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Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson at a March 2020 news conference in Lansing. Benson said the large number of rejected ballots in the Aug. 4 primary reflects the need for reform ahead of November’s general election. (AP) Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson at a March 2020 news conference in Lansing. Benson said the large number of rejected ballots in the Aug. 4 primary reflects the need for reform ahead of November’s general election. (AP)

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson at a March 2020 news conference in Lansing. Benson said the large number of rejected ballots in the Aug. 4 primary reflects the need for reform ahead of November’s general election. (AP)

Clara Hendrickson
By Clara Hendrickson August 18, 2020

Donald Trump Jr. distorts Michigan data on dead voters

If Your Time is short

  • The president’s son pointed to Michigan’s recent primary to raise alarm over absentee voting, referring to data showing nearly 850 ballots were rejected because the voter was deceased.

  • These rejected ballots were cast by living voters who died before Election Day, and their ballots were not counted.

There is scant evidence to support President Donald Trump’s warnings that mail-in voting is susceptible to widespread fraud.

That hasn’t stopped those concerned about an expected record number of absentee votes in Michigan this November from looking for signs of fraud in recent elections.

On Aug. 14, the Michigan Secretary of State’s office released preliminary data on the number of rejected ballots from the state’s Aug. 4 primary. In total, over 10,000 absentee ballots were rejected, including nearly 850 ballots cast by voters who died before Election Day. Some seized on the data to raise alarm, including the president’s son.

The headline on an Aug. 15 Breitbart piece reads "Michigan Rejects 846 Mailed Ballots ‘Because the Voter Was Dead.’" Jason Miller, a senior strategist for the president’s re-election campaign, tweeted a link to the piece, which cited the state’s data as evidence that absentee voting is susceptible to voter fraud.

Donald Trump Jr., in turn, shared Miller’s tweet, citing it as cause for concern that absentee voting may delegitimize election results. "The media: NOTHING TO SEE HERE!!!," Trump wrote. "It was only about 8% of the votes cast."

Given the importance of absentee voting in Michigan this year, we took a closer look at the Trump tweet. We found that it takes misleading information from the Breitbart piece and compounds it with an outright false claim.

For one thing, the 846 rejected ballots were cast not by dead people but by living people who then died before Election Day. For another, those ballots — which were not counted in the final results — made up about 8% of the rejected ballots, not 8% of the votes cast.

In fact, these ballots accounted for barely 0.03% of the total votes cast, and none were counted.

We reached out to the Trump re-election campaign for a comment but didn’t hear back.

Ballots rejected in Michigan’s primary

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson issued the report on rejected ballots along with a call for legislation designed to reduce the number of ballots disqualified for late arrival or mismatched signatures.

She said 10,694 ballots were rejected in Michigan’s Aug. 4 primary. Nearly 60% of them were rejected because they arrived late. Absentee ballots must be received by the voter’s clerk by 8 p.m. on Election Day in order to be counted.

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The remaining rejected ballots were deemed ineligible for a range of reasons, including missing or mismatched signatures or voters who changed addresses.

Of the rejected ballots, 846 had to be tossed because the voters were deceased. These were not instances of someone completing and mailing an absentee ballot by stealing the identity of a deceased voter.  Rather, as Benson’s Aug. 14 release notes, they were cast by eligible Michigan voters who died after casting their ballots but before Election Day.

These ballots accounted for just under 8% of the rejected absentee ballots. But including absent and in-person voters, Michigan saw more than 2.5 million votes cast in the Aug. 4 primary. Based on the total of counted and uncounted votes, the number of ballots from deceased voters accounted for about 0.03% of votes cast, meaning Trump overstated it by a factor of more than 200. And none of them were counted toward the final results.

So Trump’s math is incorrect. He used the wrong denominator to claim that these ballots made up 8% of the total "votes cast" when in reality, they accounted for a minuscule share of the total votes cast.

It is typical to see a number of absentee votes deemed ineligible in an election because voters die after casting their ballot. In the November 2016 election, Michigan had to reject more than 1,780 absentee ballots because the voters died after they cast their votes.

Rather than indicating instances of fraud, the rejected ballots show the state’s ability to detect and discount ineligible ballots.

Benson’s biggest concern leading into November is that valid absentee ballots won’t count. The large number of rejected ballots reflects the need for reform ahead of November’s general election, she said.

Benson supports an election reform bill in the Michigan Legislature that would allow mail-in ballots postmarked by Election Day that arrive within 48 hours after Election Day to be counted. She also supports a bill that would require clerks to contact voters if the signature on the absentee ballot does not match the signature on the voter registration.

"The data demonstrates that thousands of people who cast otherwise valid votes were not able to participate in last week’s election solely because the Legislature failed to act ahead of the primary," Benson said.

Our ruling

Donald Trump Jr. claimed that the 846 ballots that were rejected because the voter was dead accounted for "8% of the votes cast."

These 846 ballots were not fraudulently cast by someone assuming the identity of a dead person. They were cast by living voters who died before Election Day.

These ballots accounted for nearly 8% of the total number of rejected ballots in the state’s August primary. They accounted for about 0.03% of the total votes cast. None of the rejected ballots were counted toward the final results.

We rate this claim Pants on Fire. 

Our Sources

The Office of Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, "Rejected absentee ballot numbers highlight need for legislative changes," August 14, 2020

Jason Miller, senior strategist for Donald Trump’s re-election campaign, tweet, August 15, 2020 

Donald Trump Jr., tweet, August 15, 2020 

Breitbart, Kyle Olson, "Michigan Rejects 846 Mailed Ballots 'Because the Voter was Dead'," August 15, 2020

The Washington Post, Amy Gardner and Seung Min Kim, "State officials rush to shore up confidence in Nov. 3 election as voters express new fears about mail voting," August 16, 2020

The Washington Post, Amy Gardner, Josh Dawsey and Paul Kane, "Trump opposes election aid for states and Postal Service bailout, threatening Nov. 3 vote," August 13, 2020

The Detroit Free Press, Dave Boucher, "Michigan SOS: More than 10,000 primary election ballots invalid, many due to late arrival," August 14, 2020 

Michigan Legislature, "House Bill 5987," introduced July 23, 2020

Michigan Legislature, "House Bill 5991," introduced July 23, 2020 

 

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Donald Trump Jr. distorts Michigan data on dead voters

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