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Trump tries to undermine the legitimacy of the election with baseless claims at debate

Jon Ward
·Senior Political Correspondent
·7-min read

President Trump made several false claims about the accuracy and integrity of American elections during the first presidential debate on Tuesday night.

“This is going to be fraud like you’ve never seen,” Trump said of the upcoming election.

Trump offered no real evidence for this assertion, instead throwing out an array of one-off comments about small incidents that were largely examples of mistakes by election workers that represent a minuscule number of votes.

“He’s trying to scare people into thinking it’s not going to be legitimate,” Democrat Joe Biden told the debate audience.

“He cannot stop you from being able to determine the outcome of this election,” Biden said. “If we get the votes, it’s going to be all over. He’s going to go.”

But Trump also suggested again – as he has repeatedly in recent weeks – that he might not accept the election results.

“If I see tens of thousands of ballots being manipulated, I can’t go along with that,” Trump said.

Trump’s untrue statements about voting continue a pattern this year of wild claims he has made about cheating and a rigged election. Ironically, the greatest threat to the election is not widespread or coordinated cheating. Instead it is the disinformation flowing from the country’s own president, according to election experts, including Republicans who have fought legal battles for their party for many years.

President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden participate in the first presidential debate Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, at Case Western University and Cleveland Clinic, in Cleveland. (Olivier Douliery/Pool vi AP)
President Trump at the first presidential debate on Tuesday in Cleveland. (Olivier Douliery/Pool vi AP)

“For the first time, the president of the United States is denigrating the credibility of our elections and who the winners are, corroding a pillar of the country and the democracy,” Ben Ginsberg, who led the 2000 election recount effort and is one of the Republican party’s top election lawyers, said recently.

FBI Director Christopher Wray said last week that comments about election fraud – like those made by Trump – are a form of “misinformation” and “will contribute over time to a lack of confidence of American voters and citizens in the validity of their vote.”

The president’s behavior is unprecedented in American history and has led to questions about whether he is preparing to excuse a possible loss to Biden or whether this is a more nefarious effort aimed at claiming victory on election night before all mail ballots are counted.

The president’s false claims revolved largely around mail ballots. But even here he said Tuesday that his only problem is with “unsolicited” ballots. These are ballots that are sent automatically to all registered voters in a state.

“A solicited ballot is OK,” Trump said.

Almost every state in the country is sending out solicited ballots. Only nine states and the District of Columbia are sending out unsolicited ballots. None of these states are particularly competitive in the presidential election, and most of them have years of experience with sending out unsolicited ballots and have done so without problem.

Trump made a sustained verbal assault on the voting by mail over the summer and into the fall after record numbers of Americans chose to utilize the option during primary elections throughout the spring and into the early summer.

A worker processes mail-in ballots at the Bucks County Board of Elections office prior to the primary election, Wednesday, May 27, 2020 in Doylestown, Pa. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
A worker processes mail-in ballots at the Bucks County Board of Elections office prior to the primary election on May 27, 2020. (Matt Slocum/AP)

Mail-in voting was utilized by both Republican and Democratic voters in the spring, but since Trump began his fact-free campaign against the practice, polling has shown that Republicans are far less likely than Democrats to vote by mail. That has led to a concern that there may be a disproportionate number of Democratic votes left uncounted on election night.

Trump has already claimed that mail voting is “a whole big scam,” even though he has no proof of this. In doing so, he has laid the groundwork to claim he has won the election before all ballots are counted – and also to demand that mail ballots should not be counted.

In fact, a few Republicans in Minnesota are already calling for mail ballots there to stop being counted, based on a video released by a right-wing group with a history of dishonesty that purports to show evidence of Democrats taking mail ballots from seniors and then filling them out.

The Hennepin County Attorney’s Office told Yahoo News Monday that they had “received no information or cases involving so-called ballot harvesting in any elections held in Hennepin County this year” but said that if the group that released the video “has evidence of election law violations, they should provide it to the Minneapolis Police Department.”

The Minneapolis Police later said they were looking into the “validity” of the allegations.

Trump has made unsupported claims about election fraud going back to the 2016 election, in which he won the Electoral College vote but lost the popular vote to Democrat Hillary Clinton by nearly 3 million votes. Trump, however, lied that he had actually won the popular vote “if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”

Although rare, election fraud does happen at the local level. But multiple experts have said it’s not possible to cheat at the scale needed to win a presidential election.

Ohio’s secretary of state, Frank LaRose, a Republican who worked for Trump’s transition team, told Yahoo News recently that “the idea that a massive conspiracy could be undertaken that could actually change the result of a governor’s race or U.S. Senate race, or certainly a presidential race, is a very far-fetched idea and beyond, really, the realm of possibility.”

Vice President Mike Pence’s own election law adviser, Michael Adams, told Yahoo News recently that “you’re not going to see widespread fraud in a presidential or a Senate or a governor’s race. It’s just not feasible.”

 In this March 10, 2020, file photo wearing gloves, a King County Election worker collect ballots from a drop box in the Washington State primary in Seattle. Washington is a vote by mail state.  (AP Photo/John Froschauer, File)
A King County Election worker collects ballots from a drop box in the Washington State primary in Seattle in March. (John Froschauer/AP, File)

These statements bolster the consensus view of other election experts. “We have seen voter fraud at the local level from time to time,” FBI Director Wray said last week.

There are clear ways to prevent widespread fraud. Several states conduct their elections entirely or mostly by mail and have best practices for preventing double voting, fake ballots, or other forms of cheating.

These measures include bar-code tracking of ballots, matching a voter’s signature on the ballot to the one in state files, and chain-of-custody protocols. That’s in addition to the fact that, in many states, every county creates its own unique ballot. States adapting higher levels of mail-in voting than in previous years due to COVID-19 are using these other states as examples.

Recently, Trump has seized on even the smallest incidents to claim they are part of a larger issue. Nine ballots were discarded in Luzerne County, Pa., by election clerks who thought they might be applications instead of ballots. A Trump campaign spokesman blared that this mishandling of nine ballots indicated Democrats were trying to “steal the election.” The spokesman, Matt Wolking, had no evidence for this claim and later deleted his statement.

Trump has even called for the U.S. to “get rid” of mail-in ballots, even as the Republican Party has encouraged its voters to cast ballots by mail in key swing states.

“In case anyone is unclear on the concept, in the United States of America, we do not ‘get rid of’ ballots,’” Ellen Weintraub, head of the Federal Election Commission, wrote on Twitter. “We count them.”

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