The story started with little more than a vague rumor. “They found six ballots in an office yesterday in a garbage can,” President Donald Trump told a Fox News radio show on Sept. 24. “They were Trump ballots. Eight ballots in an office yesterday in a certain state.” Four hours later, the White House hinted to reporters that state was Pennsylvania. And by that afternoon, the rumor had become official in the form of an announcement by the U.S. Justice Department. In a press release, federal prosecutors declared that nine discarded ballots had been found in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, and that seven of them were votes for Trump.
It is exceedingly rare for federal prosecutors to publicize an investigation that has barely started and rarer still for them to reveal politically sensitive details in the process. The case exploded on national news and social media, with Republicans touting it as evidence of a plot to rig the election and Trump arguing the same thing during a national debate watched by 73 million viewers. By the time Pennsylvania’s election chief explained a week later that the discarded ballots were the result of an “error” by a confused temporary employee, not “intentional fraud,” the damage had been done.
Luzerne County is a case study in one of the ugliest developments of the 2020 election, in which the powers of federal, state and local government have become tools of Trump’s voter-fraud disinformation campaign. From formal announcements by the Justice Department and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to state-level “election integrity” task forces, the President’s allies are mixing politics and law enforcement to amplify his baseless claim that the election is plagued by rampant voter fraud. “They laundered the information through the Justice Department, they teased it like it’s a PR campaign, and then the story dropped in the form of an official press release,” Ankush Khardori, a former DOJ prosecutor, says of the Luzerne County case. “This piece of information was tossed out and fed to the echo chamber, where it will have a permanent existence.”
Many Americans likely recognize similar stories from the nightly news or their Facebook feeds. The case of three bundles of mail found in a ditch in Wisconsin was touted by Republican candidates in states from Illinois to Colorado. An ICE press release on alleged voter fraud by noncitizens in North Carolina was picked up by conservative groups in California, Ohio and Montana. Allegations of double voting in the Georgia primary were promoted on Facebook by the Texas GOP.
All these stories went viral before they had been properly investigated. None of them has been found by state or federal authorities to have prevented anyone from voting or to have impacted the outcome of an election. None indicates the widespread fraud that Trump and his allies allege. That argument rests “primarily on unsupported speculation and secondarily on isolated instances of voter fraud,” Judge Robert Dow Jr. of the Northern District of Illinois, a George W. Bush appointee, wrote in his rejection of a GOP effort to block state election officials from sending mail-in ballots to voters. Even the isolated incidents of real fraud, Dow wrote, prove that the phenomenon “remained infinitesimally small.”
But there are signs the campaign to bolster the voter-fraud myth may be achieving its goal. By validating disinformation, government officials are turning falsehoods into truths, at least in the minds of the public. One in four American adults now says voter fraud is a major problem with mail-in voting, according to a Pew Research Center poll. This belief, which state election officials and independent experts categorically reject, could undermine the results of the Nov. 3 election and lend credence to Trump’s claims of a “rigged” contest. It could give rise to a broader push for restrictive voting measures in the future. And it has set a dangerous precedent in which the powers of American government can be bent to disseminate disinformation for the political purposes of those in office.
The day before the Pennsylvania ballot case erupted, a local news station in Wisconsin posted a 107-word story that said the U.S. Postal Service was investigating three trays of mail, including some absentee ballots, found in a ditch along a highway outside the town of Greenville. The sparse report rapidly took on a life of its own. A write-up by the right-wing website Breitbart News, titled mailed-in ballots found tossed in wisconsin ditch, attracted more than 68,000 comments, likes and shares on Facebook, and was shared on Republican Facebook pages in Tennessee, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Washington, North Carolina, California, Utah, Texas and Florida. A summary by the Washington Examiner received more than 250,000 interactions on Facebook. Republican National Committee operatives, White House officials and Trump himself invoked it as an example of pervasive fraud.
When state election officials announced a week later that none of the discovered mail included any ballots from Wisconsin, a crucial swing state, not one of the Republican officials revised their statements. None of these stories amplifying the purported scandal was corrected or updated. Many are still being widely cited as evidence of voter fraud. The Wisconsin station’s follow-up story on the incident was shared just 33 times.
Republicans have spent decades searching for and cataloging purported cases of voter fraud in a push to justify stricter voting laws, which studies show would serve to disenfranchise voters, especially minorities. But even the best-funded efforts have come up short. Using data going back to 1982 on everything from presidential elections to state and local votes–potentially hundreds of millions of ballots cast–the conservative Heritage Foundation found a grand total of 1,298 instances of voter fraud. In a disclaimer, it says its review “does not capture reported instances that are not investigated or prosecuted.”
The 2020 election has provided no shortage of fodder for voter-fraud sleuths. Because of the expansion of mail-in voting during the pandemic, there’s an ample supply of confusing postal issues, human errors and lost ballots. More important, federal, state and local authorities increasingly use government agencies as megaphones to elevate local stories into mainstream news.
Often this involves turning small, isolated instances of possible bad behavior into national scandals. In early September, for example, ICE issued a press release announcing charges against 19 noncitizens for allegedly voting illegally in the 2016 election. Republican members of Congress immediately seized on it to make a broader case against mail-in voting. “If universal mail-in ballots are allowed, more of this will happen,” Representative Brian Babin, a Texas Republican, wrote in a Facebook post.
The ICE release mirrored a set of charges against more than a dozen noncitizens announced right before the 2018 midterms, also for allegedly voting two years earlier. “Both sets of indictments came out right before elections,” says Helen Parsonage, an immigration attorney who represents four defendants in the most recent case. “Investigations were apparently commenced in 2017, yet nothing was done with the cases until right before a presidential election. I find the timing of these charges to be highly suspect.”
In several states, Republican government officials have also launched “election integrity” task forces, which critics say spread unfounded fears about participating in the election. After forming such a group in April to investigate voter fraud, Georgia secretary of state Brad Raffensperger on Sept. 8 announced a probe into 1,000 alleged incidents of people voting twice during the state’s 2020 primaries. He offered no evidence and when pressed by reporters acknowledged he did not know whether any of those cases were intentional.
The claim followed a familiar pattern: fling an explosive rumor into the conservative media ecosystem, where it inevitably circulates and feeds a larger narrative even if it is never borne out. In the end, the Georgia inquiry concluded many double voters likely cast in-person ballots because they thought their absentee ballots didn’t count. “It looks like there’s no conspiracy, no massive intent, no impact on election outcome, and yet it’s baked into the psyche of the Georgia public now,” says Cathy Cox, a Democrat who served as the state’s secretary of state from 1999 to 2007.
Meanwhile, back in Pennsylvania, officials continue to watch Republicans across the country cast the Luzerne case as an example of pervasive voter fraud. In an interview with TIME, the state’s attorney general was blunt. “There is a big difference between a clerical issue and a criminal issue, and it turns out this was a clerical issue,” says Josh Shapiro, a Democrat. “The problem here is you have a President who is trying to create a false narrative to suit his political aims.”
–With reporting by Alana Abramson/Washington and Anna Purna Kambhampaty/New York
This appears in the November 02, 2020 issue of TIME.