California will send every registered voter in the state a mail-in ballot for the November general election. But President Donald Trump falsely said, on Twitter and at the White House, that the ballots would go to “anyone living in the state, no matter who they are or how they got there” and “people that aren’t citizens.”
The president went on to make the unsupported claim that mail-in voting would be “substantially fraudulent.” Experts have told us that voter fraud via mail-in ballots is rare, though more common than in-person voting fraud — another topic Trump has repeatedly been wrong about.
Five states already conduct elections primarily by mail-in vote: Utah, Colorado, Hawaii, Washington and Oregon. All of them will send registered voters a mail-in ballot in advance of the election, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures and the individual state election materials. In Utah, all but two counties automatically sent ballots to registered voters in the 2018 elections, and this year’s June 30 primary will be conducted primarily by mail, due to the coronavirus pandemic, with no regular polling places available in all but one county.
Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah told reporters on May 27, according to ABC News: “In my state, I’ll bet 90% of us vote by mail. It works very very well and it’s a very Republican state.”
The Ebb and Flow of New Coronavirus Cases and Deaths
The graphs below illustrate the distribution of new coronavirus cases and deaths in the U.S. While New York accounted for the lion’s share of new cases and deaths in March and April, its numbers have declined in May as some states have increased. Hover or tap to see new daily cases and deaths across the country. States with the most are ordered top to bottom.
Source: The COVID Tracking Project
Credit: Amy O’Kruk/NBC
California Sending Ballots to Registered Voters
Twitter dipped its toe in the fact-checking waters after Trump’s May 26 tweets by adding a “Get the facts about mail-in ballots” link below the president’s words. The link went to a list of news articles, tweets and other information on Trump’s claims.
A Twitter spokesperson told us the tweets “contain potentially misleading information about voting processes and have been labeled to provide additional context around mail-in ballots.” The decision was “in line with” its new policy “to limit the spread of potentially harmful and misleading content” regarding COVID-19, the spokesperson said.
The president, who later tweeted that he would “regulate” or “close … down” social media companies that “silence conservative voices,” had expanded on his tweets in remarks to reporters on May 26. He falsely said Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom was sending ballots “to anybody. People that aren’t citizens, illegals. Anybody that walks in California is going to get a ballot. … Millions and millions of ballots to anybody in California that’s walking or breathing, many of those people don’t have the right to vote.”
Newsom’s May 8 executive order pertained to registered voters. It said that due to the potential threat of COVID-19 in November “each county elections officials shall transmit vote-by-mail ballots for the November 3, 2020 General Election to all voters who are, as of the last day on which vote-by-mail ballots may be transmitted to voters in connection with that election, registered to vote in that election.”
Sam Mahood, press secretary for California’s secretary of state, reiterated that in an email to FactCheck.org, saying: “Vote-by-mail ballots will only be sent to active registered voters ahead of the November 3, 2020 General Election.” Mahood called Trump’s tweets “completely false” and noted other states “have used vote-by-mail extensively for years.”
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Secretary of State Alex Padilla said in a May 8 press release the ballots would be mailed to registered voters living domestically 29 days before the Nov. 3 Election Day. (Military and overseas absentee voters get their ballots 45 days beforehand.) And in-person voting would also be available. “While expanding vote-by-mail is critical, we remain committed to providing as many in-person voting opportunities, on and before Election Day, in a manner that is safe for both voters and election workers,” Padilla said.
Two days before Trump made his claims about California, the Republican National Committee, the National Republican Congressional Committee and the California Republican Party sued to block Newsom’s executive order. In a press release, the RNC said ballots would be sent to “inactive voters.” But Mahood said that’s not the case; the ballots would be sent to “active” voters.
He explained that a voter would be considered “inactive” if the “county elections office receives an undeliverable/returned election mailing (such as a voter information guide or vote-by-mail ballot) indicating the voter no longer lives at that address.” And if such a voter doesn’t vote in two subsequent federal elections, “their registration will be cancelled.”
California has encouraged voters to make sure their contact information is current. “A voter can re-activate their registration if they vote, update their voter registration, or the county elections official can otherwise confirm their address before cancellation,” Mahood said.
Trump’s claims continue a trend in criticizing some states — but not others — that have expanded mail-in voting during the coronavirus outbreak.
Last week, Trump made the false claim on Twitter that Michigan was “illegally” sending “absentee ballots to 7.7 million people” for this year’s primary and general elections. The state said it will send absentee ballot applications to all registered voters. Trump later corrected his tweet on that point but still claimed it was against the law. However, Iowa, Georgia, Nebraska and West Virginia also have sent absentee applications.
He further claimed Nevada was sending “illegal vote by mail ballots.” The Republican secretary of state in Nevada announced: “All active registered voters in Nevada will be mailed an absentee ballot for the primary election,” and her office noted that a federal judge had ruled this was a lawful exercise of her authority.
Exaggerations on Voter Fraud
As we’ve explained before, experts say mail-in voting fraud is rare. Yet Trump claimed, “You can’t do the mail-in ballots because you’re going to have tremendous fraud.”
Trump, May 26: People steal them out of mailboxes. People print them and then they sign them, and they give them in. The people don’t even know where they’re double counted. People take them where they force people to vote. They harvest. You know what harvesting is. They take many, many ballots and they put them all together, and then they just dump them, and nobody has any idea whether they’re crooked or not.
When Trump made similar exaggerated claims in April, Richard L. Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine School of Law, and author of “The Voting Wars,” told us: “Election fraud committed with absentee ballots is more prevalent than in person voting but it is still rare.”
In an op-ed published in the Washington Post, Hasen pointed to News21, a national investigative reporting project that tracks cases of election fraud. It found that about 24% of reported prosecutions between 2000 and 2012 concerned absentee-ballot fraud, making it the most prevalent type of election fraud. “But the total number of cases was just 491 — during a period in which literally billions of votes were cast,” Hasen wrote.
He told us that states take actions to minimize the risk of fraud.
That’s what Mahood told us California would do to prevent fraudulent voting.
“California county elections officials check each and every vote-by-mail ballot that is cast,” he said. “A voter’s signature on the vote-by-mail ballot return envelope is compared against the voter’s registration record. If a signature is missing or does not match the registration record, elections officials will reach out to the voter. If the voter does not respond and provide a missing/corrected signature, the ballot will not count.”
California voters can also use a “Where’s My Ballot?” online tool to get updates on the status of their ballots.
“I don’t think anyone can give you a reliable measure of the prevalence of voter fraud with mail-in ballots, but my sense is that it is not much more frequent than in-person voter fraud, which rarely occurs,” Minnite said.
In a well-known recent case, the results of the 2018 midterm election in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District were overturned after a state investigation found a Republican political operative improperly collected and possibly altered or discarded ballots to sway the election. The operative was indicted on felony charges.
Trump also claimed that Democrats wanted mail-in voting “because, in theory, it’s good for them.” But a recent study disputes that.
Stanford University’s Democracy & Polarization Lab found that neither party would benefit from an entirely mail-in-voting system. “We find that universal vote-by-mail does not affect either party’s share of turnout or either party’s vote share,” the study said.
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