The second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump is set to begin Feb. 9, barely a month after the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol that was the basis for his impeachment by the House of Representatives. The single article of impeachment – for “incitement of insurrection” – cites not only Trump’s Jan. 6 speech in which he told a crowd of supporters to march to the Capitol and pressure lawmakers to overturn the election results, but also his long-running claim that the election was stolen through widespread fraud and vote rigging.
The monthslong campaign to sow distrust in the American electoral system was largely successful.
Less than a quarter of Republican voters trusted the results of the election, a Marist poll found in December, and a Quinnipiac poll found 77% of GOP voters believed there was widespread fraud in the election. That sentiment has put pressure on lawmakers to back Trump’s claims. Two-thirds of House Republicans returned to the House chamber just hours after the mob ransacked the building and objected to Electoral College results, heeding a clear demand from the former president.
Trump’s recent claims of mass voter fraud were nothing new.
After winning the presidency in 2016, he alleged without any evidence he had only lost the popular vote because millions of people had voted illegally. When Democrats made gains in the 2018 midterm elections, Trump claimed that was due to people illegally voting multiple times after changing a shirt or hat, which the U.S. Election Assistance Commission concluded in a 2006 report “is probably the least frequent type of fraud” because it is easy for authorities to catch, carries stiff penalties and is an inefficient way to influence an election.
Voter fraud does happen, and federal and state governments have systems to identify and punish it.
The Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank, maintains a noncomprehensive database of about 1,300 proven cases of voter fraud since 1982, including four in 2020. A 2014 review by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office found no apparent cases of in-person voter impersonation were charged by the Justice Department or by any U.S. attorney’s office over the previous decade.
An investigation by Loyola Law School election expert Justin Levitt found 31 credible cases of impersonation out of roughly 1 billion ballots cast from 2000 to 2014. An analysis of the Heritage Foundation’s database estimated about eight cases of vote-by-mail fraud per year nationwide, or about 0.00006% of total votes.
At the same time, voting officials and election lawyers, Republicans and Democrats alike, say there is no evidence to support Trump’s allegations that tens or hundreds of thousands of votes were illegally cast last November.
“We haven’t repealed original sin, so some fraud does occur,” said Mark Braden, a GOP election lawyer. “But you’re talking about almost universally very small numbers.”
Trump claimed in August, before voting began, “The only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged.” What changed after Election Day was the sheer volume of claims and rumors, which fact checkers and election officials struggled to keep up with. Gabriel Sterling, a Republican official in Georgia, likened the work of debunking false claims to a game of “Whac-A-Mole.”
Here are the facts about some of the most prevalent claims of vote rigging or widespread fraud.
Claim: Trump won on election night and votes counted in the following days were illegal
Origin: In a North Carolina rally Nov. 1, Trump said the winner should be decided on election night. That same day, Trump campaign adviser Jason Miller told ABC News Trump would be leading in early vote returns and Democrats were “going to try to steal it back after the election.” In a speech in the early hours of Nov. 4, while results from around the country were still being tallied, Trump said, “We will win this, and as far as I’m concerned, we already have won it.”
The facts: Election results are never final on Election Day, but in recent decades “decision desks” at news outlets have projected a winner based on early results and statistical analysis of remaining ballots. While votes cast in person can usually be counted on election night, states take days and sometimes weeks to count all votes, including mail-in and provisional ballots.
The U.S. Constitution gives states broad authority to run elections. Some states’ voting laws don’t allow mail-in ballots to be processed or counted early, and some allow mailed ballots received after Election Day to be counted as long as they are postmarked by Election Day. Democratic voters opted to cast their ballots by mail at a higher rate than Republicans, likely in part because of Trump’s criticism of vote-by-mail.
As a result, early results from several key swing states showed Trump leading, an effect dubbed the “red mirage.” In Pennsylvania, Republicans challenged the legality of about 9,300 late-arriving ballots. Courts rejected those efforts, but even if the votes had been thrown out, Biden would have won the state, where he received about 80,000 more votes than Trump.
