President Donald Trump on Thursday tried to draw a distinction between "mail voting" and "absentee voting," but his own lawyers acknowledged in court documents the two are the same thing.
Trump suggested delaying the election on Thursday amid plummeting poll numbers and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 150,000 people and caused the largest GDP drop in U.S. history. Trump has no power to postpone the election, and the idea was roundly rejected by Republican lawmakers. At the same time, many members of the GOP have expressed similar concerns about mail-in voting as the president.
"With Universal Mail-In Voting (not Absentee Voting, which is good), 2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history," Trump claimed without evidence.
Some states have long used all-mail elections. There have been more than 250 million ballots cast by mail in the last 20 years, and only 143 prosecutions related to mail ballot fraud, or a rate of about 0.00006%.
Trump later reiterated that he opposed "mail-in-voting" but "totally" supports "absentee voting," even though they are the same thing. Trump and many of his aides have repeatedly voted by mail themselves.
Trump and White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, for example, have claimed that they voted "absentee" in Florida. But there is no "absentee" voting in Florida. Instead, the state has a "no excuse" vote-by-mail system that allows anyone to cast a ballot by mail for any reason.
Trump's own lawyers acknowledged that there is no difference between "mail-in voting" and "absentee voting" in a lawsuit challenging Pennsylvania's mail voting rules last month.
Attorneys for the Trump campaign noted that while some states have different wording regarding the terminology, "the terms 'mail-in' and 'absentee' are used interchangeably to discuss the use of the United States Postal Service to deliver ballots to and from electors" in a lawsuit available in full on the president's website.
Marc Elias, a lawyer for the Democratic Party who frequently argues election cases in court, told MSNBC on Thursday that "there is no distinction" between the two terms.
"They are synonyms," he said. "Some states tend to use the term 'mail-in.' Some states tend to use the term 'absentee.' Sometimes, within a state, the statutes will refer to both. But they are both the same. They are both processes by which people who don't want to show up to the polls in person can receive in the mail a ballot . . . that they either mail back or deliver through some other mechanism to election officials. There is no difference."
Trump's complaints appear to be based on the premise that mail voters typically have to request and fill out a form in order to obtain a mail-in ballot, but some states are sending every eligible voter an application in anticipation of a surge in mail voting due to the pandemic.
The president falsely claimed on Thursday that states were sending out "hundreds of millions of universal mail-in ballots."
Aside from the fact that there are not "hundreds of millions" of voters in the country, only California, which Trump lost by 31 points in 2016, plans to send absentee ballots to voters. Though Trump has falsely accused other states like Michigan of sending everyone a ballot, Michigan is one of a handful of states that is sending applications — not ballots — to eligible voters. There is not a single state that is sending ballots or applications to anyone who is not registered to vote.
Trump and Attorney General William Barr have also floated conspiracy theories that these ballots could possibly be tampered with or forged, but these baseless claims have been refuted by Republican state officials. There are numerous safeguards in place, including bar codes and signature verification.
Beverly Clarno, Oregon's Republican secretary of state, told CBS News that the state's system uses unique barcodes for each ballot it sends out. Kim Wyman, Washington's Republican secretary of state, told The New York Times that "vote-by-mail has a lot of security measures."
"At the end of the day, all voting systems are like banks," she said. "You build a lot of things in to protect from fraud. You build in a lot of measures to detect it. But ultimately, if somebody wants to commit fraud, or if someone wants to rob a bank, they can. And then we have measures on the back end to prosecute that criminal activity. So you hope to deter it, and you hope it doesn't happen. But if it does, you have ways to deal with it."
Pressed on his false claims about mail voting on Thursday, Trump spun a new narrative arguing that he does not want election results to be delayed.
"I don't want to see an election — you know, so many years, I've been watching elections. And they say the 'projected winner' or the 'winner of the election' — I don't want to see that take place in a week after Nov. 3, or a month or frankly — with litigation and everything else that can happen — years," Trump claimed. "Years. Or you never even know who won the election."
Election experts rejected the idea that counting mailed-in ballots, which happens in every election, would delay the election for years.
"That's not new. We've had absentee voting in this country for a long time," Elias told MSNBC. "We regularly don't have all the ballots counted on election night."
"Any state should be able to count votes-by-mail and verify it within a month unless something derails the system," Edward Foley, a law professor at Ohio State University, told The Hill.
"We should get ready for the fact that we may not know who won on Election Night," added Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School. "But there's a process for counting and a process for fighting over the count. And the Constitution says that all of that is over — full stop — well before noon on Jan. 20."