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Politics & Government

There’s Nothing ‘Mysterious’ About California’s Mail-In Voting System, Despite False Facebook Claim

vote by mail 2 -- Nixon CapRadio.jpg
Andrew Nixon
Vote-by-mail ballots wait to be opened at the county registrar's office March 3, 2020.

“This is the California model spreading across the country. When you need to flip things blue there’s always some mysterious mail-in ballots lying around that’ll do the trick. Shameful!”

-- Tomi Lahren in a Facebook post on Nov. 4, 2020

A provocative but unfounded post from conservative commentator Tomi Lahren has gone viral on Facebook suggesting key states in the presidential race are starting to “flip blue” due to a fraudulent mail-in voting system such as the one used in California.


The post was flagged as part of Facebook’s effort to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about PolitiFact California’s partnership with Facebook.) It received more than 700,000 views and 25,000 likes on the platform by early Wednesday afternoon.

Facebook added a warning label at the bottom of the post citing the trustworthiness of voting by mail.

With the nation’s focus on the still-undetermined presidential race, we set out to fact check Lahren’s claim.

A ‘False And Unsupported Statement’

While early election night results in several battleground states favored President Donald Trump, continued counting and reporting on Wednesday of legally voted mail-in ballots in Wisconsin and Michigan have turned the still-preliminary results in favor of Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden.

Several battleground states were legally not allowed to tally mail-in votes before Election Day. That meant many votes from Democrats, who relied much more heavily on mail-in voting, were reported after figures from Tuesday’s in-person voting, which Republicans relied on in greater numbers.

Officials in those states have not cited evidence that unexplained mail-in ballots are turning states “blue.”

“There is no support for the claim that ballots ‘lying around’ are mysteriously included in the count. This is a false and unsupported statement,” Rick Hasen, a UC Irvine law professor and elections expert, wrote in an email, referring to both the contested states and California.

“Despite all of the complaints about third party collection of ballots (sometimes referred to pejoratively as ‘ballot harvesting’) there has been no evidence of any widespread fraud with mail in ballots in California elections,” he added.

Republicans in 2018 criticized a new state law that allows anyone, even campaign workers, to collect and return mail-in ballots, which they dubbed “ballot harvesting.”

Later-arriving mail-in ballots, some collected under this new law, helped several Democratic congressional candidates win during that year’s midterm election after Republicans had more votes counted on Election Day.

Asked about Lahren’s post, Sam Mahood, a spokesperson for the California Secretary of State’s Office, said it “offers no evidence.”

“Voting-by-mail has been popular in red, blue, and purple states for years. It’s a secure and transparent process. Vote counting is open to the public and campaigns to view,” Mahood wrote.

He added there’s been no indication of any large-scale fraud tied to mail-in voting during the current election.

For longtime California voters, there’s nothing “mysterious” about mail-in ballots. Voters of all political stripes have used them safely and securely for decades to help both Democrats and Republicans win.

The process — traditionally called absentee voting and now more commonly called mail-in voting or vote-by-mail — has been allowed for anyone who’s registered, and for any reason, since 1979, according to the California Voter Foundation. A record 72% of votes cast in the California primary were by mail, a figure that’s expected to be surpassed once all the state’s general election ballots are counted in the weeks ahead.

Mail-in ballots, in fact, were instrumental in the May special election victory by Republican Rep. Mike Garcia in northern Los Angeles County, undercutting the repeated claim by President Donald Trump that they favor Democrats and lead to corruption.

Election experts, along with state and county election officials and numerous studies have all rejected claims that mail-in ballots lead to widespread fraud. The studies include a 5-year investigation by the George W. Bush administration that turned up virtually no evidence of any organized effort to skew federal elections.

There have been cases of voters trying to cheat using mail-in ballots, but experts say it’s not systemic. When it happens, it gets caught.

"Election fraud of all sorts is rare. There is a slightly less rare instance of voter fraud by absentee balloting," Charles Stewart, co-director of the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project, which analyzes election systems, told us in June. "There are greater temptations and opportunities. Nonetheless, they are rare."

Stewart pointed to one exception: A Miami mayoral election in 1998 "that ended up being full of mail ballot fraud."

More recently, Justin Levitt, a professor at the Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, examined United States elections from 2000 to 2014. He found just 31 credible incidents of voter fraud of any kind over that period, during which more than a billion votes were cast.

Our Ruling

A popular Facebook post from commentator Tomi Lahren said “mysterious mail-in ballots lying around” helped flip key states in the race for the White House for Democrat Joe Biden. It also suggested California’s mail-in voting system is fraudulent.

There’s no evidence that election officials discovered new or illegal ballots “lying around” after Election Day. Several battleground states where early results from Tuesday’s in-person vote favored President Trump continued counting legally-voted mail-in ballots Tuesday night and Wednesday. Those ballots can take longer to count and some states were prohibited from starting to tally them until Tuesday.

Additionally, Democratic voters relied more heavily on mail-in ballots, which explains why the early results have shifted.

Election experts and county election officials along with numerous studies have rejected the idea that mail-in ballots in California or any other state lead to widespread fraud.

Lahren’s post is making waves on social media. But it’s not backed up by the facts.

We rated it False.

Source List

Tomi Lahren, Facebook post, Nov. 4, 2020

Rick Hasen, UC Irvine law professor and elections expert, email interview Nov. 4, 2020

Sam Mahood, spokesperson, California Secretary of State’s Office, email interview, Nov. 4, 2020

PolitiFact California, Answering Questions About Vote-By-Mail In California Amid COVID-19, Attacks By Trump, June 2, 2020

NPR, With Deluge Of Mail Ballots, Here's When To Expect Election Results In 6 Key States, Oct. 31, 2020

The New York Times, Both Parties Fret as More Democrats Request Mail Ballots in Key States, Sept. 30, 2020

USA Today, Biden voters twice as likely than Trump supporters to vote by mail in November, survey finds, Aug. 18, 2020

San Francisco Chronicle, California’s late votes broke big for Democrats. Here’s why GOP was surprised, Nov. 30, 2018

CNN, Republican victory in California special election undercuts Trump's unfounded claims about mail-in voting, May 14, 2020

NPR, Ignoring FBI And Fellow Republicans, Trump Continues Assault On Mail-In Voting, Aug. 28, 2020

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