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Trump's attempts to undermine election integrity unnerve the country

Jon Ward
·Senior Political Correspondent
·9-min read

President Trump is engaged in an ongoing campaign to erode confidence in the legitimacy of the upcoming presidential election.

In addition to his refusal to say he would accept the election’s results, Trump’s baseless claims about voter fraud crystallized Thursday when he alleged that two minor problems involving ballots amounted to a conspiracy.

On Thursday, Trump publicized a Department of Justice press release about nine military ballots being discarded erroneously in Luzerne County, Pa., and referred vaguely to “ballots” that are “a whole big scam.”

All nine ballots were initially reported as having been cast for Trump. The Justice Department later retracted this statement, saying it did not know who two of the ballots were cast for.

A second Justice Department release also made clear that election clerks in Luzerne County opened the envelopes because they thought they might be ballot requests that required a response, rather than ballots filled out by voters.

Trump also referred to a report that the U.S. Postal Service found trays of mail on the side of the road Monday morning in Outagamie County, Wis. A few ballots were reported to have been mixed in with the rest of the mail.

President Trump and the mail-in ballot. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP, Getty Images, Matt Slocum/AP)
President Trump and a mail-in ballot. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP, Getty Images, Matt Slocum/AP)

There is, of course, a big difference between human error and a conspiracy to cheat.

But the president pointed to these incidents as an example of cheating. “We want to make sure the election is honest, and I’m not sure that it can be,” he said.

Trump campaign spokesman Matt Wolking tweeted — without any evidence — that the Pennsylvania incident was proof that “the Democrats are trying to steal the election.”

Wolking later deleted the tweet, but not before his unfounded claim spread like wildfire across social media.

Insinuations of a plot to steal the election, meanwhile, encourage citizens to feel as though voting doesn’t make a difference, and discourage them from doing so.

“All the unsupported claims of fraud and chaos in voting tend to discourage people from voting because they are more apt to believe that their votes don’t count,” Rick Hasen, author of “Election Meltdown,” told Yahoo News.

The president’s unfounded and wild claims came the same week that Republican leaders in Pennsylvania were quoted discussing plans to possibly stop all votes from being counted in the presidential election.

The Atlantic reported this week that Republicans are discussing an attempt to discard the popular vote in key swing states and install Trump for a second term through a vote by the state legislature that overrides the will of the people.

Such a scenario sounds far-fetched, and some experts said they did not think it a likely outcome. But the Atlantic article quoted two top Pennsylvania Republicans confirming that this is under discussion with the Trump campaign, and an unnamed legal adviser to the Trump campaign was also quoted in the piece saying that the president’s aides are “discussing contingency plans to bypass election results and appoint loyal electors in battleground states where Republicans hold the legislative majority.”

Pennsylvania’s Senate majority leader, Jake Corman, told the Atlantic’s Barton Gellman that “we don’t want to go down that road” of the legislature taking the election into its own hands, “but we understand where the law takes us, and we’ll follow the law.”

The Republican argument rests on President Trump’s unsupported claim that mail voting will lead to fraud. Pennsylvania GOP Chairman Lawrence Tabas told Gellman that the election might have “significant flaws” and that Americans “may lose faith and confidence” in the integrity of the election.

But the biggest driver of confusion about election results is the steady stream of baseless claims by the president himself that mail-in voting will lead to cheating, despite assurances from top election officials — both Republicans and Democrats — that it is not possible to rig the election through voter fraud.

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.”

Ben Ginsberg was the Republican Party’s top election attorney for the past two decades, overseeing the GOP legal effort in the 2000 election recount and advising the Trump campaign in 2016 and 2020 before his recent retirement. He wrote an op-ed earlier this month that concluded that “four decades of dedicated investigation have produced only isolated incidents of election fraud.”

And FBI Director Christopher Wray said in congressional testimony on Thursday that “we have not seen, historically, any kind of coordinated national voter fraud effort in a major election, whether it’s by mail or otherwise.”

