President Donald Trump this week jolted the already fragile 2020 election process by encouraging his supporters to illegally vote twice as a way of testing anti-fraud safeguards.
The President tried to clarify his comments on Thursday, but his tweets contained so much misleading information about election procedures that they were quickly censored by Twitter.
Election officials and nonpartisan experts immediately denounced Trump for “encouraging voter fraud” and threatened to prosecute anyone that votes twice. “Don’t do it!” one official warned.
Other experts said Trump’s comments were “irresponsible,” “worrisome,” and will “stir enormous confusion” for voters and poll workers alike. One called it a deliberate attempt to “sow chaos.”
Officials also made it clear double ballots “will not be counted” and said in-person efforts to check the status of mail ballots will “make lines longer” and could further spread the Covid-19.
Trump has promoted outlandish lies and conspiracy theories about elections for years. But his comments this week significantly escalated the situation by urging his supporters to break election laws, while simultaneously accusing Democrats of perpetrating massive voter fraud.
It is illegal to vote twice
This all started with an interview Trump gave to a local station in Wilmington, North Carolina.
“They’ll go out and they’ll go vote, and they’re going to have to go and check their vote by going to the poll and voting that way,” Trump told local station WECT on Wednesday, suggesting that people who sent in absentee ballots should also vote in-person to stress-test the system.
In a series of cleanup tweets on Thursday, Trump said Americans should “…go to your Polling Place to see whether or not your Mail In Vote has been Tabulated (Counted). If it has, you will not be able to Vote & the Mail In System worked properly. If it has not been Counted, VOTE…”
His first comment encourages illegal activity. His second comment is legally sound, but doesn’t make much sense and is an ineffective way for voters to track their ballots, experts said.
“It’s like advising someone to try to rob a bank to see if the security is as good as the bank says it is,” said Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, a Democrat. “Knowingly voting twice is a felony. Period. Doing it creates a mess for the voter and the election administrators alike.”
Federal law makes it a crime to vote twice in the same election, and it’s also a felony in almost every state, according to David Becker, a former Justice Department trial attorney who handled voting rights cases, and now runs the nonpartisan Center for Election Innovation and Research.
Election officials in North Carolina – where the first mail ballots will be sent out Friday – rushed to rebut Trump’s comments and get accurate information to voters as election season kicks off.
“It is illegal to vote twice in an election,” Karen Brinson Bell, the top election official in North Carolina, said in a statement. “The State Board office strongly discourages people from showing up at the polls on Election Day to check whether their absentee ballot was counted. That is not necessary, and it would lead to longer lines and the possibility of spreading Covid-19.”
Checking your mail ballot
Even though Trump clearly encouraged double voting, he walked back part of his comments on Thursday and suggested that people should merely go to their polling places to inquire about the status of their absentee ballots. This is legal, but generally speaking, it’s not a good idea.
Election officials across the country stressed on Thursday that there are plenty of reliable options for voters to track the progress of their absentee ballots from home – without going to a physical polling place, which could create longer lines and waste critical time for poll workers.
Bell, the top election official in North Carolina, said she “strongly discourages people from showing up at the polls on Election Day to check whether their absentee ballot was counted.”
In North Carolina, there are at least three more efficient ways to track a mail ballot. There is an online voter lookup tool that will indicate when a ballot was accepted by local election officials. Voters can call their local election board. Or they can sign up for BallotTrax, an app that sends updates with each step, “much like… pizza delivery,” according to the state board of election..
Many states use the BallotTrax app, including California, which switched to universal mail-in voting this year. California has the largest voting electorate of any state and will be an important test case for all-mail voting systems, which Trump has falsely claimed are ripe with voter fraud.
All 88 counties in Ohio have tracking systems where voters can follow the status of their absentee applications and ballots, according to Maggie Sheehan, a spokeswoman for the Ohio secretary of state.
Some states even allow voters to change their vote after submitting mail ballots or voting early. These little-used provisions in a few states require a voter to first “spoil” or invalidate their original ballot. Then, they can cast a new ballot and can change their preferred candidates.
CNN’s Ethan Cohen and Caroline Kenny contributed to this report.