Voter fraud or conspiracy? The 2020 Election

2020 was undoubtedly the craziest election year in U.S. history. Pandemic aside, allegations of voter fraud began months before the election and led to a nationwide movement to overthrow its results – a movement that culminated in the storming of the capitol building on January 6th by extremist Trump supporters.

Was there any basis to this movement, or was it a conspiracy hatched by the Trump campaign to overthrow the election? Did Trump overstep his authority trying to derail the election results? Were Republican leaders committing crimes by refusing to accept the election?

To find answers, let’s start back at the beginning: mail-in ballots.

Trump’s Campaign Against Mail-In Ballots

Starting several months before the election, President Trump frequently spoke about mail-in voting and its potential for fraud.

Trump has voted by mail three times, including once in the Florida 2020 Presidential primary election. Despite this, Trump argued in a press conference on April 7 that mail-in voting was “horrible” and “corrupt”, and defended his own vote because it was “everything’s sealed, certified and everything else”, whereas with other mail-in votes “you get thousands of people sitting in somebody’s living room signing ballots all over the place.” (These comments are in a video which can be seen at the above link.)

These remarks were in stark contrast to four years before, when 2016 Trump campaign ads said “Absentee ballots are GOOD. I need you to get your application and send in your absentee ballot IMMEDIATELY.”

On April 8, Trump tweeted that mail-in ballots had “tremendous potential for voter fraud, and for whatever reason, doesn’t work out well for Republicans.”

In several tweets over Memorial Day weekend, Trump said a US election with mail in ballots would be “the greatest Rigged Election in history” and that they would not be “anything less than substantially fraudulent”. Trump claimed that “mail boxes will be robbed, ballots will be forged & even illegally printed out…trying to use Covid for this Scam!”

In more tweets on June 22, Trump said the mail-in ballots would be “THE SCANDAL OF OUR TIMES!

On July 30, Trump tweeted against mail-in voting yet another time, saying “2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history” – but this time followed with “Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote??”

In a September 18th press conference, Trump called mail-in voting a “scam” and said that “people are getting inundated with ballots, they’ll be showered with ballots.”

When asked about mail-in voting in June, several Republican Senators directly disagreed with Trump. Marco Rubio answered, “I’m not concerned about mail-in voting in Florida.” Other Senators and prominent Republicans agreed. State and local Republican officials also ignored Trump’s claims, continuing to promote voting by mail.

However, Ronna McDaniel, the Republican National Committee Chairwoman who was selected by Trump, came out in full support of his claims in an editorial, writing that “the Democrats’ all-mail ballots proposal is a ruse to legalize ballot harvesting nationwide. Any person would be allowed to return an unlimited number of absentee ballots for voters, opening the door for political operatives to deliver ballots in bulk.”

Fox News talk show hosts were also quick to pick up Trump’s scepter. On April 14, Tucker Carlson protested against Michelle Obama’s efforts to “promote the radical expansion of nationwide voting by mail”, claiming that she was trying to “sneak something this disruptive past a beleaguered and distracted population”.

Just after Trump’s Memorial Day tweets, Tucker Carlson claimed that “fraud via mail-in voting already happens” and that “the official story” that “voter fraud never happens no matter what” was “a lie and we know it’s a lie”.

Sean Hannity explained why he was against mail-in voting in a talk show in August, saying “voter fraud is just one part of why mail-in voting is so problematic…the United States Postal Service, they will be the ones responsible for the outcome of the election…are you going to trust the United States Postal Service with the future of our country?”

Voter Fraud: The Evidence

Two myths about voter fraud were widely circulated in 2020. First, Republicans claimed that massive voter fraud would occur in the 2020 election, fraud which was coordinated by the Democrats to give them a win. This is the myth Trump tweeted about above.

A second myth, also begun by Republicans, said that voter fraud did not matter or exist at all. This myth was the supposed counter to claims of massive widespread voter fraud, and Republicans like Ted Cruz claimed that Democrats were spreading this myth.

Both myths were created to sow doubt on the 2020 election, and to present people with a fictional choice: either there is not any voter fraud at all ever (something everyone knows is false), or there is massive voter fraud and the 2020 election results are untrustworthy.

