- Trump is pushing an implausible theory, which there is no evidence to support, that foreign adversaries will try to interfere in the 2020 election by making and sending out counterfeit ballots to voters.
- The theory that foreign adversaries would print out fake ballots and send them out in batches to election offices, which Attorney General Bill Barr first floated in early June, is very unlikely for several reasons.
- Election administration in the United States is highly decentralized down to the state and local level, meaning there is no single national ballot a foreign adversary could mass print out and mail to voters.
- Most ballots and the envelopes they come in have barcodes and extremely specific information, like precinct numbers and voter identification numbers, that are very hard to replicate.
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President Donald Trump echoed a highly implausible and dubious theory that foreign adversaries will try to interfere in the 2020 election by making and sending out “counterfeit ballots” to voters.
“RIGGED 2020 ELECTION: MILLIONS OF MAIL-IN BALLOTS WILL BE PRINTED BY FOREIGN COUNTRIES, AND OTHERS. IT WILL BE THE SCANDAL OF OUR TIMES!,” Trump wrote in a Monday morning all-caps tweet.
Attorney General William Barr first floated the idea in an interview with The New York Times magazine published on June 1, and continued to cast doubt on the security of an expansion of mail-in ballots an interview with Fox Business’ Maria Bartiromo aired on Sunday.
Barr told The New York Times the idea was “one of the issues that I’m real worried about,” claiming that “there are a number of foreign countries that could easily make counterfeit ballots, put names on them, send them in. And it’d be very hard to sort out what’s happening.”
As states have moved over the past few months to increase absentee and mail-in voting, Trump - who voted by mail himself in Florida earlier this year - has falsely claimed that an expansion of absentee and mail-in voting will lead to massive fraud and corruption (rates of absentee ballot fraud are very low), that expanding mail-in ballot hurts Republicans (it confers no partisan advantage to either side), and even raised a baseless conspiracy that children in California will go around stealing ballots out of mailboxes and forging them.
While Barr indicated that the Department of Justice would take a hands-off stance on election administration this year, the department has already taken steps to defend voting restrictions. Last week, for example, the DOJ filed a brief in a lawsuit over Alabama's requirement that voters obtain either two witness signatures or a signature from a notary for their absentee ballot to count, arguing that the law is not a violation of the Voting Rights Act.
But the theory that foreign adversaries would print out fake ballots and send them out in batches to election offices - which neither Barr nor Trump have cited any evidence to back up - is highly unlikely for three main reasons.
First, election administration in the United States is highly decentralized down to the state and local level, meaning there is no single national ballot a foreign adversary could mass print out and mail to voters.
Every single locality in the United States sends out a different ballot to voters not just with federal elections like the presidential race, but with that town or city's specific elections. This means that it would take a significant amount of work and effort for a foreign actor or another malefactor to replicate a specific ballot for enough localities to actually make a noticeable difference in interfering with the election.
Second, every state and municipality uses a different and very specific ballot design from everything to how offices are ordered on the ballot, a series of specific codes used to track the ballot, down to the ink, font, and type of paper used on the ballots. This means election officials would likely be able to very easily be able to spot the signs of a fake or counterfeit ballot almost immediately.
As the University of Florida elections scholar Michael McDonald and Brennan Center for Justice election and redistricting lawyer Michael Li both pointed out in early June, even sending out mass fake ballots to even one precinct in one town would require a foreign actor to perfectly reprint both the ballot itself - many of which have specific barcodes that are scanned upon receipt - the envelope it comes in, and the two return envelopes, all sent to voters at a mass scale.
As Li explained, absentee and mail-in ballots often include not only a barcode unique to every voter but also a series of very specific numbers of codes referring to the ballot type, the voter's precinct number, a voter identification number, an envelope number, and a barcode number corresponding to the voter identification number - all of which would be very difficult for a bad actor to perfectly recreate.
Also, in most states, your signature on the mail-ballot envelope is compared to the signature on file before a ballot is counted. Here’s 👇how it works in Arizona. 3/ pic.twitter.com/jx6lQsW9fC
— Michael Li 李之樸 (@mcpli) June 1, 2020
Third, even in the highly unlikely scenario that a bad actor could recreate not just the ballot but perfectly match the barcode and all the voter's identifying information, they'd also have to both find a large enough database of registered voters and their addresses and go through the time-consuming process of individually signing ballots in order for them to be counted.
As both McDonald and Li pointed out, every state requires a voter to sign their absentee ballot, meaning that a possible fraudster would need to the step of forging signatures. The vast majority of states further ensure the integrity and veracity of every ballot by signature verification, in which election officials match the signature on the ballot to a recorded signature on file.
Which ballot is the real ballot? There is a signature on the outside return envelope to compare against. Election officials will figure out something is afoot pretty quickly. This is why it is easy for election officials to detect ham-handed attempts like making ballot copies
— Michael McDonald (@ElectProject) June 1, 2020
McDonald also noted that the US Postal Service, which works closely with election officials on absentee voting in many jurisdictions, could also spot a suspiciously large delivery of ballots with mismatched or incorrect envelope design, stopping a fraudulent ballot effort in its tracks.
Experts have expressed some legitimate concerns about the security and integrity of the election as states and localities move to massively scale up their capacity to administer elections with high rates of mail-in ballots, and worries about the role foreign interference could play in US elections more broadly.
But for all the reasons listed above, trying to commit interference through sending out fake mail-in ballots - which unlike electronic voting systems, cannot be hacked or subject to massive cyberattacks - is possibly the least efficient and effective way for a bad actor to influence an election.