Trump Sees Voter Fraud, But Election Chiefs in Red Counties Do Not

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San Francisco election workers sort stacks of vote-by-mail ballots. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Come November, every California voter will likely have the option of voting by mail.

To Democrats that seems like a no-brainer, given the pandemic. But to some Republicans it's a recipe for a "rigged election."

Last month, when Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered that all registered voters in California be sent a mail-in ballot for the November election, President Donald Trump was immediately tweeting — and questioning the validity of that process.

"They send out, like in California, millions and millions of ballots to anybody that’s breathing," Trump said during a White House event.

Trump continued: "So when he sends out 28 million ballots and they’re in all the mailboxes and kids go and they raid the mailboxes and they hand them to people who are signing the ballots at end of the streets, which is happening."

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But the scenario that Trump describes is actually not happening.

Trump has also said voting by mail disadvantages Republicans. And not long after Newsom ordered ballots sent to registered voters, he was sued by the national and California Republican parties.

Attorney Harmeet Dhillon, who filed the lawsuit, says she has nothing against voting by mail, if it’s done right.

Dhillon said it's, "the chaotic way in which the governor is proposing to run this election, which is not the way that they've been run in the past. The lack of preparation, which I've heard from county registrars of voters. That's why I'm concerned. That's why I filed a lawsuit."

She contends California has done a lousy job of removing dead voters from the rolls and others who are no longer active or eligible to cast a ballot.

"So, you know, the objection is not the fact that people vote by mail. It is all the collateral consequences of doing that on a massive scale," said Dhillon, who is also National Committeewoman of the Republican National Committee for California.

Newsom pushed back on that, noting investigations and academic studies have not borne out those concerns.

"This is a health issue," Newsom said, referring to concerns about spreading COVID-19 by voting in person. "I hope we can temper our comments on the other side but I recognize we’re in a political season."

Four years ago, Trump won almost half of California’s 58 counties. So how do those local election officials feel about Republican allegations of fraud?

In Shasta County, which gave Trump a huge margin over Hillary Clinton, Cathy Darling Allen, the county's clerk and registrar of voters, says the majority of residents have been voting by mail for years.

In fact, Allen figures she’s administered about 1.5 million votes since 2004. The number of times she found someone signing a ballot that wasn’t theirs?

"That happened one time," she said. "So if you do the math, there’s lots of zeros after the decimal point."

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Allen says it’s kind of a head scratcher as to why the president would question the process, given the results in her county.

"The president may not believe that vote-by-mail ballots count or are not valid. But in Shasta County, he got 65 percent of the vote in 2016 and many, many of those ballots were votes by mail," she said.

In Tehama County, another place where Trump won two-thirds of the vote four years ago, Clerk and Recorder Jennifer Vise says the vast majority of voters in her county already cast ballots by mail — so her job is making sure they are who they say they are.

"We all check the signature against the signatures on file," Vise said. "And if the signatures do not match, the voter is notified multiple times to try to correct, or what they say 'cure', their signature."

"Cure the signature," means having a voter sign their ballot in a way that matches the signature on file. Voters whose ballots are questioned also have to sign an affidavit or come into the office, Vise says.

While she’s not really concerned about fraud disrupting the election outcome, she does worry about the coronavirus pandemic.

"If we still don't know what's going to happen with COVID, if it's going to come raging back in the fall, I'm not necessarily comfortable putting my poll workers in a position where their health and safety that is at risk," Vise said.

Another county where Trump did very well is Amador, where Chief Deputy Registrar of Voters Mark Hammergren says three-fourths of those registered are permanent absentee voters. He notes that each individual ballot has barcodes to carefully track and verify each vote.

"But I mean, there's so many checks and balances that goes into the process that, I don't want to say impossible because anything's possible, but it's damn near impossible," Hammergren said.

Still, he gets calls from people who hear news stories about voter fraud. He tells them you can monitor us.

"You want to see it happen? Come down, you can watch us check and balance, check signatures. You can watch us how we extract them, how we sort them, how we scan them," Hammergren said.

One thing election officials dislike is trying out new systems in a presidential election, where the stakes are higher and everyone is watching. Inyo County Clerk-Recorder Kammi Foote says the board of supervisors keeps asking her how the November election will be different from typical elections.

"And I have to say, we're planning for every single difference," Foote said. "Every different method I could possibly think of because we have executive orders. We have legal challenges, we have legislation in different parts of the process. So I don't actually really know yet."

Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, says when it comes to mail-in ballots, it’s not fraud that concerns her — it’s the thousands of valid ballots that might be tossed out because a voter forgets to sign a ballot or the signature doesn't match what's on file — or they mail it late.

Still, she strongly supports voting by mail.

"Is it going to be perfect? No. But voters should be able to feel confident going into this election that if they follow the instructions and they get their ballots in on time, their ballots are going to be counted and their votes are going to count," Alexander said.

One thing's for sure: With all those ballots being mailed in, counting them is going to take a very long time.