President Donald Trump made a disturbing number of incorrect claims about election integrity in voting and said he is "counting on" the US Supreme Court and his Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett to potentially resolve a disputed election in the first presidential debate against Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
Tuesday's debate, moderated by Fox News' Chris Wallace at Case Western University in Ohio, was split into six fifteen-minute segments on six topics including, at the end, election integrity. Since the beginning of the pandemic when states began expanding mail voting, Trump has sowed distrust and cast doubt over the results of the November election.
On the topic of election integrity, Trump spread an unprecedented amount of false and highly misleading information, refused to commit to accepting the results of the 2020 election, and called on his supporters to descend upon polling places to "watch" for fraud in the span of only a few minutes.
There's a lot to unpack in Trump's statements, so here's an annotated, step-by-step fact-check and breakdown of Trump's key statements on election integrity adapted from Rev's transcript of the debate, edited for clarity and crosstalk between the candidates and the moderator.
Just 0.00006% of all votes cast by mail in 20 years led to convictions
Trump: "As far as the ballots are concerned, it's a disaster. A solicited ballot, okay, solicited, is okay. You're soliciting. You're asking. They send it back. You send it back. I did that. If you have an unsolicited… They're sending millions of ballots all over the country. There's fraud."
Fact check: Throughout this year, Trump has falsely claimed that mail voting is rife with fraud, and made a misleading distinction between "solicited" and "unsolicited" ballots.
Before the pandemic, the five states of Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington sent all registered voters ballots that could be returned via the US mail or with a secure ballot dropbox. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, California, the District of Columbia, Nevada, New Jersey, and Vermont are also sending all or most registered voters ballots in the mail.
All of the major battleground states likely to decide the election allow any voter to vote by mail without an excuse, but are not sending all voters ballots. There are numerous checks and balances to prevent fraud, whether a ballot is sent to a voter automatically or whether a voter has to affirmatively request one.
The conservative Heritage Foundation's database of voter fraud cases finds that there have been 1,121 criminal convictions for all voter fraud and 193 officially documented and officially penalized cases, including 143 criminal convictions, for fraudulent use of absentee ballots over the past 20 years, a time during which approximately 250 million ballots were cast by mail.
As MIT elections scholar Charles Stewart and National Vote At Home Institute CEO Amber McReynolds, two leading experts on voting by mail, noted in an April op-ed, those figures come out to 7.1 convictions per year nationwide and an average of three convictions per state in the past 20 years, accounting for just 0.00006% of all votes cast by mail in that time.
Rates of fraud are also extremely low in states that send all voters ballots. Heritage's database reports two documented cases of fraudulent use of mail ballots in Oregon, five in Colorado, six in Washington, and none in Hawaii or Utah over the past fifteen years.
There is no evidence ballots are being dumped 'in creeks'
Trump: "They found them in creeks. They found some, just happened to have the name Trump just the other day in a wastepaper basket. They're being sent all over the place. They sent two in a Democrat area. They sent out a thousand ballots. Everybody got two ballots. This is going to be a fraud like you've never seen. On November 3rd, you're watching, and you see who won the election. And I think we're going to do well because people are really happy with the job we've done."
Fact check: There is no evidence of any ballots being dumped in rivers or creeks. Trump's allusion to two ballots being sent in a "Democrat area" appears to be a reference to a mix-up in the elections office of Mecklenburg County, North Carolina — a state where voters must affirmatively request a ballot — where election officials initially sent Charlotte voters the wrong ballots and re-issued them correct ones.
"Election Director Michael Dickerson said the mix-up affected less than 500 voters," the Charlotte Observer reported. "But there's no chance that voters can vote twice. Each mailing label has a unique identifier that prohibits that. Plus voting more than once is a felony."
No, 40% of mail-in ballots are not being lost
Trump: "But you know what? We won't know. We might not know for months because these ballots are going to be all over. Take a look at what happened in Manhattan. Take a look at what happened in New Jersey. Take a look at what happened in Virginia and other places. They're not losing 2%, 1%, which by the way is too much. An election could be won or lost with that. They're losing 30 and 40%. It's a fraud, and it's a shame. And can you imagine where they say, 'You have to have your ballot in by November 10th.' November 10th. That's seven days after the election, in theory, should have been announced."
Fact check: Trump claims in this answer that mail voting is rife with fraud, which it is not, and that mail voting is bad because mail ballots have higher rates of rejection than in-person votes, fundamentally contradict each other.
Trump is right that mail ballots do face higher rates of rejection than in-person votes, but the reason for that trend is specifically because of the safeguards in place to prevent the kind of fraud Trump speaks about.
In all states with voter registration, individuals must be properly registered to vote in order to vote by mail. All states further require that voters sign an affidavit on the outer envelope containing their ballot affirming their identity, and that ballots arrive or be postmarked by Election Day.
Most affix barcodes or identification numbers specific to each unique voter on ballot materials to ensure that the voter who receives a ballot is the one who fills it out and returns it, and also offer ballot tracking for voters to check on the status of their ballot.
Indeed, in the 2017 New York City mayoral election, First Lady Melania Trump's absentee ballot was rejected because she failed to sign the outer envelope and Trump's daughter Ivanka Trump's ballot was rejected because it arrived past the deadline, the New York Daily News reported.
Now, over 30 states also use signature verification for mail ballots, where officials match a voter's signature with the most recent signature on file with the office, and others require witness or notary signatures on mail ballot envelopes.
States allowing ballots that are postmarked by Election Day or the day before to be accepted if they arrive after November 3 — something Trump complained about in his answer — is a policy measure that actually reduces the rate of ballots rejected for late arrival, a top reason ballots have been disqualified so far this year.
