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Trump is referencing a Sept. 21 incident where three trays of mail were found in a ditch in Outagamie County.
Details remain scarce, as the investigation is ongoing.
The sheriff initially said “several” ballots were included among the pieces of mail. But a state election official later said no Wisconsin ballots were found. (She wasn’t sure if ballots from other states were there.)
Regardless, the mail was not found in a river or creek, and there’s no evidence linking this to mail voting fraud, as Trump implied.
In the runup to the November election, President Donald Trump has relentlessly attacked the integrity of mail-in ballots, even though he has voted by mail himself and claims of widespread fraud in this vein have been regularly proven wrong.
So it’s not surprising this topic surfaced again in the first presidential debate on Sept. 29, 2020. What caught our attention was that, it turned out, one of his claims had a Wisconsin twist.
"As far as the ballots are concerned, it's a disaster," Trump said in the debate. "They're sending millions of ballots all over the country. There's fraud. They found them in creeks. They found some, just happened to have the name Trump just the other day in a wastepaper basket."
Several minutes later he circled back to the waterway claim amid another rundown of supposed fraud.
"Did you see what's going on? Take a look at West Virginia, mailman selling the ballots," Trump claimed. "They're being sold. They're being dumped in rivers. This is a horrible thing for our country. … This is not going to end well."
News reports have noted the West Virginia mail sale claim is wrong — a worker was charged for altering five ballot requests (not ballots themselves), but no money was involved – and the wastebasket incident in Pennsylvania was a new employee’s mistake rather than fraud.
But we’ll focus on the creek and river claim.
During a contentious exchange with a reporter two days later, Kayleigh McEnany, President Trump's press secretary, said Trump was actually referring to trays of mail found in "a ditch in Wisconsin."
Let’s see how Trump’s description lines up with reality.
Mail-in voting is a critical topic given the unprecedented volume of pandemic-fueled mail-in voting already occurring in the Nov. 3 election.
It’s also a touchy subject in Wisconsin, where several ballot issues cropped up during the April election. Some 2,693 Milwaukee voters didn’t receive the absentee ballots they requested, and 1,600 ballots in the Appleton and Oshkosh areas were found at a mail processing center the day after the election, and went uncounted.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Postal Service has come under fire for making operational changes that critics say were slowing mail delivery ahead of the election — changes a federal judge temporarily blocked in September.
But experts have repeatedly said there is no evidence of widespread fraud through mail-in voting, now or in the past.
"What (Trump) said (at the debate) was full of misstatements and inaccuracies," Lawrence Norden, director of the Election Reform Program for the Brennan Center for Justice, told USA Today the day after the debate. "Mail-in ballots are safe and secure. We’ve been voting in some form by mail since the Civil War.
FBI Director Christopher Wray, who Trump appointed, told Congress in September the agency has not seen evidence of a "coordinated national voter fraud effort," the New York Times reported.
Three trays of mail were found "on the side of the road and in the ditch line" in the Outagamie County town of Greenville the morning of Sept. 21, according to the county sheriff’s office. Public details on the incident remain limited.
The sheriff said the trays had been on their way to the post office and contained an assortment of mail, including "several" absentee ballots.
McEnany pointed to this incident in her Sept. 24 press briefing at the White House while asserting mass mail-out voting is a "system that’s subject to fraud."
Wisconsin, however, does not use that system, where ballots are sent to everyone in the state without being specifically requested.
But the narrative shifted a bit two days after the debate.
Meagan Wolfe, director of the Wisconsin Elections Commission, announced that no Wisconsin absentee ballots were actually found in Greenville. She said she didn’t know if there were ballots from other states.
No clarification was given on this potentially conflicting information. The U.S. Postal Inspection Service, which is investigating the matter, declined to provide additional information to PolitiFact Wisconsin.
Officials have not said who had possession of the ballots or how they came to be in the ditch.
While claiming there is widespread mail voting fraud, President Trump said ballots in Wisconsin "are being dumped in rivers" or creeks.
In context, viewers were left with the impression that ballots were disposed of en masse in some sort of waterway. There’s no evidence of that.
We base our ratings on what is known at the time of the claim. And on Sept. 29, as is the case now, Trump’s statement was wrong in both the literal claim (a "river") and the implication (that this is evidence of fraud). A small number of ballots were found with hundreds of pieces of other mail, and authorities have said nothing to indicate election manipulation motivated the incident.
The information released after the debate — that no Wisconsin ballots were found — muddles the situation given the apparent conflict with earlier information. But it doesn’t change this rating.
We rate this claim False.
Donald Trump, comments in presidential debate, Sept. 29, 2020
Donald Trump, comments in presidential debate, Sept. 29, 2020
YouTube, Kayleigh McEnany dodges question on river where Trump said ballots were found, Oct. 1, 2020
Appleton Post Crescent, Updated: U.S. Postal Service investigates mail, including absentee ballots, found along road in Outagamie County, Sept. 24, 2020
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Mail found in Greenville ditch did not include any Wisconsin ballots, Oct. 1, 2020
Associated Press, W.Va. official refutes Trump claim about ballot fraud, Sept. 30, 2020
Associated Press, Trump seizes on small election issues to spread concern, Oct. 5, 2020
White House, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany, Sept. 24, 2020
ABC News, Trump claimed ballots were 'dumped in a river.' The reality is far from it., Oct. 1, 2020
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Thousands of absentee ballots in Wisconsin weren't counted because of mailing problems and tech glitches, May 19, 2020
Washington Post, Federal judge temporarily blocks USPS operational changes amid concerns about mail slowdowns, election, Sept. 17, 2020
New York Times, F.B.I. Director Sees No Evidence of National Mail Voting Fraud Effort, Sept. 24, 2020
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