How Associating Mail-in Ballots with Voter Fraud Became a Political Tool

October 20, 2020

As the COVID-19 pandemic intensified in 2020, so did President Donald Trump’s unfounded rhetoric around mail-in ballots.

“Mail ballots, they cheat, OK. People cheat. Mail ballots … are fraudulent, in many cases,” the president said in April, going on to repeatedly claim a link between widespread election fraud and mail-in ballots — which could be cast in numbers as high as 70 million in the presidential election, as voters look to avoid risking potential exposure to the coronavirus.

To date, confirmed instances of what’s been called voter fraud have been relatively rare — often the result of mistakes rather than ill intent. “I can tell you … that the widespread fraud that would allow a conclusion of ‘elections are rigged’ is not there. The evidence does not show that,” Benjamin Ginsberg, whose tenure as the Bush-Cheney campaign’s national counsel included the 2000 Bush-Gore recount, told FRONTLINE.

A more pervasive problem, experts say, is disenfranchisement caused by the proportion of mail-in ballots that are discarded on technicalities: For example, over 23,000 voters in the April 2020 primary election in Wisconsin, a battleground state, had their ballots rejected.

Yet the president’s claims were not the first time a politician had sought to draw an association between mail-in ballots and voter fraud. The above excerpt from Whose Vote Counts, a collaborative documentary from FRONTLINE, Columbia Journalism Investigations and reporters from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and USA TODAY that is now streaming online, explores how and when that connection entered the political conversation on a significant level.

The excerpt revisits a moment in the 1980s that followed an increasing number of Black people being elected to public office in the South — a movement swept in by the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which sought to put an end to discriminatory tactics intended to suppress the Black vote.

The resulting surge in enfranchisement led to a new form of backlash against Black voters, who have traditionally leaned Democratic. “When you don’t want somebody to vote, you create various kinds of things,” said Hank Sanders, a Black lawyer who became a state senator in Alabama in the early 1980s. The Voting Rights Act, he said, meant that people “couldn’t deny [the Black vote] outright, so you find ways to try to suppress it.”

One of those ways, the documentary explains, was to challenge Black voters’ absentee ballots through accusations of fraud.

In a 1985 case, then-Alabama Attorney General Jeff Sessions sued several Black voting rights activists over mail-in ballots, part of what Sanders saw as an effort to intimidate Black voters after they had made political gains. 

“The U.S. attorney and others refer to these as the voter fraud cases. We decided that they were voter persecution cases,” Sanders told FRONTLINE correspondent Jelani Cobb.

Sanders’ clients — Albert Turner, who had marched with the civil rights leader and future U.S. Senator John Lewis, and Turner’s wife, Evelyn — had been helping Black residents fill out ballots before mailing in the votes.

Sessions denied that the case was racially motivated. He insisted what the Turners did was illegal. The jury disagreed, ultimately finding the defendants hadn’t broken the law. But the idea that absentee ballots were susceptible to extensive fraud would persist — ultimately fueled by President Trump himself.

For the full story, watch Whose Vote Counts, a documentary from FRONTLINE, Columbia Journalism Investigations, Columbia Journalism School and USA TODAY NETWORK reporters, led by correspondent Jelani Cobb, director June Cross and producer Tom Jennings. Whose Vote Counts premiered Tues., Oct. 20, 2020 on PBS stations and is now available to stream in FRONTLINE’s online collection of streaming films, on YouTube, in the PBS Video App and below:

This story was updated post-premiere to include an embedded version of the full documentary and related information about its availability.

Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist, FRONTLINE



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