When Trump sought to delegitimize ballots counted after Election Day

Trump mail in voting Fox News

Citation Molly Butler / Media Matters

If vote tallies on election night show President Donald Trump leading in some states, only for subsequently counted mail-in ballots to close the gap in Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s favor, Trump will likely respond by trying to delegitimize the vote in tweets fueled by Fox News’ conspiracy-minded, fraud-obsessed coverage. 

That’s exactly what happened following the midterm elections two years ago.

Trump’s stated theory of the election goes like this: The polls that regularly show him trailing Biden by a large margin are fake, and the “real polls” show he actually leads by so much that he could lose only if Democrats rig the election with voter fraud. His claim that any defeat must be illegitimate is ugly and authoritarian -- and his attorney general appears to be backing up that claim as part of the administration’s corrupt effort to aid his reelection. 

Trump’s comments have triggered unease over how he might respond if returns on election night show him leading, only for that lead to evaporate as officials tabulate absentee and mail-in ballots. That is a plausible scenario: Democrats are currently more likely to say they plan to vote by mail, while Republicans are more likely to say they plan to vote in person on Election Day. Trump and his administration have spent months casting doubt on the validity of mail-in balloting, in spite of all available evidence

“Must know Election results on the night of the Election, not days, months, or even years later!” he tweeted in July, a claim with no basis in law or electoral history.

Fox News’ coverage of the vote count will doubtlessly prove a key factor in the president’s response. The network is the information source with the most influence on Trump, and thus on U.S. public affairs. Trump watches hours of Fox programming each day and frequently tweets along with it. And for years, a major thrust of the network’s coverage has involved undermining the credibility of elections by propping up false and nonsensical GOP claims of voter fraud. Most recently, the network’s right-wing propagandists have been on the attack against mail-in voting, which its hosts decry as a Democratic plot to steal the election. Trump has repeatedly sent Fox live tweets responding to this coverage, most recently on Thursday morning.

We may have already seen a preview of how this Trump-Fox feedback loop could undermine faith in the 2020 election results. Election officials continued to count ballots in Florida, Georgia, Arizona, and other states for days after the 2018 midterm elections. As those ballots helped Democratic candidates gain ground, Fox’s commentators responded with false conspiracy theories and fearmongering about purported Democratic election fraud. And over a period of a few hours on November 9, 2018, Trump watched the network’s coverage and sent a series of hyperaggressive tweets. He accused his political opponents of election theft, suggested that ballots favoring Democrats were fake, and even questioned whether a new election might be necessary, all in response to Fox programming.

Fox correspondent Phil Keating reported on Florida’s election in a news package that aired at the top of Fox’s noon hour that day. As Keating detailed, votes were still being counted in the state and lawyers from both parties prepared to face off after Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who was running for U.S. Senate, filed a lawsuit accusing the election supervisors in the Democratic strongholds of Broward and Palm Beach County of fraud. 

“As provisional and mail-in ballots were added to the total tallies on Wednesday and Thursday, Scott’s lead from Tuesday night had shrunk to 15,000 votes,” Keating said. He then aired a clip of Scott claiming in an interview with Sean Hannity the previous night, “They found 78,000 new votes since Election Day two days ago in Broward County, and 15,000 more votes in Palm Beach. We don’t know how many more they’re going to come up with, but it sure appears they’re going to keep finding as many votes as it takes to win this election.”

Roughly half an hour later, Trump tweeted in response to the segment. “Rick Scott was up by 50,000+ votes on Election Day, now they ‘found’ many votes and he is only up 15,000 votes,” he wrote. ““The Broward Effect.’ How come they never find Republican votes?”

Another segment Fox aired about Florida’s election fight at the top of the next hour again led to a Trump live tweet. Harris Faulkner opened her Outnumbered Overtime show by saying that “election fraud charges are flying as two high-stakes races appear to be headed for recounts.” After referencing dueling lawsuits from Scott and then-Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), she added that “the outcome of Florida’s governor’s race” between Democrat Andrew Gillum, then the mayor of Tallahassee, and Republican Rep. Ron DeSantis “is now also in play.”

Trump adopted similar language in a tweet sent fewer than 15 minutes later: “Mayor Gillum conceded on Election Day and now Broward County has put him ‘back into play.’ Bill Nelson conceded Election - now he’s back in play!? This is an embarrassment to our Country and to Democracy!”

A third Trump live tweet came in response to a later Faulkner segment about Florida’s election. Faulkner interviewed Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) about Republican-backed protests outside the office of Broward County’s election supervisor Brenda Snipes. At 1:11 p.m., Faulkner said to Gaetz, “I want to ask you about Brenda Snipes, if I can. Sen. Marco Rubio has been tweeting about her quite heavily.” She then read him a Rubio tweet criticizing Snipes and asked for his response. He replied that Snipes “should resign or she should be fired.”

At 1:39 p.m., Trump tweeted, “Thank you @marcorubio for helping to expose the potential corruption going on with respect to Election Theft in Broward and Palm Beach Counties. The WORLD is now watching closely!”

Trump’s final election comment of the tweetstorm came after a Fox correspondent reported  during the 3 p.m. hour that the Arizona Republican Party had “sued over the handling of ballots where the signature either wasn't there or didn't match" and attacked a Maricopa County elections official.

“Just out,” Trump tweeted less than half an hour later, “In Arizona, SIGNATURES DON’T MATCH. Electoral corruption - Call for a new Election? We must protect our Democracy!”

There is no basis for Fox’s constant narrative of rampant voter fraud and duplicitous Democratic election thieves hiding around every corner -- it’s just a con job whose purpose is passing legislation to make it harder for Democratic-leaning constituencies to vote. 

“The truth is that after decades of looking for illegal voting, there’s no proof of widespread fraud,” longtime Republican election lawyer Benjamin Ginsberg conceded in an op-ed earlier this year. “At most, there are isolated incidents -- by both Democrats and Republicans. Elections are not rigged. Absentee ballots use the same process as mail-in ballots -- different states use different labels for the same process.”

But Trump’s power to supercharge the network’s conspiracy theories will make its coverage a potent force as election officials count ballots in the fall.