‘Mail-in Voter Fraud: Anatomy of a Disinformation Campaign’

On tonight’s show, Joseph Cotto read large excerpts from this August 29, 2020 New York Post article:

Confessions of a voter fraud: I was a master at fixing mail-in ballots

A top Democratic operative says voter fraud, especially with mail-in ballots, is no myth. And he knows this because he’s been doing it, on a grand scale, for decades.

Mail-in ballots have become the latest flashpoint in the 2020 elections. While President Trump and the GOP warn of widespread manipulation of the absentee vote that will swell with COVID polling restrictions, many Democrats and their media allies have dismissed such concerns as unfounded.

But the political insider, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he fears prosecution, said fraud is more the rule than the exception. His dirty work has taken him through the weeds of municipal and federal elections in Paterson, Atlantic City, Camden, Newark, Hoboken and Hudson County and his fingerprints can be found in local legislative, mayoral and congressional races across the Garden State. Some of the biggest names and highest office holders in New Jersey have benefited from his tricks, according to campaign records The Post reviewed.

“An election that is swayed by 500 votes, 1,000 votes — it can make a difference,” the tipster said. “It could be enough to flip states.”

The whisteblower — whose identity, rap sheet and long history working as a consultant to various campaigns were confirmed by The Post — says he not only changed ballots himself over the years, but led teams of fraudsters and mentored at least 20 operatives in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania — a critical 2020 swing state.

I did not find the article convincing because it offered no supporting evidence.

After the show, I found that Harvard released a 49-page analysis of these type of allegations called: “Mail-in Voter Fraud: Anatomy of a Disinformation Campaign”

For the NY Post, it is Jon Levine’s reporting on an alleged Democratic operative who anonymously and without corroborating evidence confessed to running a network of operatives across three states for many years and committing practically every one of the acts that President Trump alleged about how voter fraud works. The story was pumped by the President’s sons and his campaign staff, and occupied Fox and Friends and Tucker Carlson for three nights…

The report by Jon Levine of the New York Post opened with the words: “A top Democratic operative says voter fraud, especially with mail-in ballots, is no myth. And he knows this because he’s been doing it, on a grand scale, for decades.” Levine quoted the single anonymous source as asserting that “fraud is more the rule than the exception,” and that he had “led teams of fraudsters and mentored at least 20 operatives in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania — a critical 2020 swing state.” The source remained anonymous for fear of prosecution. The story read as list of “greatest hits” from Trump’s allegations over the preceding six months, hitting all the high points of the months-long propaganda campaign. It wove in a specific reference to New Jersey, where the Paterson case was a central exhibit in the Trump campaign’s vote fraud claim, and asserted that “There is no race in New Jersey — from city council to United States Senate — that we haven’t worked on,”. It then asserted the ease of fraud associated with mailed ballots: “I just put [the ballot] through the copy machine and it comes out the same way,” the insider said. The story then wove in the continuous complaints about ballot harvesting, stating that: “He would have his operatives fan out, going house to house, convincing voters to let them mail completed ballots on their behalf as a public service. The fraudster and his minions would then take the sealed envelopes home and hold them over boiling water. ‘You have to steam it to loosen the glue,’ said the insider. He then would remove the real ballot, place the counterfeit ballot inside the signed certificate, and reseal the envelope.” The “whistleblower” then conveniently confirmed the line that postal employees were going to, as Trump had said, “grab bunches” of ballots: “The tipster said sometimes postal employees are in on the scam. ‘You have a postman who is a rabid anti-Trump guy and he’s working in Bedminster or some Republican stronghold … He can take those [filled-out] ballots, and knowing 95% are going to a Republican, he can just throw those in the garbage.’

In some cases, mail carriers were members of his ‘work crew,’ and would sift ballots from the mail and hand them over to the operative.” To complete the tapestry, the story harps on the fears of older voters: “Hitting up assisted-living facilities and ‘helping’ the elderly fill out their absentee ballots was a gold mine of votes, the insider said. ‘There are nursing homes where the nurse is actually a paid operative. And they go room by room by room to these old people who still want to feel like they’re relevant,’ said the whistleblower. ‘[They] literally fill it out for them.’”

