On counterfeit ballots, US intel officials contradict Trump, Barr

Trump and Barr keep insisting foreign countries might use counterfeit ballots to disrupt our elections. US intelligence officials know better.
Image: Utah mail in vote ballot
A employee at the Utah County Election office puts mail in ballots into a container to register the vote in the midterm elections in Provo, Utah on Nov. 6, 2018.George Frey / Getty Images file
By Steve Benen

As part of his ongoing campaign against postal balloting, Donald Trump peddled a familiar talking point at a White House event on Friday. Apparently talking to reporters, the president insisted, "You guys like to talk about Russia and China and other places? They'll be able to forge ballots. They'll forge them."

A few days earlier, Attorney General Bill Barr appeared on Capitol Hill, where Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Pa.) asked the Republican lawyer whether he has any evidence at all of foreign countries being able to successfully sway U.S. elections with counterfeit ballots. "No, I don't," the AG replied, "but I have common sense."

As it turns out, one can either listen to Trump and his Justice Department fixer, or one can listen to US intelligence officials. CNN reported the other day:

US intelligence officials on Friday discounted the possibility of foreign countries mass producing fake ballots to interfere in the November elections, contradicting President Donald Trump's continued insistence that mail-in voting poses a significant threat to election security. The closed-door House briefing was led by the US intelligence community's top election official, Bill Evanina, and senior intelligence officials who specialize in election security. Officials dismissed the possibility of foreign powers being able to interfere on a mass scale to produce and send fake ballots to voters and election authorities, a source said.

Maybe Trump and Barr haven't been brought up to speed by their own country's intelligence officials. Perhaps the president and the AG have been briefed, but they assume their own country's intelligence officials are engaged in some kind of deep-state conspiracy intended to undermine the Republican ticket.

But in this case, reality is stubborn. Indeed, let's circle back and review why this talking point is so foolish.

States that have already embraced postal balloting have implemented safeguards, including bar codes, that make the prospect of a foreign actor "easily making counterfeit ballots" -- a phrase Barr used in June -- impossible.

What's more, vote-by-mail programs rely on signed security envelopes that, again, prevent the scenario Trump and Barr are peddling. The Washington Post reported recently that elections officials in multiple states "said it would be virtually impossible" for a foreign government to achieve what the attorney general described.

States use a variety of safeguards to confirm the validity of mail ballots. In about half the states, ballot envelopes bear a tracking bar code or tally mark that is unique to each voter. About 15 states require signatures to be matched against voter registration. Ballots are rejected if they are not sent in regulation envelopes that vary widely from state to state in format, size and paper stock. And there is little chance, administrators said, that election officials would not detect a surge of duplicate ballots arriving from the same voter.

The article quoted Colorado's elections chief saying "there is zero chance" the Trump/Barr theory could happen in reality.

All of which raises the question the White House is reluctant to answer: why are the president and his attorney general so desperate to peddle a claim rejected by actual election authorities -- including those in the Trump administration?