US Election 2020

What did Trump say about vote by mail in debate against Biden?

The first presidential debate of the US election 2020 was a messy affair littered with insults. Here's the truth about Trump's attacks on mail voting.

What did Trump say about vote by mail in debate against Biden?
MARIO TAMA AFP

In a chaotic first presidential debate Tuesday night, President Trump refused to condemn far right extremists, and opponent Joe Biden, exasperated by constant interruptions, called Trump a “clown” and “the worst president this country has ever had”.

The 90-minute debate which took place in Cleveland, Ohio, was moderated by Chris Wallace, a veteran Fox news anchor who at points struggled to keep belligerent ex-reality TV star Trump in check.

Separating fact from fiction

Fact-checkers across the country had a field day, turning to the dozens of claims made on both sides, hoping to debunk myths and promote the truth amongst all the hot air.

Outlandish statements included Trump falsely claiming to have created “greatest U.S. economy in history,” that a vaccine for coronavirus would be available within weeks, and that Biden is in favour of defunding the police.

Biden and Trump clashed constantly in a messy affair which took on key issues dominating the election this year including the supreme court, coronavirus and the economy. When the topic turned to electoral integrity, however, things really heated up.

Trump: Mail in voting equals fraud

In an echo of tweets posted previously this month by the President, Trump in Tuesday’s live debate made claims that fraud is rife when ‘vote-by-mail’ ballots are automatically sent to voter’s homes.

“A solicited ballot is okay,” Trump claimed. “You’re soliciting, you’re asking, they send it back, you send it back. I did that. They’re sending millions of ballots all over the country. There’s fraud.

In a comprehensive post-debate discussion on CNN, Daniel Dale clarified that “almost every single example Trump cited tonight about mail in voting was wrong”.

What’s important to note here is that Trump is condemning ‘vote-by-mail’ practices, as opposed to ‘absentee voting’, which is when a citizen specifically requests a vote by mail. Ten states this year are sending out these ‘unsolicited ballots’. Around half of these states are doing so specifically because of the coronavirus pandemic: California, Nevada, New Jersey, Vermont, and Washington, D.C.

The other half, including Republican-leaning Utah, used this practice even before 2020, with no reported incidents of fraud whatsoever. The other states with a history of using vote-by-mail as standard are Colorado, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii.

It is widely acknowledged that voting fraud in general is extremely rare. Vox reports that in Oregon, which has been voting by mail for about two decades, officials referred 54 cases of possible voter fraud to law enforcement in 2016. Of those, 22 people, representing just 0.0001 percent of all ballots cast that year, were found guilty of having voted in two states.

Not first time Trump has made these claims 

On September 10 he tweeted: “Sending out 80 MILLION BALLOTS to people who aren’t even asking for a Ballot is unfair and a total fraud in the making. Look at what’s going on right now!”

According to Reuters’ calculations, there are an estimated 44.2 million registered voters, or about half the number mentioned by President Trump, in the ten states and jurisdictions automatically sending out ballots for the November 3 election. Based on this fact, there’s no way that the president’s claim can be correct.

Why does it matter what Trump says about voter fraud?

For one, 2020 is an extraordinary election year in which millions more voters are being encouraged to not vote in person, in order to avoid any unnecessary risk of spreading the coronavirus.

Furthermore, elections officials and analysts told CNN  that they see a greater threat to the election from Trump's misinformation campaign against mail-in ballots; from GOP lawsuits to block expanded use of mail votes in California, Iowa, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey and Pennsylvania; to his suggestion that ballots shouldn't be counted after election night; his refusal to say he'll accept the results if he doesn't win; and his opposition to providing more resources to the US Postal Service and to elections authorities that could help prevent administrative problems.

Trump encourages illegal voting practice

And in a hypocritical twist, in September the President seemed to encourage North Carolina voters to commit fraud by encouraging them to "test the system" by voting first by mail, and then turning up in person to vote again.

There are widespread concerns that the large volume of postal ballots may mean it takes days or weeks following the election to count them all.