Nine states and the District of Columbia will mail ballots to about 44 million registered voters for the November election. Several of them have done this for past elections, too.
But in recent days, President Donald Trump repeatedly has distorted the facts about mail-in ballots by falsely claiming the Democrats are mailing out "80 million unsolicited ballots" so they can "harvest' votes to elect Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in November.
In a Labor Day press conference at the White House, the president accused the Democrats of being "dirty fighters" — before launching into his latest in a series of false, misleading and unsubstantiated claims about mail-in voting.
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Trump, Sept. 7: [T]hey have a lot of bad stuff going, but they’re dirty fighters. And the dirtiest fight of all is the issuance of 80 million ballots, unrequested. They’re not requested; they’re just sending 80 million ballots all over the country. Eighty million ballots, non-requested. I call them "unsolicited ballots." That’s going to be the dirtiest fight of all. People are going to get ballots; they’re going to say, "What am I doing?” And then they’re going to harvest. They’re going to do all the things.
The president said something similar at a Sept. 3 campaign rally in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. In that speech, Trump claimed that the Democrats were sending out "80 million unsolicited ballots" to overcome his "big enthusiasm edge" over Biden, insisting that cheating is "the only way they’re going to beat us."
In an interview with Laura Ingraham of Fox News that aired Sept. 1, the president also warned of "tremendous cheating." He said, "They’re sending 80 million ballots to everybody and there’s tremendous cheating going to go on."
We asked the White House and campaign where Trump gets his figure of "80 million unsolicited ballots," but we didn’t get a response. The facts, though, don’t support his figure.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, nine states "are mailing ballots to all eligible voters, no request needed," for the November election. (The NCSL notes that Montana gives counties the option to do so.)
In addition to those nine states, the District of Columbia will also mail ballots to all registered voters, according to the district’s Board of Elections.
We added up the number of registered voters in D.C. and those nine states and found that there are about 44 million registered voters in those jurisdictions. Almost half of those — nearly 21 million registered voters, as of July 3 — live in California. (See chart.)
But automatically sending ballots to registered voters isn’t new or indicative of "cheating," as the president claims.
Some states, including New Jersey and Nevada, have changed the rules because of the COVID-19 pandemic and will send ballots to all registered voters for the November election. But other states have done so in past elections.
Seven states "have some system in which all registered voters are automatically sent a mail ballot," according to a U.S. Election Assistance Commission report on the 2018 election.
Colorado, Oregon and Washington had statewide all-vote-by-mail systems in place that year, the EAC report said, as well as in 2016. California and Utah were among four other states that allowed certain jurisdictions "to conduct all-vote-by-mail elections" in 2018, the EAC report said. In Utah, all but two counties automatically sent ballots to registered voters in the 2018 elections, according to the state’s voter information pamphlet.
Prior to the pandemic, Hawaii passed a law last year implementing a primarily by-mail system in this election cycle, requiring ballots to be automatically sent to registered voters.
In 2016, when Trump won the presidency, 41.6 million ballots were mailed to registered voters, 33.4 million were returned and nearly 33 million were counted. (See page 25 of an EAC report on the 2016 election.) That includes ballots that were requested, as well as those sent automatically.
But because of the pandemic, voting experts expect that about 80 million mail-in ballots will be cast in the 2020 election — more than double the mail-in ballots that were counted in the 2016 and 2018 elections.
We don’t know if Trump got his 80 million figure from that estimate, but if he did it would be wrong. That figure would include ballots sent to voters upon request as well as those sent automatically.
It is also possible that Trump is referring to efforts by groups, such as the Center for Voter Information, that have been sending unsolicited ballot applications to registered voters across the country. But that would be wrong, too, because those groups are sending out applications, not ballots.
ABC News recently reported that the Center for Voter Information "has mailed 34.3 million vote-by-mail applications to registered voters around the country," and expects to mail an additional 37 million applications in September.
That would add up to about 71 million unsolicited ballot applications — but those applications would have to be sent to election officials, who would then verify that the person requesting a ballot is a valid registered voter. Trump repeatedly has said that he has no problem with what he calls "solicited ballots."
"Solicited is okay, because that’s when you’re asking and you want it and you send in the necessary paperwork and documentation and you get the ballot and you fill it out, that’s okay," he said at the rally in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.
But, again, only nine states and the District of Columbia will automatically mail out ballots, and those ballots — about 44 million, not 80 million — will be going only to eligible voters, including Republicans as well as Democrats and independents. And three of those states (Colorado, Oregon and Washington) have done the same thing in past elections, and two others (California and Utah) have done something similar.
The president exaggerates the scope of what he perceives to be a problem, despite the evidence that voter fraud is rare.
"Election fraud committed with absentee ballots is more prevalent than in person voting but it is still rare,” 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 for a story earlier this year. "States can and do take steps to minimize the risks, especially given the great benefits of convenience — and now safety — from the practice."