And while the winner of the presidential race may not be called on election night, it's not true that the United States won't know the winner for "months." Election results are never truly finalized on election night, because officials have to canvass late-arriving absentees and provisional ballots, but most states now allow officials to conduct some pre-processing of mail ballots prior to Election Day.
Trump's allusion to "Manhattan" and to the problems with Rep. Carolyn Maloney's re-election race this summer, in which abnormally high rates of voters never received ballots at all or had their ballots rejected, touches on real systemic problems with New York City's election administration, but is not proof of widespread fraud.
New York voters are not committing fraud at widespread rates, but are rather being disenfranchised and underserved by a Board of Elections which, in numerous instances over the years and now in 2020, has fallen short in some areas of competently administering elections.
There is no widespread ballot selling
Trump: "You either do, Chris, a solicited ballot, where you're sending it in, they're sending it back and you're sending. They have mailmen with lots of it. Did you see what's going on? Take a look at West Virginia, mailman selling the ballots. They're being sold. They're being dumped in rivers. This is a horrible thing for our country."
Fact check: So far, there is no credible evidence that widespread vote-buying is taking or place or that ballots are being "bought" or "sold." The case of a mailman in West Virginia Trump referred to was actually an instance of attempted election fraud to benefit his own party.
As WSAZ and the Associated Press reported, a West Virginia mail carrier pleaded guilty to tampering with eight paper mail ballot applications he was tasked with delivering back to elections offices by changing the party ballot requested from Democratic to Republican with black ink.
Philadelphia is not denying legitimate poll watchers access
Trump: "I'm urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully, because that's what has to happen. I am urging them to do it. As you know, today there was a big problem. In Philadelphia, they went in to watch. They're called poll watchers, a very safe, very nice thing. They were thrown out. They weren't allowed to watch. You know why? Because bad things happen in Philadelphia. Bad things. And I am urging my people. I hope it's going to be a fair election. If it's a fair election… I am 100% on board. But if I see tens of thousands of ballots being manipulated, I can't go along with that."
Fact check: Contrary to what Trump said, legitimate poll watchers in Philadelphia have not been denied from observing at the polls. Pennsylvania has not commenced traditional in-person voting yet statewide, but Philadelphia began allowing voters to pick up and fill out absentee ballots at satellite locations on Tuesday, a type of voting sometimes referred to as "in-person absentee."
As The Philadelphia Inquirer reported on Tuesday and as Suzanne Almeida, the interim executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, explained to reporters on Wednesday, the Trump campaign doesn't even have any poll watchers approved to work in Pennsylvania in the first place, not to mention that poll watchers are not approved to observe at satellite offices.
"The satellite elections offices are not polling locations the way we might see them in other states," Almeida said. "They are satellite county offices where folks who are registered to vote can apply, receive, and turn in a vote by mail ballot. There is no provision under the Pennsylvania Election Code that allows for poll watchers" at such locations.
Al Schmidt, a Republican Philadelphia city commissioner, told The Inquirer that poll watchers weren't approved to observe at such satellite voting locations because "We don't give someone a poll-watcher certificate to … watch somebody fill out their ballot at their kitchen table."
In no jurisdiction in the United States, and especially not during a pandemic, is any individual allowed to show up at the polls unannounced to serve as a poll-watcher.
"As in most states, there are strict rules about who can and cannot be a poll watcher and what those poll watchers can do," Almeida said. "In Pennsylvania, one of those rules is that poll watchers must be registered by the county, they get something called a poll watcher certificate. The Trump campaign had no certified poll watchers in Philadelphia."
Furthermore, rates of in-person voter fraud are even rarer than voter fraud with mail ballots. Heritage's database has identified just 13 cases of in-person voter impersonation documented between six states over the past 16 years.
Officials are investigating election issues, not ignoring them
Trump: "It means you have a fraudulent election. You're sending out 80 million ballots-They're not equipped… These people aren't equipped to handle it, number one. Number two, they cheat. They cheat. Hey, they found ballots in a wastepaper basket three days ago, and they all had the name military ballots. There were military. They all had the name Trump on them."
Fact check: Trump, including in last night's debate, has falsely claimed that 80 million Americans are being sent "unsolicited" ballots. In reality, approximately 51 million voters are being sent ballots automatically to voters without having to request one from their election officials, according to the Washington Post.
The military ballots found in a wastebasket Trump mentioned was a reference to a recent incident in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania where a temporary contract worker mistakenly opened envelopes containing ballots of military voters and improperly discarded nine ballots, seven of which had been cast for Trump.
The Department of Justice released two short and vaguely-worded statements stating that ballots had been "discarded" in Luzerne County, causing confusion and giving rise to theories that election tampering had taken place. Elections experts and former prosecutors criticized the DOJ both for releasing details of an incomplete investigation and for mentioning who the ballots were cast for, which undermined the right to a secret ballot.
As subsequent statements from the DOJ and Luzerne County officials revealed, the error was inadvertent and appeared to be a result of under-trained workers mistaking the ballot envelopes for envelopes containing absentee ballot applications. There is no evidence that the improper discarding of ballots was intentional or politically-motivated.
Almeida, of Common Cause Pennsylvania, said the way that election officials immediately responded to correct the error, including alerting local law enforcement and having workers search in dumpsters to recover the ballots, shows the system functioned as intended.
"While the ballots should have not been discarded in the first place, everything that happened afterwards from Pennsylvania elections offices was exactly as it should have been," she said. "As soon as it was discovered, the worker's supervisor reported it to the county elections director, who reported it to the district attorney, who, after doing some investigation, reported it to the Department of Justice."