Neither are true at all. The Heritage Foundation has compiled a list of cases of voter fraud over the past 30 to 40 years. Despite a very misleading introduction to the page (calling these instances “recent” and saying that “this database is not an exhaustive or comprehensive list”, neither statement being totally true), the database is a good overview of how voter fraud actually happens. It is more common than you might expect, but still pretty rare. As I glanced through the database, most of the cases I looked through were in local elections. USA Today’s in-depth review of the database found zero cases of absentee ballot fraud intended to steal a major election.

Yes, there is voter fraud, and it does matter. But it has never overthrown Presidential elections.

Republican Lawsuits Against Universal Mail-In Voting

In the late summer, several governors began issuing orders to send absentee ballots directly to all registered voters – something termed “universal mail-in voting”.

The Trump campaign began several lawsuits in various states against these orders, one against Nevada on August 4, one suing the governor of New Jersey on August 18, and various others. On September 2, the Trump campaign and Republicans filed a lawsuit against Governor Bullock of Montana for issuing a mail-in order, calling it “a direct usurpation of the legislature’s authority” that “invites fraud, coercion, theft, and otherwise illegitimate voting”.

All of the above lawsuits were thrown out by October, and notably another in Pennsylvania, but a few lawsuits found some success. An Iowa lawsuit resulted in 50,000 requests for absentee ballots being voided in late August for having been pre-filled with voters’ personal information. On the same day Republicans sued Montana, the Supreme Court of Texas issued a temporary order to “refrain from sending applications to vote by mail to registered voters under the age of 65 who have not requested them”, while noting that further developments in the court case could change this ruling.

Post Office Problems

As if the election wasn’t tense enough, the U.S. Postal Service had an enormous funding crisis on its hands by late summer 2020.

The USPS was already struggling long before the pandemic, mostly due to a long decline in mail volume. Some have argued that a 2006 law requiring the USPS to pre-fund its employees’ health benefits contributed to the decline, and it’s true that 2006 was the last year the USPS recorded any profit – but others argue that the law actually saved the USPS money over time. Still others say that a 100-percent pre-funding level can be dangerous economically due to variations in the market, and that such pre-funding levels are completely unnecessary for “businesses” that can’t close, like Arkansas or the USPS.

A 2020 pandemic and recession forced the USPS into a crisis by late summer. Louis DeJoy, a Trump donor and longtime Republican, was controversially appointed postmaster in June. DeJoy set about reforming the postal service to be more financially efficient, by eliminating overtime, holding late mail until the next day, restructuring the leadership, and other changes.

Most controversially, DeJoy ordered the removal of mail sorting machines across the country. The link includes pictures of the machines and the empty space left behind. The post office told CNN the machines were being discarded because package deliveries were becoming more common than letters, but it’s unclear why that meant the machines had to go away – or why 700 collection boxes were removed, something DeJoy denied knowledge of.

Combining this postal problem with the attack on voting by mail, Trump’s critics argued that DeJoy was trying to destroy the postal service. But there’s no evidence that DeJoy was actively trying to undermine the election, and I honestly agree with Devin Leonard’s assessment of DeJoy as just a numbers-focused businessman treating the post office like a profit-hunting business rather than a public service.

However, when Congress tried to help bail out the post office with an emergency relief bill, Trump publicly admitted that “if they don’t get [the money] that means you can’t have universal mail-in voting” when asked why he wouldn’t support funding the USPS. Mitch McConnell blocked the bill from coming to the Senate floor on August 23, saying that coronavirus stimulus was more important (although it took until late December for Congress to pass the stimulus).

In addition, when the USPS asked the Treasury for a $10 billion dollar loan to help cover their expenses, Secretary of the Treasury Mnuchin – one of Trump’s close advisers – demanded “operational control” of the post office in order to give the loan. This was not the first time the Treasury had made such a demand; you can read all about the situation at that link.

Taken altogether, it’s unclear whether Trump and the Republicans were actively working to undermine the post office’s ability to count votes or not, but they definitely weren’t helping it.

Election Day

November 3rd was undoubtedly the strangest Election Day in a few decades. Millions had already voted, some weeks earlier – and hundreds of thousands of votes, including many mail-in ballots, took a week or two to be completely counted.

Before the election came around, there were fears of voter intimidation as “poll watchers” volunteered to make sure votes were not fraudulent (many read “not fraudulent” to mean “not for Democrats”). Thankfully, voter intimidation did not actually occur in widespread numbers.

