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The New York Times predicted in August that roughly 80 million voters will cast ballots by mail for the Nov. 3 election.
A handful of states have routinely held elections by mail for years, predating COVID-19.
A few other states are planning to hold mail ballot elections due to the pandemic.
President Donald Trump, the nation’s most prominent critic of voting by mail, has repeatedly said that 80 million ballots will be mailed to voters who didn’t request them this fall.
"And the dirtiest fight of all is the issuance of 80 million ballots, unrequested," Trump said during his Labor Day remarks. "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."
Trump made similar remarks about mail in ballots during his Aug. 24 speech at the Republican National Convention and the next day on Twitter, where he described the mailing out of these "unsolicited" ballots as "fraudulent" or a "scam."
It’s not yet clear precisely how many voters will receive ballots without requesting them by mail, because voter registration is not yet closed for the Nov. 3 election. But based on our research, we found that Trump has exaggerated the number. He also omitted the fact that millions of voters have automatically received ballots in some states for many years without it leading to widespread fraud.
Millions more voters are expected to cast ballots by mail this year than in previous presidential elections.
Five states — Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington — have operated virtually all mail-in elections prior to 2020, some of them for many years. Voters are routinely mailed ballots in these states as part of the regular process.
The pandemic this year has raised concerns about large groups of voters gathering indoors, so some additional states — California, Nevada, New Jersey, Vermont plus Washington, D.C. — have decided to send ballots to all active voters.
In other states, voters have to take action to request a mail ballot, though some of them took that step already if they live in a state that allows a permanent absentee voting list that may be offered to all voters, or only to certain voters based on specific criteria such as age or disability.
We asked the Trump campaign to show how it arrived at 80 million unsolicited ballots, and whether that included a handful of states that have generally held all vote-by-mail elections for years. We did not receive a response.
It’s possible that Trump or an aide saw a prediction in an August New York Times article that "80 million mail ballots will flood election offices this fall."
However, that figure isn’t limited to voters who will be sent "unsolicited" ballots. It includes voters who will have to request a mail ballot.
The New York Times found that ballots will be mailed directly to about 44 million voters in nine states and D.C. So that’s a little more than half of the figure Trump cited.
University of Florida political scientist Michael McDonald found a similar total number of ballots — 44.4 million — that will be sent in states conducting all-mail elections. He also counted Montana, where Gov. Steve Bullock used his emergency powers to allow counties to opt in to holding an all-mail election. As of late August, most Montana counties opted for all mail.
Paul Gronke, an expert on voting by mail at Reed College, predicted somewhere north of 80 million ballots will be cast by mail, double 2016’s total.
In D.C. and the states that decided to send ballots to all voters this year due to the pandemic, many of those voters would have likely requested a ballot anyway or were on permanent absentee-ballot lists. For example, in California in 2016, there were 13 million ballots cast, including 7 million absentee. Gronke added up how many ballots were cast by absentee during the 2016 elections in California, Nevada, New Jersey and Vermont and concluded at most, 7.5 million or so ballots will be sent in those states to voters who have not requested them.
In the state that is holding the largest all-mail election — California — about two-thirds of the voters had registered to vote absentee even before the move to mail every voter a ballot, said Nate Persily, a Stanford law professor.
While Trump uses the terms "unsolicited" or "unrequested" ballots, states generally use other terms such as "voting by mail."
Some experts were critical of Trump’s terms, noting that if residents don’t want to receive a ballot, they don’t have to register in the states that automatically send them.
"In an all-mail ballot state, voter registration is a mail-ballot request," McDonald said.
MIT professor Charles Stewart said he personally wouldn’t use the word "unsolicited" but thinks it’s fair game in political discourse.
"As to ‘unsolicited,’ I think that’s a fair, if loaded, term," he said. "You don’t have to ask for a ballot, and there are voters in those states who would prefer not to be mailed one."
Trump criticized the effort to send ballots unrequested, and said that voters who receive them are "going to harvest."
Ballot harvesting generally refers to someone collecting absentee ballots on behalf of others and then submitting them. Some voting rights experts see the unofficial term "ballot harvesting" as pejorative and prefer the term "ballot collection." Many states allow at least certain individuals to collect some ballots on behalf of others, which can be helpful for voters with disabilities or those without cars.
There have been isolated cases of fraud associated with ballot harvesting, including in a North Carolina congressional race in 2018. But Trump is wrong to suggest that such fraud is rampant.
Trump has repeatedly suggested that the increase in voting by mail will lead to fraud. But fraud is statistically rare, including in states that have relied on voting by mail for years. A Washington Post analysis of three mail-in states found that "officials identified just 372 possible cases of double voting or voting on behalf of deceased people out of about 14.6 million votes cast by mail in the 2016 and 2018 general elections, or 0.0025 percent."
We looked at the conservative Heritage Foundation’s voter fraud database, which has recorded 1,296 proven instances of voter fraud. The database includes cases that stretch back decades, covering hundreds of millions of votes cast.
Trump said election officials are "sending 80 million ballots all over the country. Eighty million ballots, non-requested. I call them ‘unsolicited ballots.’"
The Trump campaign didn’t respond to our request to explain how he arrived at the 80 million figure. A New York Times analysis in August found that about 44 million voters will receive ballots in states that are automatically sending them to all voters. Our own research and interviews with other election experts and state officials back up the Times’ number. But even that number of 44 million includes voters who would have requested an absentee ballot anyway.
We won’t yet know a more precise figure of how many voters are getting ballots automatically until voter registration is closed in the states. But as of now, the data suggests that Trump exaggerated.
We rate his claim Mostly False.
New York Times, Where Americans Can Vote by Mail in the 2020 Elections, Aug. 14, 2020
Factbase, Press Conference: Donald Trump Holds a Labor Day Press Conference, Sept. 7, 2020
Rev.com, Transcript of President Donald Trump at RNC, Aug. 24, 2020
President Donald Trump, Tweet, morning Aug. 25, 2020
President Donald Trump, Tweet, night Aug. 25, 2020
Missoula Current, Nearly 40 Montana counties opt for all-mail ballots for November election, Aug. 25, 2020
New York Times, In Year of Voting by Mail, a Scramble to Beef Up In-Person Voting, Too, Sept. 7, 2020
Wall Street Journal, How to Vote by Mail in Every State, Aug. 20, 2020
National Conference of State Legislatures, VOPP: Table 3: States With Permanent Absentee Voting for All Voters, Voters With Permanent Disabilities and/or Senior Voters, April 27, 2020
Email interview, Nathan Persily, constitutional law professor at Stanford University, Sept. 8, 2020
Email interview, Michael McDonald, political science professor University of Florida, Sept. 8, 2020
Email interview, Amber McReynolds, chief executive officer, National Vote At Home Institute, Sept. 8, 2020
Email interview, Paul Gronke, political science professor at Reed College and director of the Early Voting Information Center, Sept. 9, 2020
Email interview, Charles Stewart, MIT political scientist, Sept. 8, 2020
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