Trump Intentionally Confusing About Mail-In v. Absentee Ballots

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(U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Jeff Kelly)

As Trump tries to sabotage the post office, news anchors express puzzlement that Trump keeps insisting that mail-in voting is a disaster and ripe with fraud, but that absentee voting is OK. They seem totally confused about the distinction between the two. Or they think he is confused.

Don’t be fooled. We’ve seen this play before. It’s part of a pattern of predictable behavior by Trump.

The pattern:

  1. Create an artificial distinction between two ways of saying the same thing.

He did the same thing in the five years before running for president in 2016.

Show Us Your Birth Certificate

In early 2011 then-real estate mogul and The Apprentice TV host Donald Trump told the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) that he would run for president to take on the incumbent, Barack Obama.

He began by raising questions about whether President Obama was born in Hawaii. He argued, without evidence, that no one in Hawaii knew who Obama was. He said,

“Our current president came out of nowhere. Came out of nowhere. In fact, I’ll go a step further: The people that went to school with him, they never saw him, they don’t know who he is. It’s crazy.”

This was an oblique reference to what had become known as the “birther” movement, claiming that Obama was not born in the United States and was secretly a Muslim. The CPAC audience would recognize the signal for what it was.

Trump never did make good on his pledge to run against Obama, but he spent the next five years questioning Obama’s legitimacy. A centerpiece of it was demanding to see Obama’s birth certificate.

But in the summer of 2008 the Obama campaign had already released the birth certificate, called a “certificate of live birth.” They issued a “short-form” certificate of live birth, and the State of Hawaii confirmed its authenticity. The document itself says,

“This copy serves as prima facie evidence of birth in any court proceeding.”

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State of Hawaii Department of Health. The short-form Certificate of Live Birth released in 2008

But in 2012 Trump kept insisting that Obama release his birth certificate. When confronted with the fact that Obama had released it years earlier, Trump declared that there was a meaningful distinction between a “birth certificate” and a “certificate of live birth.”

He told Fox & Friends,

“They give you a certificate of live birth, which anybody can get, just walk into the hospital, and you get a certificate of live birth. It’s not even signed by people. Now, this guy either has a birth certificate or he doesn’t. And I didn’t think this was such a big deal, but I will tell you, it’s turning out to be a very big deal because people now are calling me from all over saying, please don’t give up on this issue. If you weren’t born in this country, you cannot be president.”

Of course, the first part of that was a lie: a private citizen cannot simply walk into a hospital and leave with a certificate of live birth. It is a formal government document, issued by the state health department. The rest of the statement is also part of the pattern. He says something true (Obama either has a birth certificate or he doesn’t; if you weren’t born in this country you cannot be president) and mixes it with a sense of illegitimacy (people are calling me from all over saying, please don’t give up...)

Trump kept emphasizing that the certificate of live birth is not a birth certificate.

In April 2011, in response to the controversy created by Trump, President Obama asked the state of Hawaii to release the long form of his birth certificate, which it did.

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State of Hawaii Department of Health. The long-form Certificate of Live Birth, released in 2012

Contrary to Trump’s claim that a long-form birth certificate is different from a certificate of live birth, this longer document also was called a “Certificate of Live Birth.”

But despite that evidence, birthers — including Trump — persisted. The following month a Gallup poll showed that 13 percent of all Americans, and 23 percent of Republicans, believed that President Obama was not born in the United States.

Later in April, having planted the seeds of doubt, Trump went further.

Trump claimed that he had sent investigators to Hawaii to look into the birth certificate claims, and that “they can’t believe what they’re finding.” He repeated this line many times over many interviews, but never provided evidence that he had sent investigators, or what those investigators found.

Trump continued insisting that Obama was not born in America for five full years. It was not until the very last weeks of the 2016 campaign that he grudgingly admitted that Obama was born in the U.S. Naturally, he blamed Hillary Clinton for having started the birther rumors.

Mail-In Voter Fraud?

Now Trump is doing it again: coming up with different names for the same thing, demonizing the one and praising the other. All to confuse, distract, and keep attacking.

Last week Trump tweeted:

“With Universal Mail-In Voting (not Absentee Voting, which is good), 2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history. It will be a great embarrassment to the USA. Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???”

He also tweeted:

“Mail-In Voting is already proving to be a catastrophic disaster. Even testing areas are way off. The Dems talk of foreign influence in voting, but they know that Mail-In Voting is an easy way for foreign countries to enter the race. Even beyond that, there’s no accurate count!”

FactCheck.org was quick to set the record straight:

“The president is drawing a distinction without a difference when he claims that absentee ballots are “good” but mail-in ballots will result in an “INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election.”

Voting experts told us the verification process is the same for absentee and mail-in ballots, and many states consider them to be the same thing — including Florida, where Trump has cast what he calls an “absentee” ballot. But it’s not really the case that Florida has absentee ballots.”

Yesterday CNN challenged Trump’s premise:

“No matter how many times the President claims otherwise, voting-by-mail rarely results in fraud. And although Trump has tried to spin the two as fundamentally different before, absentee and mail-in voting are essentially the same, both subject to several degrees of verification. As more Americans than ever are expected to cast mail-in ballots this year due to the pandemic, experts acknowledge there might be some logistical issues in terms of people being able to receive and mail in their ballots. But that’s a far cry from the claims of fraud and rigged elections that the President continues to espouse.”

Expect Trump to continue to make the distinction without a difference. Expect him to flip-flop and acknowledge the legitimacy of some forms of vote-by-mail. And then to flip back to demonizing the very process. It’s part of his strategy to call into question the legitimacy of the election as a whole.

Vote From Home

So what can we do? I, for one, will not play into his frame. I will stop using the language of “mail-in voting” or “absentee ballot.” I’ll start calling it Vote From Home, or Secure Voting, or Safe Voting. What will you call it?

Helio Fred Garcia is the author, most recently, of Words on Fire: The Power of Incendiary Language and How to Confront It.

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