Trump claims Florida voters wore disguises, latest in pattern of conspiracy theories

Trump claims Florida voters wore disguises, latest in pattern of conspiracy theories
Florida election recount nears deadline as Trump stirs the pot with baseless claim
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks about the "First Step Act" in the Roosevelt Room at the White House in Washington, U.S. November 14, 2018.

More than a dozen times in the past seven days, President Donald Trump has alleged, contrary to evidence, that the recount of Florida‘s elections for governor and the U.S. Senate has been marred by fraud.

CONGRATULATIONS ON YOUR RECOUNT! Senate Majority Mitch McConnell (L), with Florida Governor and Senate candidate Rick Scott (R) during a photo-op for Republican Senators elect in Leader McConnells office in the US Capitol in Washington, DC, USA, 14 November 2018

“Many ballots are missing or forged,” he tweeted on Monday. “Ballots massively infected.”

Scott leads Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida by about 13,000 votes out of 8 million cast, with a Thursday deadline for a machine count and a Sunday deadline for a hand count, in a recount mandated by Florida election law.

Video: Election workers go down to the wire to complete Florida recounts

The Florida Election should be called in favor of Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis in that large numbers of new ballots showed up out of nowhere, and many ballots are missing or forged. An honest vote count is no longer possible-ballots massively infected. Must go with Election Night!

The unsubstantiated allegations could help Trump bolster a narrative that appeals to his core supporters ahead of his expected 2020 bid for a second term – that of an aggrieved president at risk of being cheated by what he often decries at rallies as an unfair system.

But he joined five Republican senators-elect Wednesday for an appearance with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who published an op-ed Wednesday calling for bipartisanship.    

It may also stoke doubts among his loyal base of supporters over the legitimacy of elections – a potentially dangerous tactic, especially if he were to adopt a similar stance in response to razor-close results in the 2020 presidential election.

“For a long time, the American democratic process has been based on the idea that if an election has an outcome that one side doesn’t like, it’s still considered legitimate,” said Tom Pepinsky, a professor of government at Cornell University and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank. “If there’s ever been a time for elected politicians to draw a line in the sand … this is it.”

Fellow Republicans including Florida‘s outgoing governor, Rick Scott, whose Senate campaign is the subject of a recount mandated under state law, incumbent U.S. Senator Marco Rubio and lower-ranking officials have amplified Trump’s charges.

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The final result of the match-up between Scott and three-term Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson will not affect the balance of power in the Senate, where Republicans increased their majority in the Nov. 6 elections even as Democrats seized control of the House of Representatives.

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“What we’re seeing now is a new and potentially dangerous development,” said Jonathan Brater, a voting rights lawyer at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, referring to a call by Trump on Florida officials to abandon the recount.

“Not only would that tactic risk throwing out legitimate votes if it is successful, it also sows seeds of doubt about our entire democratic process in the minds of millions of people.”

While Republicans have aggressively attacked two of the states largest counties — both Democratic-leaning — with allegations of voter fraud and widespread corruption without presenting any evidence to support these claims, elections officials report that aging and faulty equipment and over-stretched staff have significantly slowed their ballot-counting efforts.

Narrow margins of victory for Scott and Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis over Democrat Andrew Gillum triggered the recount under state law last week. It stirred memories of Florida‘s disputed results in the 2000 presidential election that Republican George W. Bush ultimately won after the U.S. Supreme Court stopped the recount.

“I think theres a huge issue with just lack of communication,” Schale said of Broward County. “Had [Snipes] had a press conference on Wednesday morning and just said, Listen we just got inundated the last 24 hours with ballots, I dont think some of the criticism shes gotten would have been leveled in the same way.”

Trump has said the Florida election should be called in favor of Scott and DeSantis because “large numbers of new ballots showed up out of nowhere, and many ballots are missing or forged.” He cited no evidence.

READ MORE: Nancy Pelosi pledges to hold Trump to account, Democrats expected to launch investigations

Bill Nelson. AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack Lawsuits fly Nelsons campaign has filed multiple lawsuits, including to overturn a Florida statute that requires voter signatures to match the signatures the state has on file and to allow ballots postmarked before Election Day (but received by the state after) to be counted.

“He genuinely thinks there is corruption there,” the official said. Another source close to the White House said the president was following the lead of Scott and Rubio.

Scotts team has also filed suits demanding, among other things, that law enforcement seize and monitor ballots and voting equipment during the recounts (which was denied by a judge on Monday) and an injunction to stop Broward County from counting any ballots not submitted by last Saturdays deadline.

“He’s echoing in his Trump way the message on this, which is to be aggressive,” the source said.

Florida-based Democratic strategist Steve Schale thinks some of the attacks on elections officials, most notably Broward County supervisor Brenda Snipes, could have been avoided if the officials had been more transparent and communicative about their overwhelming load.

Florida law enforcement officials have said they have seen no evidence of fraud during voting or the recount. Vote totals often change even after an election, as absentee, provisional and overseas ballots are recorded.

Palm Beach, which received nearly 600,000 votes, is the only county in the state that uses machines that are only able to count one race at a time. (A judge gave the county a four-day deadline extension — until next Tuesday — to count its ballots).

Trump supporters who protested on Tuesday outside county offices where votes were being counted rejected that idea.

“It’s rigged, this is absolute system corruption and everybody is playing dumb,” said Sofia Manolesco, a 49-year-old fitness trainer who said she had voted for all Republicans on her ballot and wore a red “Trump 2020” hat.

