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Exclusive: Trump stokes fears of election-night mail voting fraud

President Trump raised new alarms about the alleged danger of election fraud in an interview with "Axios on HBO," warning that "lots of things can happen" with voting by mail if the presidential race isn't decided on election night.

Why it matters: Trump's comments — which contradict the lengthy history and widespread use of mail-in voting — could be a preview of the claims he'll make on election night to undermine trust in the results if he appears to be losing.

  • Election experts say there's a good chance that the presidential race won't be decided on election night, and could drag on for days, because so many people will vote by mail to protect themselves from the coronavirus.
  • One expert's scenario suggests that the early returns could favor Trump because most Republicans will vote in person, but that the later returns will swing toward Joe Biden because many Democrats will vote by mail.

Driving the news: In the interview with Axios' Jonathan Swan, Trump continued his campaign of raising doubts about voting by mail — which he has done repeatedly on Twitter and in public comments — but amplified it by tying it to the prospect of a lengthy election count.

  • "You know, you could have a case where this election won't be decided on the evening of Nov. 3. This election could be decided two months later," Trump said.
  • The use of voting by mail is a problem, he said, because "lots of things will happen during that period of time. Especially when you have tight margins. Lots of things can happen. There's never been anything like this."
  • He said voting by mail will be "massively bigger" this year, "in terms of the kind of millions and millions of ballots. I've never seen anything like this."

Context: The interview took place last Tuesday, before Trump's tweet suggesting that the election should be delayed (an idea GOP leaders immediately shot down.)

Reality check: It is true that voting by mail is likely to expand significantly because of the pandemic. But voting by mail itself dates back to the Civil War, and 1 in 4 Americans have used it in the last three federal elections, per the Brennan Center.

  • Fraud has been rare, the center reports, with Oregon — a state that votes primarily by mail — documenting only about a dozen cases of fraud out of more than 100 million ballots since 2000.
  • Both parties use mail-in voter drives, and Republicans are worried that Trump's attempts to generate fear about voting by mail could depress turnout among older GOP voters — since some may not want to risk voting in person during the pandemic.

Between the lines: Trump's technique is to make it sound like states are randomly mailing out ballots for anyone to fill out. "So they're going to send tens of millions of ballots to California, all over the place. Who's gonna get 'em?" he asked in the interview.

  • "Somebody got a ballot for a dog. Somebody got a ballot for something else. You got millions of ballots going. Nobody even knows where they're going," Trump said.
  • In reality, states aren't just randomly mailing out ballots that anyone can fill out. Most states require voters to apply for mail-in ballots, according to election law expert Rick Hasen.
  • The exceptions are the states that vote primarily by mail — Colorado, Oregon, Washington, Utah and Hawaii — and California, which will start mailing ballots to voters this year because of the pandemic.

States that allow mail-in voting generally have a wide variety of security measures, like making people request ballots with personal information (like a driver's license number), unique bar codes on ballot envelopes, ballot tracking, and secure drop-off locations.

  • Trump's California comment is likely a reference to the new state law that will require county officials to mail ballots to every voter for the first time this year.
  • But Sam Mahood, press secretary for California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, says the state has plenty of anti-fraud measures in place, like verifying voters' identities and checking death and felony records. He said all mail ballot envelopes have bar codes, and local jurisdictions use different types of paper and watermarks for their ballots.

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