In scholastic debates, one frequently deployed technique for winning a contest without really winning the argument is called “spreading,” which involves tossing so many points out there that your opponent fails to respond to them all. It helps if the “spreader” isn’t inhibited by facts, logic, or syntax, which is why it’s a likely tactic for Donald Trump in his debates with Joe Biden. Nobody tosses up a word salad like the 45th president.
Since one of the preannounced topics for the first debate is “the integrity of the election,” it would not be surprising if Trump were to dump a boatload of mendacious claims about voting by mail into the mix. In fact, he may have been rehearsing it at a Sunday press briefing where we heard some old, and new, howlers. Let’s categorize them with a degree of organization the president failed to use in presenting them.
Here’s Trump on Sunday, per the White House transcript:
We are gravely concerned about the Democrat assault on election integrity. In Brooklyn, 25 percent of mail-in ballots were ruled invalid in June’s Democrat primary. You saw that. In a special election in New Jersey, 20 percent of the ballots were thrown out … This is all in the mail-ballots.
Thirty-five thousand mail-in ballots were rejected in Florida’s primary, and one hundred thousand were rejected in California, and that’s just the beginning.
I guess the implication here is supposed to be that somehow Democratic election officials are selectively rejecting mail ballots based on the partisan leanings of the voters casting them (though the election machinery is in Republican hands in Florida and a number of other states with high rejection rates). If so, they’re getting it wrong, since rejection rates are significantly higher for Democratic-leaning voter groups.
More fundamentally, high rejection rates are hardly signs of “fraud,” since they generally flow from overzealous enforcement of measures designed to prevent fraud, typically promoted by Trump’s own party. Far and away the most common reason for rejecting mail ballots is missed deadlines; all over the country, Trump’s Republican allies are in court fighting extensions of deadlines to allow ballots mailed by Election Day but received later to be counted. Another common ground for rejection is signature-verification problems; Democrats are battling Republicans in many places to give voters with flawed signatures or other identification requirements a chance to “cure” the flaws with clear evidence of their identity and eligibility. Again, the idea is to reconcile voting rights with reasonable ballot security requirements. For Trump, it’s just a random negative statistic about voting by mail.
Next up, we’ve got counting delays. Trump said:
A week after Pennsylvania’s primary, half of the counties were still counting ballots, and you’ll be counting them here because this is a much bigger version of all of that …
And you can forget about November 3rd, because you’re going to be counting these things forever. And it’s very dangerous for our country.
Part of the reason mail ballots take a long time to count is that a number of states won’t allow election officials to process them (much less tabulate them) until Election Day. Guess which party is defending that practice in the battleground states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin? The Republican legislatures in those states. If you don’t want a slow count, let it start as early as possible. But here’s a classic Trumpian non sequitur on vote-counting delays:
In Iowa Caucuses last winter, you know what happened there. You all reported on it, I think, very well. Right? Do you remember that one? It was not good, right? But in Iowa, they still don’t really know who the winner was. I think they called somebody eventually, but it was many, many weeks later. But they really have no idea, and that’s being — continues to be — and that’s little, that’s just a small — it continues to be litigated in Iowa. They can’t run a simple caucus, yet now they’re trying to radically write election laws nationwide, just weeks before the presidential election.
Aside from the fact that Iowa Democrats do, in fact, know who won the Caucuses, comparing one party-run caucus with famously complicated rules for tabulating results to state-run general elections around the country is absurd. So too is the claim that fighting voter-suppression measures in court and seeking deadline relief during a continuing pandemic means “radically [rewriting] election laws nationwide.”
A frequent Trump lie involves states easing voting-by-mail application procedures to reflect the COVID-19 pandemic. He hit that point again on Sunday:
They want to require all states to do mail-in balloting, right? I call it “unsolicited.” Some people call it “universal.” I think “universal” doesn’t make sense, because nobody understands why universal. So it’s “unsolicited.” They want unsolicited mail-in ballots. In other words, you send these ballots to whoever you can think of.
This claim is a real mess. All states “do” mail-in balloting. A handful “do” voting by mail exclusively (and “did” before the pandemic hit), and even they typically have in-person alternatives available. Nobody is sending mail ballots “to whoever you can think of.” California, for example, responded to COVID-19 risks by mailing a ballot to every active registered voter, which wasn’t a big change, because over 70 percent of Californians voted by mail anyway in this year’s pre-pandemic primary. Most of the changes Trump is complaining about involve sending mail-ballot applications to all registered voters; they still have to fill them out, send them in and then fill out and mail in the ballots themselves with whatever signature-matching rules a particular state happens to have. It’s as far from being a random process as possible.
When all else fails, though, Trump relies on fraud anecdotes that don’t amount to a hill of beans at the foot of Mount Everest. He continued:
Just last week, a number of discarded military ballots were discovered in Pennsylvania. All of the recovered ballots — these were ballots that were thrown out — had been cast for a person named Donald J. Trump.
In Wisconsin, three trays of mail containing absentee ballots were found in a ditch; they were thrown in a ditch. Three trays.
In North Carolina, voters are reporting receiving two ballots in the mail. Many — many voters. I hear it’s thousands, but they’re getting two ballots. I wonder if those are Democrat areas, because the word is they are.
As CNN noted, the Pennsylvania case involved nine ballots. Nine. The Wisconsin case was a postal-service screwup in which mail ballots were collateral damage, and “three trays” is not that much in the context of a statewide election. And the 500 — not “thousands” — of North Carolinians receiving two ballots cannot cast more than one without evading additional safeguards and committing a felony.
It all adds up to a nonsensical case for questioning the legitimacy of many millions of perfectly legal mail ballots, which it appears the president wants to do in order to claim victory based on the in-person voting his partisans are expected to dominate. We’ll soon know which of these arguments Trump is repeating during the debates — and, worse yet, on and after Election Night.