“Its a page out of Donald Trumps playbook – its nonsense, theres no evidence,” Mitch Ceasar, the former longtime chairman of the Broward Democratic Party, told INSIDER. “When they win, they win. And when the lose, they say its fixed.”

Following his 2016 victory, Trump falsely claimed that millions of illegal immigrants had voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Since Election Day last Tuesday, Trump has led Republican efforts to spread unsubstantiated allegations about the vote counts in Florida, claiming that officials are forging and “finding” votes or committing other forms of fraud.

U.S. politicians, particularly Republicans, have long cited concerns about fraud to justify laws restricting access to polls. But independent researchers have documented only a handful of cases over the years.

Justin Levitt, a professor at the Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, tracked just 31 credible allegations of voter impersonation in U.S. elections from 2000 to 2014. In that time, more than 1 billion ballots were cast, Levitt found.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks about the “First Step Act” in the Roosevelt Room at the White House in Washington, U.S. November 14, 2018.

There have been some documented instances of problems in this year’s Florida voting that could benefit both parties.

In Broward County, where Democrats typically do well, nearly two dozen rejected ballots were counted with a batch of valid ones. The Florida secretary of state’s office said it had received reports that voters in Bay County, a Republican-leaning area hit hard by Hurricane Michael, may have been permitted to vote by email, which is prohibited under state law.

Douglas Heye, a Republican strategist and former top aide to former Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, said he doubted there would be political fallout from Trump’s rhetoric.

“Trump claimed the last election was rigged, until he won,” he said. “We will likely be talking about a million things between now and the 2020 elections. These tweets may be just a distant memory.”

Many of the swing states 67 counties have finished running their ballots through tallying machines for a second time to decide US Senate and governors races but, more than a week after midterms election day, major Democratic strongholds are still struggling amid partisan recriminations, a barrage of lawsuits and untested allegations of fraud.

Barring a dramatic last-minute court-mandated extension, Florida counties face a 3pm ET deadline to wrap up their machine recounts. Some counties have warned that they may not be able to make the deadline.

On Wednesday, the US president once again stirred the pot by claiming – without evidence – that people wear disguises to vote illegally in Florida.

The Republicans dont win and thats because of potentially illegal votes, Trump told the conservative Daily Caller website. When people get in line that have absolutely no right to vote and they go around in circles. Sometimes they go to their car, put on a different hat, put on a different shirt, come in and vote again. Nobody takes anything. Its really a disgrace whats going on.

He also called for new national ID laws with a bizarre assertion: If you buy a box of cereal – you have a voter ID.

Read more The states Republican governor, Rick Scott, running closely against the incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson for the Senate seat, has also asserted that the election is being stolen. The state elections department and the Florida department of law enforcement, both run by Republican appointees, deny seeing any evidence of fraud.

With the eyes of the political world on Florida, still haunted by Bush v Gore in the 2000 presidential election, the malaise deepened on Thursday when Susan Bucher, elections supervisor of Palm Beach county, admitted that it only has a slim chance of meeting the 3pm deadline because of dated technology.

Bucher and other officials were still feeding ballots into a machine that kept stopping and starting, the Washington Post reported. We were very close to the end, and our machines went down, she was quoted as saying.

There was some better news from Broward county, which said it had finished its recount except for fewer than 400 damaged ballots. The countys elections supervisor Brenda Snipes has been the focus of fierce criticism.

But in a further complication, a federal judge ruled that at least 4,000 voters whose ballots were rejected because their signatures did not match will get two days to correct the problem.

Judge Mark Walker of the US District Court in Tallahassee ruled that the signature match rule was applied unlawfully because voters were given no chance to correct the discrepancy and prove their identity.

Marc Elias, lead recount lawyer for the Nelson campaign, welcomed the decision and said: The courts ruling impacts thousands of ballots, and that number will likely increase as larger counties like Broward add their ballots to the total pool which can be cured.

Scotts campaign said it was appealing the decision. The Senate race between him and Nelson is so close that it is expected to move to a manual recount starting at 7am on Friday. The deadline is 12 noon on Sunday.

Eight million votes were cast in Florida and the counties deadline is Thursday at 3pm, pending court action by Democrats seeking to extend it. Indeed, the disputed election is proving a bonanza for lawyers on both sides. Six federal lawsuits have been filed so far in the state capital, Tallahassee.

The machine recount may essentially bring a conclusion to the governors race. Republican Ron DeSantis leads Democrat Andrew Gillum by 0.41 percentage points in unofficial results, but the election wont be certified until Tuesday. Scott has agreed to step down from the state panel responsible for certifying the final results.

State law requires a machine recount in races where the margin is less than 0.5 percentage points. In the Senate race, Scotts lead over Nelson was 0.14 points.

Yet on Wednesday, Scott was at the US Capitol in Washington, standing at Mitch McConnells left shoulder as the majority leader welcomed Republican senators who will take their seats in January when the new Congress is sworn in. He ignored a shouted question about whether he still contends there was fraud in the election.

Lawyers for Democrats asked a federal judge on Wednesday to set aside the state law mandating that mailed-in votes be thrown out if the signature on the envelope does not match the signature on file. Nelsons campaign has also filed a lawsuit seeking public records from a north Florida elections supervisor who allowed voters in the Republican-heavy Bay county to email their ballots in apparent violation of state law.

The US district judge Mark Walker, referring to an episode of the science fiction series Star Trek, said during a hearing: I feel a little bit like Captain Kirk in the episode with the Tribbles where they start to multiply.