These statements bolster the consensus view of other election experts, which is that election fraud happens sometimes, but only on a small scale, and the impacts are on local elections, like in a race for mayor or some other local office. “We have seen voter fraud at the local level from time to time,” Wray said Thursday.

“You’d have to go back to the 1960s to find significant fraud on a large scale,” Hasen told Yahoo News.

Republicans claim that delays in counting votes will be caused by recent court decisions that give Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin — the three states that decided the 2016 election — several days after Election Day to keep counting ballots.

There is a significant bottleneck, which may cause a delay in announcing results, that Republicans could easily remove in these states. But they have yet to do so in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, and have done the bare minimum in Michigan.

The law in these three states has prevented election clerks from opening mail ballot envelopes before Election Day. In many states, clerks are allowed to open mail ballot envelopes as they arrive, and either count them or prepare them to be counted.

In Ohio, clerks open mail ballot envelopes weeks before Election Day, and this means that on election night, the “first ballots counted are those vote-by-mail ballots,” LaRose said.

LaRose described the rules in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania as a “really terrible situation” because of how they will delay reporting results if they’re not changed.

In Pennsylvania, the secretary of state has requested the ability to open mail ballot envelopes starting three weeks before Election Day. The Republican-controlled legislature has so far offered to give clerks only three days.

In Michigan, the secretary of state requested the ability to open mail ballot envelopes at least one week before Election Day. The Republican-controlled legislature gave clerks only one day.

And in Wisconsin, election law is controlled to a large degree by the state Legislature, which is held entirely by Republicans. They have done nothing to give clerks more time ahead of Election Day to count mail ballots, or even prepare them to be quickly counted on election night as is done in Ohio.

There is also evidence that Republicans may try to slow down the counting process of mail ballots through objecting to the validity of ballots, thereby creating a backlog and a delay that lasts well past Election Day. This could work hand in hand with evidence-free claims of fraud to set up a possible attempt to override the actual voting results in these states.

Spokespeople for Pennsylvania Senate Majority Leader Corman and Pennsylvania House Speaker Bryan Cutler both told Yahoo News that they want to be able to challenge any mail ballot for validity. They claimed this limited the time they could give clerks to “pre-canvass” mail ballots, but the Pennsylvania secretary of state’s office told Yahoo News this was false.

The Atlantic article reports that Republicans used the primary election process as a test run, watching how officials in key Democratic strongholds like Philadelphia counted their mail-in ballots, to prepare to make challenges in the fall election. Republicans are also seeking to recruit volunteers to be “poll watchers,” who can observe voting in polling places. But the president’s son Donald Trump Jr. put out a request for poll watchers while claiming, without evidence, that Democrats plan to rig the election. If Trump supporters go to polling places with fantasies of widespread cheating, that could lead to disruption of voting and longer lines.

And Republicans have already tried to stop votes from being counted, during the 2018 midterm election in Florida. Trump and other Republicans made baseless claims of voter fraud in an attempt to cast doubt on the results as election officials attempted to count every vote in a pair of close races for Senate and governor. Republicans ultimately won both races.

Republicans have already begun to make accusations of cheating by highlighting reports that detail mistakes made by election clerks and claiming — without evidence — that this is proof of cheating. In a recent interview with CBS News, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows refused to acknowledge FBI Director Wray’s conclusion that voter fraud is not significant in national elections, and tried to argue that the nine erroneously discarded ballots in Pennsylvania contradicted Wray.

Ginsberg, the longtime Republican election attorney, blamed Trump for sowing confusion.

“It is absolutely correct to look for fraud and to try to root it out. What’s not correct is the president of the United States drawing conclusions that elections are fraudulent or rigged without having the evidence,” Ginsberg said on Showtime’s “The Circus.”

“A foundational basis of our country is the credibility of election results,” Ginsberg said. “This time 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 and the way the government runs.”

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