Some have also said that Trump declared victory prematurely that night. Trump did give a speech predicting a win, but it’s not really a victory speech. You can read the full speech yourself.

At any rate, you know what happened; Biden won in a post-Election Day upset that was extremely close in several states. He was declared the winner on November 7th, and over the next few weeks, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Michigan certified their results, confirming the Biden victory.

Trump refused to accept the results. And this is where things began to get really crazy.

Fraud Claims Spread

Immediately after the election, stories about alleged voter fraud spread like wildfire online.

I’m not going to go into every claim or do a large fact-check of the main claims; many, many other sites have done that. Fact is, there was no widespread attempt by Democrats to foil the election, and each claim about voter fraud can be easily refuted by looking into it a little bit deeper.

If you would like to look into electoral fraud further, I suggest fact-checking each claim yourself. If a claim isn’t backed by any solid evidence, it’s probably made up. If a claim comes only from a first-person witness who says they saw something, that’s not really enough evidence to support a case.

In addition, make sure you check the site claiming voter fraud itself. If it’s an obviously biased site that doesn’t show any sources and asks you to donate, it’s probably making stuff up.

Russian Interference

It’s worth briefly mentioning, before we move on to concerted efforts to undo the election, that Russian interference almost definitely played a role. (Again.)

We don’t know everything the Russians did and we will probably find out a lot more over the next few years. But according to the director of the FBI, it’s pretty much the same story as 2016; Russians tried (and are still trying) to sow disarray and conflict by spreading disinformation (supporting Trump) through fake social media accounts. Luckily, it doesn’t seem like they are trying to hack into the actual voting systems themselves.

For now.

Post-election Lawsuits

The Trump campaign and other Republicans filed 62 lawsuits after the election challenging vote results in various states, mostly Pennsylvania, Georgia, Nevada, Arizona, Michigan, Wisconsin, each of which Biden won by fairly small margins. You can read about the whole process in USA Today’s excellent summary.

Only one of the lawsuits was successful; all the others were thrown out of court. The one successful lawsuit ruled that voters in Pennsylvania couldn’t “cure” their ballots if they hadn’t provided proper ID three days after the election. Biden still won Pennsylvania.

Two lawsuits did make it to the Supreme Court, which refused to take them up. One was “denied” and the other “dismissed as moot”.

One Texas lawsuit seeking to overthrow the results of several other states was supported by 126 members of the House. Other representatives, notably Bill Pascrell, urged the House to expel those members for insurrection under the 14th amendment.

The “Save America” Scam

From October to December, the Trump campaign and the RNC raised an amazing $500 million through emails asking for help to defend the election. However, a Reuters report looked closer at the numbers and found that hardly any of it actually went to legal fees; almost all of the money went directly to Trump’s “Save America” PAC or the RNC. According to Paul S. Ryan, “There is no limit to how much Donald Trump can pay himself or any member of his family under ‘Save America’.

Trump may not be President in 2021, but he will be very, very rich.

Transition Troubles

The Trump administration also refused to begin the transition to a Biden White House. Emily Murphy, a previously unknown official at the head of the General Services Administration, had the legal responsibility to “ascertain” the outcome of an election, effectively certifying the winner and beginning the transition. This ascertainment comes from the Presidential Transition Act, which does not specify any criteria for such a decision. Murphy drew enormous criticism for holding ascertainment clear until November 23rd; for perspective, the 2016 head of the GSA, Denise Turner Roth, ascertained Trump’s election the day after he won. Roth wrote an awesome op-ed about Murphy’s inaction.

Trump administration members also actively encouraged resisting the Biden transition; Betsy DeVos urged her employees at the Department of Education to “be the resistance” when Biden came into power. Biden showed frustration with the Department of Defense and other agencies that were not cooperating after a Russian cyberattack breached the National Nuclear Security Administration, saying that he could “see no evidence that [the cyberattack situation] is under control…the Defense Department won’t even brief us on many things.” Chris Miller, the acting Defense Secretary, abruptly cancelled briefings with the transition team, possibly because there were way too many meetings happening every day – because the transition hadn’t been able to begin until November 23.

