Unsubstantiated warnings of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election echo a 1980s case involving Black civil rights activists and then-Alabama Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
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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 November 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.
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, explores how and when that connection entered the political conversation on a significant level.
[This excerpt has been updated to correctly reflect the years Hank Sanders served in the Alabama state senate, from 1983 to 2019.]
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Funding for FRONTLINE is provided through the support of PBS viewers and by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Major funding for FRONTLINE is provided by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Ford Foundation. Additional funding is provided by the Abrams Foundation, the Park Foundation, and the FRONTLINE Journalism Fund with major support from Jon and Jo Ann Hagler on behalf of the Jon L. Hagler Foundation. Additional support for “Whose Vote Counts” is provided by the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation.