As the coronavirus pandemic is making traditional in-person voting at crowded polling locations into a public health risk, some state election officials and House Democrats have taken steps to expand mail-in ballots, a plan that would take funding and preparation but which could successfully minimize the dangers. But right-wing media personalities are still arguing for in-person voting during the crisis, unleashing a series of attacks on vote by mail efforts -- the latest evolution in a longstanding pattern of right-wing media fearmongering against increased access to voting and common-sense election reforms.
Right-wing outlets have a history of pushing misinformation about voter fraud and promoting methods of voter suppression, including purging voter rolls and voter ID laws. During the COVID-19 pandemic, they have continued this pattern by claiming that extending mail-in ballots to all registered voters will result in widespread fraud; arguing that Democrats will intensify this problem through the practice of ballot harvesting; and claiming that the only way to cast a ballot safely and securely is to vote in person amid a public health crisis.
False claim: Allowing people to vote by mail poses a high risk of fraud
Right-wing media and the Republican National Committee are trying to sow distrust of countrywide vote-by-mail efforts by fearmongering about potential voter fraud. Conservative outlets are no strangers to pushing this type of misinformation -- they’ve been doing it for years.
In the lead-up and wake of the 2016 election, for instance, both Donald Trump and his right-wing media allies pushed a series of baseless claims about voter fraud, including that dead people and noncitizens were voting en masse, and claimed that this supposed problem could be solved with voter ID requirements and removing people from voter rolls. In reality, voter fraud is a rarity and most of the right’s proposed “solutions” to this nearly nonexistent problem would serve to suppress votes.
In 2020, right-wing media outlets are taking those old arguments about voter fraud and turning them up a notch to argue against mail-in ballots. For weeks during the coronavirus pandemic, they have been trying to cast vote-by-mail efforts as a dangerous Democratic plot to steal elections and a risk that American democracy can’t afford to take. Turning Point USA's Charlie Kirk even baselessly claimed that states that have tried voting by mail are sending multiple ballots to a single person, clearly mistaking applications to receive a ballot for actual ballots.
Fox News has pushed a series of narratives in this vein. On the April 9 episode of Tucker Carlson Tonight, host Tucker Carlson said that “mail-in ballots are an invitation to widespread fraud and manipulation, and if you want to rattle people's faith in the system that we've had for centuries, maybe you would do that.” On that same episode, Carlson interviewed Judicial Watch’s Tom Fitton, who claimed, “The safest way to vote if you want secure voting is in person, private.
Fox and Friends First brought on the Trump campaign's Erin Perrine who decried that “Democrats tried to cram a wish list of liberal policies into a relief package to try to change it to 100% mail in voting in this country,” calling it “ripe for fraud.”
While mail-in ballots may carry a slightly higher risk of fraud, that risk is still miniscule and can be reduced even further by implementing security measures “like ballot tracking, as well as pre-paid postage and ballot drop boxes.” Voting primarily by mail is already the norm in five states, none of which have reported significant problems. Despite right-wing media’s claims, there is no evidence that extending mail-in ballots nationwide will lead to massive expansions in fraudulent ballots.
False claim: Democrats want to legalize ballot harvesting to commit voter fraud on a massive scale
Alongside claims of increased voter fraud, right-wing media has taken to making sweeping claims about the expansion of ballot harvesting in 2020, especially in the wake of the House passing an 1,800-page coronavirus stimulus bill that allows for nationwide ballot harvesting alongside mail-in voting.
Ballot harvesting is the practice of a designated person collecting ballots and submitting them on behalf of others. The practice is legal in most states because it allows people to help voters who cannot physically reach a polling place get their votes to a collection point or mailbox.
During the coronavirus pandemic, right-wing media are pushing the narrative that increasing ballot harvesting would allow Democrats to submit fraudulent ballots en masse, claiming that party operatives can just pick up a ballot sent to a deceased, disabled, or inactive voter, fill it out and fraudulently submit it in their name. On April 2, Fox host Laura Ingraham said that voting reforms during the pandemic are meant “to create more opportunities for ballot harvesting or even voter fraud,” calling it “perhaps the worst” example “of all the scams perpetrated through the COVID nightmare.” On the May 11 episode of America’s Newsroom, Fox contributor and current Trump 2020 campaign advisor, Karl Rove warned about “the harvesting of ballots” in Texas by “people, primarily in Democratic primaries, who came by and basically took the ballots of people who were nearly comatose.” Fox host Sean Hannity joined in the fearmongering about ballot harvesting on his radio show:
In reality, “there is no evidence of rampant ballot harvesting fraud in the United States,” and it is a bipartisan practice. In fact, the most prominent modern example of ballot harvesting practices being used inappropriately comes from a 2018 Republican congressional candidate in North Carolina, where the campaign not only harvested ballots in a state where it is illegal, but operatives hired by the campaign also altered some ballots after collecting them.
False claim: Voting in person during a pandemic is safe
The claim that voting in person is safe during a pandemic has quickly spread online through fringe sites like Law Enforcement Today and social media, including the Facebook pages of conservative radio host Kevin Jackson and right-wing site Think Americana. Now, the dangerous claim is spreading to Fox News and other right-wing media outlets.
This argument is usually framed around the idea that if people can safely practice social distancing to go shopping for essential goods, then why can’t they safely do the same to vote? Fox News host Jeanine Pirro repeated this line almost word-for-word on the May 16 episode of Justice with Judge Jeanine, asking, “If people can go to Home Depot and distance 6 feet, why can't they go to the voting booth and distance 6 feet?
That sentiment has also been echoed by Eric Trump in an appearance on Pirro’s Fox show, by Washington Times columnist Tim Young on Twitter and by the Christian Broadcast Network. The claim has also worked its way into memes on popular pro-Trump Facebook pages, including one belonging to the Committee to Defend the President political action committee.
This right-wing media narrative is dangerous during the coronavirus pandemic, as it makes a false equivalence between a necessary trip to get essential items and voting, which can be done safely by mail. Voting is also often a much longer process -- people can stand in line for hours, and they all touch the same voting machines or other surfaces while marking their ballots.
Poll workers are volunteers who are paid little if at all, and -- as seen during the recent Wisconsin primary -- a lack of willing volunteers during the pandemic can result in polling places consolidating, further increasing lines for in-person voting and depressing turnout at polling locations. The Wisconsin primary maintained “unexpectedly high” turnout despite the coronavirus due to a record number of absentee ballots -- far more than were cast in person.
As Election Day approaches, right-wing media outlets will likely continue to push misinformation on mail-in ballots in an attempt to restrict Americans’ access to voting. If you want to vote, they argue, the only safe way to do it is in person with voter ID, pandemic or no pandemic. This approach will depress voter turnout and risk exposing millions of vulnerable Americans to the deadly virus.
The process of voting by mail is not perfect, but it will significantly reduce health risks, and its major issues have nothing to do with fraud and everything to do with how individual states decide to format and send out their ballots -- despite what right-wing media’s fearmongering would have you believe.