After repeatedly raising the specter of fraud throughout the campaign season, President Donald Trump and his Republican allies have spent the last week attempting to sow doubt about the validity of the presidential election results. By Saturday, enough mail-in ballots had been counted that major news outlets called the race for Joe Biden. If anything, Trump and the GOP have since then become even more emboldened. But along the way, their legal challenges and other gestures have failed to show any instances of voter fraud. In fact, quite the opposite: They've inadvertently been proving the validity of the election's results.
It's unclear whether President Trump and his allies actually hope to overturn the results of the election. Some reports indicate that the pushback is largely for show. But even if the challenges persist, they collectively don't seem to be enough right now to overcome Biden's commanding lead. Still, the Trump reelection campaign has brought lawsuits in states like Georgia, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Nevada over ballots they say are ineligible to be counted and votes they claim were cast fraudulently. A number of these challenges have already been dismissed. Those that remain haven't gained significant traction.
In at least one instance, Trump's lawyers have flat-out acknowledged that they're not actually alleging fraud despite the president's insistence. On Tuesday, in a case over 592 disputed ballots in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania—a county where Biden leads by more than 130,000 votes—judge Richard Haaz pressed Trump reelection campaign lawyer Jonathan Goldstein.
"Are you claiming that there is any fraud in connection with these 592 ballots?" Haaz asked. "To my knowledge at present, no," Goldstein responded. "Are you claiming that there is any undue or improper influence upon the elector with respect to these 592 ballots?" Haaz asked. Goldstein again said no.
"In every election, state and especially local election officials go through many processes and procedures to examine the results for completeness and correctness," says Pam Smith, codirector of the election integrity nonprofit Verified Voting. "They are the ones on the ground, at the front lines of our elections. If there are any concerns, we need to ask them first. It's irresponsible and undemocratic for anyone to claim anything in the absence of solid evidence."
Yet the Trump campaign's efforts have been light on evidence, and some failed suits have actively reinforced the legitimacy of existing results. In Michigan, for example, poll watchers and one election worker in Detroit brought a suit against the city on Monday for alleged voter fraud. In a detailed response of more than 100 pages, lawyers for Detroit countered, "Most of the objections raised in the submitted affidavits are grounded in an extraordinary failure to understand how elections function." The plaintiffs argued, for example, that election workers responsible for counting votes were not trained to verify signatures of absentee ballots. Detroit's lawyers pointed out, though, that this is because by law the city's clerks must conduct the signature checks before ballots go to counting centers.
In Michigan last week, judge Cynthia Stephens dismissed one Trump campaign voter fraud suit in part because of accusations that were "inadmissible hearsay within hearsay." That suit also lost on appeal. On Wednesday, the reelection campaign attempted to stop Michigan from certifying its election results, producing 238 pages of affidavits from Republican poll watchers in Michigan. But in spite of its length and breadth, the testimony did not contain damning evidence of fraud. Much of it simply outlined complaints of alleged impolite or standoffish behavior from poll workers and Democratic poll watchers. Investigations of data from states like Michigan and Pennsylvania have also found that claims of dead voters voting have been vastly overstated by the Trump campaign and allies.
"Election officials have run a great election," says Ben Adida, executive director of VotingWorks, a nonprofit developer of open source voting machines and election auditing software.
It's not just court cases; Trump allies have also generated more wacky ideas to try and get their point across. On Tuesday, Texas lieutenant governor Dan Patrick offered up to a $1 million reward from his campaign funds for information about voter fraud anywhere in the country. If fraud really were as pervasive as Trump and his allies claim, though, and with all eyes on this election within the US and abroad, it seems unlikely that it would take a huge cash incentive to suss it out.
That same day, Kentucky senator Rand Paul tweeted that, "One way of determining fraud in mail-in ballots would be to examine a random sample of a few thousand to find the rate of fraud. If fraud rate is low, voters may be convinced of the election’s legitimacy. If the fraud rate is high, then every mail-in ballot should be examined." Election officials and researchers were quick to note, though, that Paul is essentially describing "risk-limiting audits" that were already planned in five states this year—including Kentucky. More election funding for states would allow broader adoption of such audits sooner. And a hearing today centered around the use of Sharpies in Arizona—a popular talking point in right-wing circles—revealed that just 191 out of 165,000 votes were potentially impacted. It's also not even clear that any of those votes were actually tabulated incorrectly.
Despite the overwhelming lack of evidence provided by the GOP, the administration has continued its dangerous rhetoric. On Wednesday, secretary of state Mike Pompeo insisted that "there will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration." Today, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, who is also an adviser to the Trump campaign, told Fox & Friends that Trump is "letting this litigation play out, letting his lawyers take the lead on this while he stays hard at work for the American people on Covid and other matters." And of course, the president himself continues to tweet.
Top Republican-leaning election officials like secretaries of state have particularly struggled with the situation. There's no way to promote doubts about the validity of the presidential election results without undermining the entire election, including other races that were also on the ballot. Still, some Republicans have tried, celebrating GOP congressional and state legislative victories while refusing to acknowledge Biden as the president-elect. In Georgia, top Republicans including senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue have put enormous pressure on GOP secretary of state Brad Raffensperger, even calling for his resignation. Georgia's incoming Republican Congressional delegation even sent him a letter demanding that he assess the possibility of potential vote fraud before certifying the results of the election—the same ballots that put all of them in office.
On Saturday, Montana's secretary of state Corey Stapleton tweeted, "I have supported you, Mr. President, we (Montana) have supported you—and @realDonaldTrump accomplished some incredible things during your time in office! But that time is now over. Tip your hat, bite your lip, and congratulate @JoeBiden."
The situation will hopefully resolve itself soon. Biden's 14,000-vote margin in Georgia is tight enough to trigger an audit, but in a seemingly improvised interpretation of state regulations, Raffensperger has opted for a full hand-recount, a time -intensive process that The Atlanta Journal-Constitution says has never been attempted before in Georgia. Still, Biden's lead in Georgia appears to be fairly substantial—far greater than the 537 votes Republican George W. Bush had on Democrat Al Gore in Florida during the controversial 2000 presidential election. A recount should simply confirm Biden's lead. And all states need to certify their elections and cast their Electoral College votes by December 14.
As President Trump himself put it in a debate at the end of September, "This is not going to end well." It was a prescient statement, but Trump may not have predicted for whom.