VERIFY: Donald Trump’s opinion about mail-in voting is “unfounded”

CNN falsely asserted Donald Trump made “unfounded” claims about the security of mail-in voting. While the substance of Trump’s claims are open to debate, it is objectively incorrect to say they were without any basis at all.

BACKGROUND: Prior to the 2020 U.S. presidential election, Donald Trump expressed several concerns about the security of mail-in voting.

THE CLAIM: In a July 30, 2020 “Facts First” fact-check, CNN reporters write that “Trump’s insistence that an increase in mail-in voting this November will result in massive fraud is unfounded.” In drawing this conclusion, CNN cites several expert sources, while ignoring other information that could potentially complicate the simplicity and neatness of their declaration that Trump’s claims were “unfounded.”

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INVESTIGATION: A comment about the future is, by its very nature, predictive and unprovable. In his comments, Trump was expressing an opinion. To objectively declare an opinion “unfounded” requires proof that it was based upon no facts at all, a different standard than is required to merely argue against it.

Trump’s opinion with regard to mail-in voting may be debatable. However, it is not the case that his opinion is based on no facts at all and was simply conjured out of thin air. The potential for fraud in mail-in vote systems has been examined by elections experts, not all of whom have dismissed its potential.

  • The 2005 report of the Commission on Federal Election Reform, organized by the Center for Democracy and Election Management at American University, noted that “… [mail-in voting] raises concerns about privacy, as citizens voting at home may come under pressure to vote for certain candidates, and it increases the risk of fraud … While there is little evidence of fraud in Oregon, where the entire state votes by mail, absentee balloting in other states has been one of the major sources of fraud.”
  • In their 2007 observation of the Swiss federal elections, the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe noted that in “previous years some issues had been encountered at old people’s homes and nursing facilities, where party activists would reportedly gather and misuse the postal ballots of others” and went on to observe that the “fact that communes are given significant flexibility when to mail ballots, and to pay or not pay for return postage — even within the same canton — may mean that some voters have more advantage than others in the voting process,” describing a level of decentralization analogous to that of the United States.
  • During the workshop Analysis of Issues and Challenges of E-Voting in the UK, held April 12-13, 2012 at the University of Cambridge, electoral systems researcher Dylan Clarke explained that “Postal voting fraud is generally possible because genuine voters can be coerced into voting for a particular candidate. This stems from the removal of the guarantee of privacy when voting, as there is no control over where the voter will fill in the ballot, or who may be with them.”
  • In a 2012 story for the New York Times, attorney and Supreme Court beat reporter Adam Liptak wrote that the “flaws of absentee voting raise questions about the most elementary promises of democracy,” going on to explain that mail-in voting is “now common enough and problematic enough that election experts say there have been multiple elections in which no one can say with confidence which candidate was the deserved winner.” Liptak also observed the presence of a “bipartisan consensus that voting by mail … is more easily abused than other forms [of voting].”

Trump’s claim also occurred against the backdrop of a particularly notorious case of election fraud involving mail-in ballots. During the 2018 midterm elections, a contest for Representative from North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District was ordered rerun after the North Carolina Board of Elections determined that an election fraud scheme involving mail-in ballots had rigged the outcome of the vote. The scheme  —orchestrated by a Republican candidate — involved the illegal harvesting of, and tampering with, mail-in ballots and its discovery led to criminal indictments of eight individuals on charges ranging from perjury to obstruction of justice.

In May 2020, other claims by Trump regarding mail-in balloting were subject to fact-checking tags by Twitter which linked to a different CNN article, prompting Rob Williams, contributing editor at Publishing Insider, to write that Trump’s argument,

… isn’t that controversial, considering that absentee ballots have been identified in at least one bipartisan study as the biggest source of voter fraud in past elections. Anyone who thinks the U.S. Postal System is equipped to ensure election integrity is sadly mistaken.  Twitter’s labels said “Get the facts about mail-in ballots” and provided a link to a CNN column by Chris Cillizza that notes: “There’s just no significant evidence of intentional voter fraud on anything near the scale Trump and his allies allege. Never has been.” Cillizza supports his claim with links to studies and stories from the same media echo chamber.

RATING: Scientific American notes that “Unlike a pristine laboratory setting, however, the world of politics is messy, and there can be deep disagreements about the facts themselves … When it comes to partisan fact-checking about complex issues—which describes much of the fact-checking that takes place in the context of political news—the truth as stated is often the subjective opinion of people with shared political views.”

To objectively state that an opinion is “unfounded” requires one not to subjectively argue against the opinion but to demonstrate that the opinion was formed with no factual basis, not even a disputed one. This nuance was lost on CNN. While Trump’s pre-election prediction that an increase in mail-in voting would lead to a commensurate increase in election fraud may or may not have been wrong — and some elections experts may take issue with the conclusions reached by other elections experts on the question of mail-in vote security — it is not the case that such concerns are simply conjured out of thin air. CNN’s claim is, therefore, FALSE.

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