A slow transition is very bad. George W. Bush’s Chief of Staff, Andy Card, warned that the delay could cause problems with the pandemic, and said that the transition to Bush’s administration in 2001 probably made 9/11 worse. The 9-11 commission did find that transitions were an important national security risk that needed to be managed carefully. I can’t find any source saying that the 9/11 attacks could have been avoided if the transition was better; but it’s clear that shaky and delayed transitions pose a national security risk.

Michael Flynn Suggests the Military

As a minor aside, former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn – recently pardoned after he lied in FBI investigations – suggested sending the military to swing states to “rerun” the elections, noting that martial law had been instituted in the U.S. before, so it wouldn’t be so strange.

The link above has sources saying that Trump seriously considered this option. Knowing Trump, I don’t doubt it, but the option was never pursued and no crimes were committed, so

Attempts to Influence Electors

On July 6, the Supreme Court ruled that state laws banning electors from voting against the state’s Presidential winner were constitutional, effectively closing a 200-year-old loophole that (conceivably) allowed electors to vote for whoever they wanted.

All the same, just after the election, Republicans like Mark Levin took to the media urging Republican legislatures that they “have the final say over the choosing of electors” and to “get ready to do your constitutional duty”. Other sites wrote of a “movement” to have faithless electors vote against Biden.

Unfortunately for these enthusiastic supporters, not a single elector voted against their state’s result in 2020.

Alternate Electors

Biden won the 2020 election with 306 electors to Trump’s 232, a win made sure by state certifications and recounts throughout November and early December and “ascertained” on November 23rd. So, on December 15th, the 538 electors voted 306 to 232 for Biden.

However, Republicans in several swing states, hopeful that Trump lawsuits would overturn the vote counts in those states, decided to meet and cast “alternate” electoral votes for Trump. These alternate votes cannot have any legal effect and mean about as much as if the British parliament voted for the US President, but that didn’t stop these people from meeting and casting votes in Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Nevada and New Mexico.

In Michigan, the alternate electors attempted to enter the capitol building where actual electors were holding the vote, saying that they were electors. Capitol police barred them from entering, having already locked down the building due to “credible threats of violence”. (Michigan had already seen capitol violence in April when protesters stormed the capitol building with an apparent intent to kidnap the governor.)

The “alternate electors” issue is one that makes it easy to tell which sites are biased toward Republicans. Sites including Town Hall, the New York Post, and Fox News refer to these electors as “Republican electors” and make sure to note that they are voting in hope of successful lawsuits. Other sites say “fake” or “alternate” electors.

To be clear, these excited Republican voters were not electors, and their votes had no effect, and neither did Trump’s lawsuits. These electors were chosen by Republican parties in states, and they were not certified by the state legislatures or governors, unlike the actual electors who voted on December 15th. There were no “competing slates” of electoral votes sent to Congress for a decision.

The only time something like this happened before 2020 was in 1960 Hawaii, when the vote was too close to call and undergoing a recount. Despite the first count showing a slim Nixon win, Democratic electors met and voted anyway. The recount showed a Kennedy win, and Nixon himself, who was vice president, brought the Democratic votes to Congress rather than the Republican ones.

Trump’s Phone Calls

In early January, it was revealed that Trump had earlier made an hour-long phone call to the Georgia Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger, in an attempt to convince him to reverse the election results it was his duty to certify. You can listen to the entire call here.

In the call, Trump threatens and pressures Raffensperger and makes dozens of false claims about voter fraud in Georgia. Congress members began talking impeachment and criminal investigation when the call came out in January.

Mike Pence and the Electoral Votes

In each Presidential election, after the electoral college makes its decision, Congress meets to count the electoral votes and finalize the winner. The electoral votes are brought to Congress by the Vice President. In 2020, this meant Mike Pence.

In rallies just before the session was scheduled to begin and in tweets in the preceding days, Trump asked Pence to do “the right thing” and “send [the votes] back to the states to recertify”.

Here is the law that governs the counting process in Congress. The law makes little mention of the Vice President, and gives no room for the Vice President to simply refuse to do anything. In fact, refusing to follow this law would be breaking the law, and the Vice President could then be prosecuted for doing so.

Thankfully, Pence announced on January 6th his intention to fulfill to the letter his duty as spelled out in that law. Pence wrote a three-page letter you can read yourself about this duty.

The law left it up to Congress to object to the electoral vote, and Pence left this question open, too – much to Trump’s chagrin. Which brings us to those objections.