The story immediately exploded across the right-wing media ecosystem, with attention directed to it energetically by the Trump family and campaign. The president’s sons Donald Jr. and Eric Trump tweeted it out, as did Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtugh and deputy communications director Zach Parkinson, alongside various Fox contributors and veteran conspiracist Jack Posobiec. The story alleged a widespread, systematic fraud operation, operating across multiple states for decades and involving “at least 20 operatives.” Yet it relied on a sole anonymous source. While Media Matters published a criticism of the article’s method and its reporter, no mainstream media outlet was willing or able to pick up the mantle and seek to confirm or refute these remarkable accusations. The story remains unconfirmed except for repetition on Fox News online, on Fox and Friends on both Sunday August 30 and Monday August 31, on Tucker Carlson on Tuesday, September 1, and on online media like the Washington Examiner and the Daily Caller (itself reporting on the Tucker Carlson report). On Facebook, the Breitbart repetition of this story gained more engagement than versions elsewhere in the right wing media ecosystem. Given the momentous allegations, it is hard to imagine that no reporter in a traditional media outlet looked into this. One has to assume that no one found corroboration despite the supposed widespread conspiracy that this practice would require, but also that no one was able to specifically refute it, given that the source was anonymous. Levine too did not add followup reporting with more evidence or details. It is hard to credit the story as true based on a single report in a Murdoch-owned tabloid, alleging a widespread, many-participant, years-long criminal conspiracy carried out over several states, itself based on a single anonymous source and offering no supporting documentation. If the story is untrue, it is also impossible to tell whether Levine is the perpetrator or a willing victim of someone else’s information operation, and if so, whose. What is clear is that in the propaganda feedback loop that has increasingly characterized the right-wing media ecosystem for the past three decades, and for a Trump campaign that has long been pushing every element of this narrative, this was a story too good to be checked…

When President Trump concluded his performance in the first presidential debate on September 29, 2020, he reiterated the false claim that mail-in ballots were subject to mass election fraud, and cited this concern to justify his refusal to commit to accepting the results of the election should he be defeated. This assertion capped a six months long disinformation campaign waged by the president and his party against expansion of mail-in voting during the pandemic of 2020. There is no disinformation campaign more likely to affect voter participation in the 2020 U.S. election and perceptions of the election’s legitimacy than the repeated false assertion that mail-in voting is fraught with the risk of voter fraud. This was not a social media campaign. Our study here, combining quantitative and qualitative analysis of online stories, tweets, and Facebook pages over six months, establishes that the disinformation campaign was elite-driven, and waged primarily through mass media responding to false assertions from President Trump, his campaign, and the RNC.

I also found a September 1, 2020 analysis by the left-wing Media Matters:

Fox News personalities and right-wing conservatives are pushing a New York Post story published over the weekend alleging widespread mail-in ballot fraud by an anonymous whistleblower and “top Democractic operative.” The Post claims the whistleblower “says voter fraud, especially with mail-in ballots, is no myth. And he knows this because he’s been doing it, on a grand scale, for decades.”

The article claims the publication vetted the whistleblower’s purported longtime career working as a consultant, rigging various municipal and federal elections throughout New Jersey, and as a mentor to “at least 20 operatives in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania.” However, the story fails to provide corroboration or a second source for any of the numerous accusations of mail-in ballot fraud that follow.

Among the accusations are:

  • New Jersey mail-in ballots have no security features such as a stamp or watermark, allowing operatives to convince voters to let them mail completed ballots on their behalf and then steam open envelopes to replace with counterfeit ballots before mailing.
  • Postal Service employees commit election fraud by throwing out mail-in ballots from Republican areas or sifting through ballots and handing them to Democractic operatives. The article links to an unrelated story on New York City election ballots to support this claim.
  • Nursing home employees are paid political operatives who fraudulently fill out residents’ ballots for them.
  • Operatives impersonate voters in states with no voter ID laws, such as New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania.
  • Operatives bribe homeless voters to vote during elections in New Jersey in a scheme that “resembled Mafia organizations” and left the actual candidate in the dark to maintain “plausible deniability.”
  • Democratic election board members took part in fraud by checking ballots to see if they have bent corners — bent by operatives engaged in fraud — to see if they should keep them or throw them out for irregularities. The insider claims bent ballots go unchallenged by Democratic Board of Election counters.

