about this. He’s simply right about this.” Levin also said, “You are scrutinized more when you buy a six-pack of beer or a pack of cigarettes than you are scrutinized when you vote, and that’s the way Democrats want it.”
In conversation with a caller on August 3, fellow Fox host Sean Hannity — who has an estimated radio audience of 15 million — claimed, “I’m always nervous. You know, somebody called me yesterday and said, ‘Yeah, I have a family member that’s been dead for nine years and not only got one ballot but two ballots.’ ... I just don’t trust a lot of people. We’ve seen fraud in the past.”
In reality, mail-in ballots rely on a number of different measures to confirm a voter’s identity, and an analysis of data from states in which all registered voters are sent mail-in ballots found miniscule evidence of voting using ballots sent to deceased individuals.
Despite right-wing media’s fearmongering, 23% of all votes cast in the 2018 elections were by mail. In fact, states such as Oregon have been conducting vote-by-mail elections for almost 20 years without issue.
But here’s how one of the most prominent hosts in the state — Portland-based Lars Larson — described the system that has had almost zero documented fraud since it moved to its vote-by-mail system. On July 30, Larson told a caller, “I live in an area that has vote-by-mail. It is a disaster. It’s a dumpster fire. And there’s so much opportunity for fraud.”
Ensuring that voters have the ability to participate safely in the upcoming elections will require additional support for a postal service likely to be burdened by handling millions of ballots. Instead, the Trump administration is actively hampering the operations of the U.S. Postal Service. In a similar vein, rather than call for greater funding, some hosts are using mail delays to spread doubts about the feasibility of expanded mail-in voting.
On July 31, host Mike Gallagher told his estimated audience of 8.5 million weekly listeners about a personal experience with postal service delays, arguing, “There’s a huge drama in America right now because the president has suggested that universal mail-in voting will be a disaster. Once again, he’s right, and let me tell you why he’s right. I’m personally living a huge headache.”
Local hosts in battleground states sow doubt about mail-in ballots
Local hosts — including those in battleground states where a winner could be narrowly decided — are echoing many of the same claims about voter fraud that can be heard on national programs.
- In Pennsylvania, Philadelphia-based host Dom Giordano interviewed a local Republican Party leader on July 30 to talk about the “dilemma” of people like Trump warning about fraud and thus potentially inadvertently suppressing turnout among Republicans. Giordano claimed, “Each day, each hour that goes by, I worry about fraud. We have people so determined to stop this president, it’s second to none in history. They will break the law I’m convinced.”
- Michigan-based host Steve Gruber argued that expanded mail-in voting will “be an abject disaster come November 4.” Gruber baselessly claimed that Democrats would manipulate vote totals, arguing, “They claim that they want everybody to be counted, but they don’t. They want to be able to count as many as they need to win. Period.”
- In Florida, host Joyce Kaufman argued on July 31 that we should not “allow the post office to be in charge of our next election” and that “people who are too lazy to get out and vote should not vote.” Kaufman asked, “How can there possibly be a fair and honest election if there’s a mass mailing of ballots to everyone on the voting list who’s moved or died or is illegally in the United States, who are registered because they have a simple driver’s license?” In fact, a Washington Post analysis of mail-in ballot data in Colorado, Oregon and Washington found very little evidence of possible voting using ballots sent to deceased individuals.
- James T. Harris, a host based in Phoenix, Arizona, said on July 31, “I hate the mail-in ballot. I think that it is laziness. I think that it’s fraught with danger. I think it’s another great way that you could have cheating going on and that’s probably why the left absolutely loves it.” Harris suggested that Trump’s tweet was intended to draw attention to issues with mail-in voting, arguing “Now everybody is talking about it. Mission accomplished.”
- In an interview with Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) on August 3, Ohio host Bob Frantz attempted to explain Trump’s tweet, arguing, “He, of course, is just trying to highlight the threat of an all mail-in election -- the fact that it is going to be ripe with fraud and opportunities to cheat the system.”