Donald Trump has opened a new front in his fight against postal voting, making unsubstantiated assertions that foreign countries will print millions of bogus ballots to rig the election.
The US president tweeted about this envisaged outcome, saying it would be the “scandal of our times”, even as it emerged vice-president Mike Pence and several senior advisers to Mr Trump had voted by mail repeatedly.
His claims not only ignore safeguards that states have implemented to prevent fraud but also risk undermining Americans’ faith in the election, spreading the very kind of disinformation US authorities have warned foreign adversaries could use to foment doubt in the voting process.
With health officials saying postal voting can help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, many states are moving ahead with plans to enhance access to mail-in ballots.
Mr Trump accelerated his attacks following a bruising weekend for his reelection campaign, when a low turnout at an election rally in Oklahoma left him seething, and as he seeks a second term during the worst unemployment since the Great Depression.
The rhetoric, coming as states scramble to adjust voting processes because of the coronavirus pandemic, represents a two-track approach: trying to both block postal balloting in advance, and setting the stage for challenging the results once the poll is over.
“It’s a way of trying to turn the foreign interference claims that have been made on their head,” said Richard Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California, Irvine.
“Typically we’ve heard that the Russian government and others were working to help elect Trump, and here is Trump using fears of foreign interference as a way of bolstering his own side.
“This potentially lays the groundwork,” he added, “for him contesting election results.”
Election records obtained by The Associated Press show Mr Pence and at least five senior advisers to the president have voted by mail.
More than three years after leaving the Indiana governor’s residence, Mr Pence still lists that as his official residence and votes absentee accordingly. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has permanent absentee voting status in her home state of Michigan.
Brad Parscale, Mr Trump’s campaign manager, voted absentee in Texas in 2018. He did not vote in the 2016 general election, when Mr Trump’s name was on the ballot.
Two other senior Trump campaign officials — chief operating officer Michael Glassner and deputy campaign manager Bill Stepien — have repeatedly voted by mail in New Jersey. And Nick Ayers, a senior campaign adviser who was previously chief of staff to Mr Pence, has voted by mail in Georgia since 2014.
Still, others in the administration have recently promoted the notion that states could be inundated with fraudulent ballots from overseas.
Attorney General William Barr raised that prospect in interviews in recent weeks with The New York Times Magazine and Fox News.
“Right now, a foreign country could print up tens of thousands of counterfeit ballots, and (it would) be very hard for us to detect which was the right and which was the wrong ballot,” Barr told Fox in an interview that aired Sunday.
The president tweeted a news report on Mr Barr’s remarks on Monday as well as sending an all-caps tweet: “RIGGED 2020 ELECTION: MILLIONS OF MAIL-IN BALLOTS WILL BE PRINTED BY FOREIGN COUNTRIES, AND OTHERS. IT WILL BE THE SCANDAL OF OUR TIMES!”
Democratic candidate Joe Biden’s campaign later issued a statement calling Mr Trump’s tweets “a desperate attempt to rewrite reality to revive this President’s faltering re-election campaign”.
“We will not stand by while Donald Trump recklessly undermines faith in our democratic process,” campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon said.
Experts say Mr Trump’s doomsday scenario is far-fetched.
“Comments like that demonstrate an ignorance of by-mail voting and the technology associated with how it actually works,” said Eddie Perez, global director of technology development at the OSET Institute, a non-profit election technology research corporation.
“There are more protocols than people are probably aware of, which would make such an attack rather difficult.”
Though fraud in absentee balloting is rare, it is possible other problems could arise as people vote by the mail, including ballots being intercepted in a mailbox and tampered with.
The National Conference of State Legislatures lists on its website multiple disadvantages to the process, including slower reporting of results and the possibility that voters could be coerced by family members.
But the list does not broach the idea of foreign countries manufacturing their own ballots — a type of fraud that would encounter significant practical obstacles, not least because states say they are adept at differentiating legitimate ballots from inauthentic ones.
The ballots used by Colorado’s 64 individual counties are printed exclusively in the United States, distinguished by specific colours and target areas and processed through sensitive scanners designed to weed out the inauthentic, said Secretary of State Jena Griswold.
A bipartisan team of election judges conducts signature verification and refers for further investigation suspected instances of double-voting.
And in Washington state, each county is responsible for printing its own ballots, which are placed inside a security envelope or sleeve. Voters’ signatures on return ballots are cross-checked against the signature on voter registration applications. The state says if a signature is missing or does not match the voter registration record, voters are contacted.
Five states — Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington — conduct elections entirely by mail, according to the NCSL. But nearly all states, led by Democratic and Republican governors alike, offer some form of the option.