All of these schemes require a large network of operatives to pull them off, however, the story cites no other source for confirmation, even though the main principle of investigative journalism is to never rely on a single source of information. Without secondary confirmation, the accusations are dubious at best. And the New York Post, a daily tabloid, does not have a sterling reputation for accuracy. For instance, in 2013, the paper erroneously reported that 12 people had died in the Boston Marathon bombing and wrongly identified two suspects in published photographs, leading to a libel lawsuit that was settled in 2014.

Furthermore, story writer Jon Levine tends to amplify right-wing walking points, sometimes under the guise of reporting, and he often boosts right-wing media personalities and outlets. For example, since he’s been at the New York Post, Levine has:

  • Published what he dubbed the “AOC Tapes,” reporting mundane aspects of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (D-NY) day to claim she was a hypocrite.
  • Defended right-wing grifter Andy Ngo and decried the “unfair smearing” of him.
  • Defended articles by the Post that demonize homeless people.
  • Pushed immigration fraud stories about Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN).
  • Criticized Harvard when the university rescinded student Kyle Kashuv’s acceptance based on Kashuv repeatedly saying the N-word.
  • Criticized Carlos Maza (a former Media Matters staffer), who was being harassed while at Vox by Steven Crowder, a right-wing YouTuber, for months. Crowder sold shirts mocking Maza for being gay, used homophobic slurs about him, and directed swarms of online mobs to attack Maza, whose content was being flooded with negative comments. Maza worked to get Crowder’s work demonetized or de-platformed from YouTube due to the harassment he faced, which immediately made him a right-wing target. A year later, Levine reported an in-depth profile on Maza’s mother, claiming it’s hypocritical for him to be a socialist if he comes from a rich family. Levine was subsequently locked out of his Twitter account after the article included personal and identifying information about Maza and his mother.
  • Pushed hydroxychloroquine as a coronavirus treatment. The Food and Drug Administration has cautioned against the use of hydroxychloroquine outside of a hospital or clinical trial due to risk.

After the story was published on Saturday, Fox News and other right-wing personalities amplified it throughout the weekend.

Fox & Friends Weekend highlighted the mail-in voting parts of the article.

Mail-in voter fraud has become a top-line narrative for Donald Trump and right-wing media ahead of the 2020 election. They have repeatedly sought to undermine mail-in voting in the months leading up to November, when the pandemic is likely to impact in-person voting. From Media Matters’ archives:

  • Fox & Friends host says mail-in voting is bad: “Maybe there’s all types of pressure in your family dynamic” [Media Matters, 7/8/20]
  • “A recipe for disaster”: National and state right-wing radio hosts launch attacks on mail-in voting [Media Matters, 8/6/20]
  • Tucker Carlson mocks concern for USPS and says vote by mail “makes voter fraud easier” [Media Matters, 8/17/20]
  • Here are the facts on mail-in voting [Media Matters, 8/21/20]

Right-wing media and the GOP have a years-long history of pushing the myth of voting fraud to undermine voting. From Media Matters’ archives:

  • John Fund’s book on voter fraud is a fraud [Media Matters, 10/31/04]
  • 48 Years Later, Conservatives Are Making The Same Arguments Against The Voting Rights Act [Media Matters, 8/6/13]
  • Experts: Trump’s New Voter Fraud Commission Could Be Used To Suppress Legal Votes [Media Matters, 5/13/17]
  • Pro-Trump media are pushing a new voter fraud conspiracy theory [Media Matters, 7/19/19]
  • Right-wing media’s new voter fraud “proof” is even more asinine than usual [Media Matters, 9/8/17]
  • How Tom Fitton and conservative media spread debunked “voter fraud” disinformation about the Iowa caucuses [Media Matters, 2/4/20]
  • Fox News lets Tomi Lahren recklessly fearmonger about supposed “voter fraud” amid primary elections [Media Matters, 3/17/20]

Despite these claims, voter fraud remains a relatively insignificant issue in elections. A comprehensive report by the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and public policy institute at New York University Law School, published in April identified only 491 cases of absentee ballot fraud from 2000-2012 –– 491 in literally billions of votes cast. The Brennan Center has published extensive research debunking the large-scale accusations of voter fraud. Furthermore, Trump’s own voting commissions found no evidence of widespread voter fraud in 2018.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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