Claim: Machines made by Dominion Voting Systems – somehow connected to prominent Democrats or the governments of Cuba, China or Venezuela – changed votes in favor of Biden
Origin: In a press conference Nov. 6, Michigan GOP Chairwoman Laura Cox claimed a software glitch on Dominion voting machines in Antrim County, Michigan, had switched thousands of votes from Trump to now-President Joe Biden. Trump claimed in a Jan. 12 tweet Dominion had “deleted” 2.7 million votes for him and switched 435,000 votes to Biden nationwide. In a Jan. 19 press conference, Trump campaign lawyers Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell made a series of additional claims about the company, including that it was linked to Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez, who died in 2013, and prominent Democrats like former President Bill Clinton and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
The facts: Dominion was founded in Canada in 2003 and is the second-largest voting system vendor in the United States with its machines used in more than 30 states. Two founders of a different voting systems company, Smartmatic, are from Venezuela, but that company is incorporated in Florida. No credible evidence of ties between Dominion and Chavez or the Venezuelan government has been provided.
In Michigan, Antrim County election officials said Nov. 4 the discrepancy was due to human error, not a glitch, and the state’s top election official said Nov. 6 the original paper ballots allowed the results to be double-checked. The federal agency responsible for election security released a statement Nov. 12 saying, “There is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.”
Claim: Videos showed evidence of vote rigging in multiple swing states
Origin: Several prominent right-wing sources, including One America News Network and the Trump campaign’s Twitter account, shared surveillance video from a sports arena in Atlanta where votes were being counted purportedly showing suitcases of suspicious ballots being opened after Republican observers were told to leave. In Detroit, a video circulated on social media – shared by Trump’s son Eric, among others – showing a man wheeling a wagon into a vote-counting center, allegedly to steal ballots or bring fraudulent ballots to be counted.
The facts: In the Georgia vote-counting center, workers started putting away uncounted ballots just before midnight, planning to resume counting the next day, before the county elections director directed a supervisor to continue counting, according to the county official and an investigation by the Republican secretary of state’s office. Sterling, the state official, showed in a Dec. 4 press conference that the surveillance footage was misleadingly edited and the state has released the full video online.
In Michigan, the man in the video was in fact a photographer for local news station WXYZ carrying camera equipment, not ballots.
Claim: Republican observers were barred from entering polling places in heavily Democratic cities
Origin: On Election Day, Trump campaign official Mike Roman retweeted a video showing a GOP poll watcher being refused entry at a polling place in Philadelphia, writing, “This is happening all over the City. The steal is on!” In a tweet Dec. 11, Trump claimed Pennsylvania and Michigan “didn’t allow our Poll Watchers and/or Vote Observers to Watch or Observe.”
The facts: A Philadelphia election spokesman said the incident shown in the video was isolated and the result of confusion over whether observers could freely move between polling sites – they could – or had to be assigned to a particular location. In court, a Trump campaign lawyer conceded that there were Republican observers at polling locations in the city.
In Michigan, the Trump campaign submitted 238 pages of affidavits from GOP poll watchers across the state with a variety of complaints – including that a public address system was too loud and that workers were staring at them – but no proof of fraud. In one incident on Nov. 4, both Democratic and Republican observers were barred from entering a room in Detroit where ballots were being counted because it was over capacity, but more than 100 GOP poll watchers were present, The Detroit Free Press reported.
Claim: Thousands of living people fraudulently voted on behalf of dead people
Origin: On Nov. 7, a Trump supporter on Twitter posted a list purporting to show 10,000 people “confirmed deceased” who requested and cast absentee ballots in a single Michigan county. The next day, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told a Fox News host the Trump campaign had “evidence of dead people voting in Pennsylvania.” In a Jan. 2 call with Georgia election officials, Trump claimed “dead people voted … close to 5,000.”
The facts: Eleven states have laws specifically allowing votes to be counted if they are cast by mail or in early voting by someone who dies before Election Day, while 16 states have laws prohibiting those votes and the remaining 23 states have no clear laws on the matter. That was the case with one specific voter identified by the Trump campaign, but those cases account for a small number of votes. In another case, a Pennsylvania man – a registered Republican – was charged with felonies after trying to apply for a mail-in ballot in his dead mother’s name. Graham claimed he had evidence of six such cases in the state but has not produced that evidence.
Most of the “dead voter” claims by Trump and his allies, however, are based on misunderstood or deliberately misrepresented data. The claim of 10,000 supposedly dead voters in Michigan was based on false matches between living voters and deceased people who share the same name and birth month, a common occurrence in a country of about 330 million people. Reporters succeeded in contacting several of the supposedly dead voters.
In Georgia, Republican Secretary of state Brad Raffensperger has said his office has identified two cases of illegal votes on behalf of dead people, not 5,000. Trump lawyer Cleta Mitchell said the 5,000 estimate was based on “a universe of people who have the same name and same birth year and died,” the same flawed approach used in the debunked Michigan claim.
Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.
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