The Congressional Vote

According to the law governing the Congressional counting process, an objection can be made in writing, signed by at least one Senator and one Representative. If an objection is made, the Senate and the House withdraw to vote on the objections themselves. The law focuses on the electors, making it clear that electoral votes should not be rejected if the votes are determined to be the lawful votes of legally appointed and certified electors. However, the law gives the two Houses power to “decide such votes not to be the lawful votes of the legally appointed electors.” If the two Houses disagree, then whichever electors were certified by the state’s Governor would be counted.

So, in theory, Congress could decide to object to electoral votes and decertify them. In this case, the electoral votes could either be replaced or thrown out entirely. If neither candidate was left with 270 electoral votes, then Congress would vote for a President. If Congress was unable to choose a candidate in time for inauguration, Presidential succession would elevate Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House, to the job.

Despite the unlikely odds of getting a Democratic House to vote to decertify the election or vote for anyone but Biden if the election was decertified, the Republicans did object, although there was a rather large interruption described below. Thankfully, even many Republican congress members realize that the electors were, indeed, chosen lawfully and certified by their states, and the objections were voted down easily. Only a few crazy Senators voted to decertify the results, and roughly 130 Representatives voted the same.

Before the vote, Eric Trump tweeted a threat to Republican members of Congress, saying he would “personally work to defeat” those who didn’t vote to object.

Insurrection at the Capitol

On the morning of the Congressional vote, Trump held a rally nearby at which he gave a typical (for him) speech villifying the media, listing disproven claims of voter fraud, mentioning China and Hunter Biden and Hillary Clinton and “drain the swamp” all the other Trump things. Along with all this, Trump encouraged his attendees to march to the Capitol where the vote was taking place, at times calling for “peaceful” protest and at times calling for “fighting” and to “stop the steal”. You can read the full speech at the link above.

What followed was later called insurrection, domestic terrorism, rebellion, or a full-blown coup attempt. Protesters marched straight from Trump’s rally to the Capitol, forced open doors and poured inside. Senators and Representatives were interrupted from their vote and taken to safety as police tried to stop the crowds. By the time it was over, five people were dead.

Here are some fantastic sources that show bits of what happened inside the Capitol:

If you want more detail on the events of January 6, I’d actually suggest reading through the Wikipedia page on the subject. Wikipedia is generally very good at covering current events, bringing in information from all over the Internet, and it also directly lists its sources for everything listed.

Insurrection Aftermath

The day after the attack, Trump posted a video condemning the “heinous attack” and effectively conceding the election, but without mentioning who he was conceding it to. The next day, January 8, Twitter banned Trump completely, citing risk of “further inciting violence” and evidence of a possible second attack planned for January 17.

On January 9th, the social media service Parler, which was used to coordinate much of the involvement in the insurrection, was dropped from the Apple App Store. Amazon also discontinued hosting the site.

On January 11th, House Democrats introduced articles of impeachment against Trump for “incitement to insurrection”. After Pence rejected the House resolution asking him to invoke the 25th Amendment, the House moved forward with impeachment and officially impeached the President a second time on January 13th. Impeachment articles were then transmitted to the Senate, where a trial will be held as soon as the Senate returns to session.

Ten Republicans voted for impeachment; one of them, Peter Meijer, said he would now buy body armor to protect against death threats.

Democratic House members introduced legislation to have congress members involved in the riots removed for insurrection under the 14th amendment. They will need a two-thirds majority to succeed. Senators Hawley and Cruz are also under close watch for their involvement in the riots and objections; Hawley was seen encouraging protesters moments before the attack.

What happens now?

On January 20th, much to the dismay of Trump and the Republicans who sought to overthrow the election, Joseph Biden will be inaugurated President of the United States. With Trump’s allegations of voter fraud disproven, his lawsuits thrown out, and his attempts to thwart the electoral process set aside, he will become a former President and no longer lead the Republican Party.

Trump is already the first President to be impeached twice. If the Senate trial convicts him, he might be ineligible to run for President in 2024. Whatever happens, Trump will leave the White House and the protection from lawsuits he’s currently facing.

Meanwhile, Democrats may consider using their trifecta to reform the Presidency to ensure someone like Trump is never allowed to do what Trump has done. Only time will tell.