The Washington Post
By Philip Bump
It’s been, let’s see, 318 days since the 2020 presidential election. During that time, there has been an unprecedented effort to elevate and prove claims that there were enough illegal votes cast in enough counties in enough states that it cost Donald Trump a victory. That effort has resulted in precisely nothing substantive, no proof of people stuffing ballot boxes or illegally voting thousands of times or of electronic voting machines being manipulated. In multiple states, there were audits and recounts that validated the outcome: Trump lost.
But that is not the validation Trump seeks. Instead, he wants the world to believe that he didn’t lose — that, despite the lack of evidence, he was the true victor in November. Or, not that, really — he wants people to think that the debunked and irrelevant evidence actually does prove that case, in the manner of a guy who makes his career selling Bigfoot footage.
This, however, is not going to actually change the results of the election, should anything be able to do so, because there is a big difference between convincing random people in “Trump 2024″ shirts that fraud occurred and convincing actual election officials that they missed something big. So there’s been a two-track approach, with Trump and his allies charging that states also messed up their actual election processes, either by inadvertently committing technical violations of voting rules or by changing the rules in the first place.
This dichotomy was useful to people such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) until about 2 p.m. Jan. 6 — they could coddle Trump’s base by saying Something went seriously wrong!! while turning to journalists and saying specifically that subsection C-9 of the electoral code may not have been applied as intended. There was an effort, for example, to say that Pennsylvania’s expansion of early voting violated the state’s constitution, an argument to which a judge was sympathetic late last year, though he then made an obvious secondary point: That is by no means a reason to invalidate the cast votes.
Which brings us to Friday. Trump sent a letter to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R), insisting that the results of the 2020 election in Georgia be decertified, something Trump has been pestering Raffensperger about since that January call in which he begged the secretary to “find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have.” Raffensperger didn’t find Trump an extra 12,000 votes, because there were no votes to find. Trump’s insistences that you could cobble together that number from various places were all fruitless, since he was wrong.
But now! Trump at long last has the proof of fraud he’d long insisted existed. You can tell because of the very first sentence in his letter: “Large scale Voter Fraud continues to be reported in Georgia.” Wow! Let’s see what the former president has, since obviously he wouldn’t misrepresent things.
“Enclosed is a report of 43,000 Absentee Ballot Votes Counted in DeKalb County that violated the Chain of Custody rules, making them invalid,” the letter continues. After that, he helpfully suggests, Raffensperger can “start the process of decertifying the Election, or whatever the correct legal remedy is” — a funny addendum since there is no such remedy even if one were warranted.
And here, none is warranted. This “Chain of Custody” claim being made by Trump stems from a report by a pro-Trump website called Georgia Star News. It’s part of a group of sites established to mimic local news coverage but largely promoting stories friendly to the right. The author of the DeKalb County story, for example, writes for “The Georgia Star News, The Tennessee Star, The Ohio Star and The Arizona Sun Times,” which must yield her a ton of mileage reimbursements.
The claim is this: People hired to transport ballots from drop boxes to the county were mandated to do so immediately, but sometimes those ballots weren’t logged by the county until hours later or the next day. This is shown in documents obtained by the website that purportedly show the transfer of the ballots. (It’s worth noting, by the way, that when the site asked for these documents in November, the county’s failure to turn them over at that point spurred a story about how the documents might not exist. They did, as CNN quickly determined.)
This is a good example of the ways in which the complicated process of running elections opens up all sorts of opportunity to inject procedural complaints. The story does not suggest that any votes were altered in any way, if such a thing were possible without detection. It does not indicate that anyone had talked to the county about why the forms might have been incomplete (in some cases) or indicated gaps between collection and being logged. There’s nothing to suggest that this was anything other than, say, a team collecting ballots at the end of the day and finishing the job the following morning. There’s obviously good reason for ballots to be transmitted as quickly as possible, but there’s nothing to suggest this was anything more nefarious than campaign workers doing their jobs a bit less assiduously than one might hope.
But Trump doesn’t even actually claim there was fraud, since there’s no evidence there was. He just says the equivalent of Hey, you seeing all this fraud? and then asking Raffensperger to throw out the whole election somehow because of the gaps on those forms. It’s not even a Hail Mary. It’s like showing up on the field the day after the Super Bowl and loudly complaining that your opponent was offsides.
It’s useful to point out, too, that there’s no evidence anything weird happened in DeKalb County anyway. Overall, Georgia voted about five points more Democratic last year than it did in 2016, about the same shift as seen in Kansas (where Trump has spent no energy accusing people of fraud). In DeKalb County, Trump went from losing by 63.5 points then to 67.4 points last year, a shift of 3.9 points away from Trump — less than in the state overall. If you assume that all 43,000 of those votes were for Biden, itself not a fair assumption, DeKalb County would have become more supportive of Trump than it was in 2016. This is … unlikely.
If we compare the shifts in every county in Georgia, Kansas and Texas (just to pick out another red state), we see that the changes in margins from 2016 to 2020 were often larger than the one in DeKalb, save for a number of often heavily Hispanic counties in Texas that shifted hard to the right. DeKalb voted heavily Democratic, but it’s part of the very Democratic Atlanta metropolitan area. You can see the pattern in voting in those three states below: Less populous counties (lower on the chart) were much more heavily Republican.
Counties that averaged about 1,000 voters shifted to Trump by three points relative to 2016 in those three states. Counties with around 10,000 voters shifted to Trump by a point. Those with 100,000 or 1 million voters shifted to Biden by about five points — more than DeKalb actually did.
So let’s recap. Just from the vote totals alone, there’s no evidence of fraud in DeKalb County. There’s no evidence of fraud occurring in the pro-Trump site’s article, either. There was no evidence of significant fraud uncovered there or in the rest of the state over the past 318 days. Despite Trump’s claim that there’s some nebulous fraud somewhere, even his letter doesn’t actually allege proof of fraud.
It just asks the secretary of state to decertify the election results or to do something, who knows what, to “announce the true winner” of the election. Because there were 43,000 ballots that might have been in someone’s car overnight though not necessarily. Because maybe those ballots were for Biden? Or maybe, I guess, changed?
It doesn’t matter. There’s no more need for certainty around that than there is around Trump’s demand for restitution. If you’re asking someone to do something imaginary, you might as well offer them an imaginary reason to do so. Trump’s letter could as well have demanded that Raffensperger turn Savannah into a fire-breathing dragon, something mandated because the former president had acquired the invisible Staff of Devotion on his journeys.
That letter, too, could have concluded with, “Thank you for your attention to this matter.”
Philip Bump is a correspondent for The Washington Post based in New York. Before joining The Post in 2014, he led politics coverage for the Atlantic Wire.