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How Trump’s ‘Voter Fraud’ Lie Is Disenfranchising Americans

How President Trump’s false claim of voter fraud is being used to disenfranchise Americans.

On an October morning four years ago, eight young staff members at the Indiana Voter Registration Project in Indianapolis were planning their final steps before a closely contested presidential election. In recent weeks they had registered 45,000 new voters, most of whom were Black and Latino, and they were on track to enlist 10,000 more before Election Day. Their work had gone smoothly for the most part, but several canvassers had submitted applications with names that appeared to have been made up or drawn from the phone book, most likely to create the appearance that they were doing more work than they had actually done. That was illegal — submitting a false registration is a felony under Indiana law — and also frustrating. A made-up name was not going to help anyone vote. The staff members stopped using the suspect canvassers, but they couldn’t simply trash the faulty registrations: State law required them to file every application they collected, even if they had false names or serious mistakes. So they carefully identified all the applications with potentially false names, along with several hundred more with incorrect addresses or other simple errors, so that local election clerks would know they might present a problem.

Despite their efforts at transparency, though, Indiana’s secretary of state, Connie Lawson, used these faulty registrations as evidence of wrongdoing. She warned all the state’s county elections clerks that a group of “nefarious actors” who were going “by the name of the Indiana Voter Registration Project” had “forged voter registrations.” It was a gross exaggeration, but the project hired a lawyer to visit local election board offices and assure registrars that they were following the proper procedures. Craig Varoga, a longtime Democratic operative who runs Patriot Majority USA, which funded the Indiana project, told reporters that the fraud claims were false. Lawson was a close ally of Mike Pence, the state’s former governor who was then Donald Trump’s running mate. “We believe she is using government resources,” Varoga said, “to discredit and impugn the entire process.”

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But the staff members did not expect anything like what came that October morning. Around 10:45, five unmarked state police cars and a mobile cybercrimes unit quietly approached their building. A staff member heard a knock on the back door. Within minutes, troopers were rounding up the staff members inside the office, announcing that they had a warrant to search all their computers, cellphones and records. When one staff member, a young Black man, refused to give up his phone, the troopers handcuffed him — for “acting like a hoodlum,” he later said in a sworn affidavit. Within a couple of hours, the police were heading out the door with computers and phones as a television news crew captured the scene.

Pence seized on the investigation in interviews. “Voter fraud, Dana, is real,” he told the CNN correspondent Dana Bash. “We’re dealing with it in the state of Indiana right now. We have literally thousands of instances of fraudulent voter registration.” This claim was a misrepresentation, but it was of a piece with similar claims circulating around the country. The Pennsylvania State Police raided a Democratic firm that it said was suspected of producing fraudulent registrations. Conservative activists released a report titled “Alien Invasion in Virginia,” claiming that more than a thousand “noncitizens” there were poised to vote illegally. A video from Project Veritas’s right-wing video ambush artist James O’Keefe III caught a Democratic operative seemingly discussing a hypothetical “huge, massive voter-fraud scheme” in Wisconsin, as Sean Hannity described it. Some of the claims were simply nonsensical. Roger Stone, Trump’s longtime adviser, tweeted a fictitious document that purported to reveal a Democratic plan to attack American voters with mind-controlling “pulsed ELF electromagnetic emissions” and impose martial law, adding only, “If this is real: OMG!!!”

None of these stories held up under examination: The Pennsylvania authorities never followed the raid with a case; there were no official findings of illegal voting by noncitizens in Virginia; a Wisconsin attorney general’s investigation failed to uncover a “massive voter-fraud scheme.” In Indiana, a judge dismissed charges against a manager at the Indiana Voter Registration Project, and prosecutors dropped the cases against nine of its former canvassers after they agreed to pay fines and confirm as true the charges against them. Two of the former canvassers did plead guilty to making false statements on government forms and received sentences of community service and probation.

But all those headlines about voter fraud — amplified daily on Facebook and Twitter — served a purpose: They laid the groundwork for a legal challenge. The Trump campaign had a team of election lawyers standing by to dispute election results throughout the country, and the Republican National Lawyers Association had readied a self-described “Navy SEAL-type” operation to fight similar cases. In the event of a Republican loss, they would need a story, and fraud was it. The truth appeared to be a secondary concern at best.

Victory did little to change their stance. Shortly after his inauguration, President Trump told a bipartisan group of senators that his narrow loss in New Hampshire was due to voter fraud. Thousands of out-of-state voters apparently voted illegally, he said, after they were bused in to New Hampshire from Massachusetts. After Trump’s rant was leaked to reporters, the ABC anchor George Stephanopoulos asked the senior presidential adviser Stephen Miller if he really believed that to be the case. The practice of busing in illegal, out-of-state voters was “widely known” in New Hampshire, he said. But he declined to provide evidence, adding that “voter fraud is something we’re going to be looking at very seriously.”

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Credit...Wulf Bradley for The New York Times

As the 2020 presidential election nears, it is becoming clear that the Trump administration and the Republican Party are not just looking at but heavily investing in the largely nonexistent problem of voter fraud. A New York Times Magazine investigation, based on a review of thousands of pages of court records and interviews with more than 100 key players — lawyers, activists and current and former government officials — found an extensive effort to gain partisan advantage by aggressively promoting the false claim that voter fraud is a pervasive problem. The effort takes its most prominent form in the president’s own public statements, which relentlessly promote the false notion that voter fraud is rampant.

This story did not originate with Trump. It has its roots in Reconstruction-era efforts to suppress the votes of newly freed slaves and came roaring back to life after the passage of the Voting Rights Act. But it is reaching an apex now, as a president who lost the popular vote in 2016 and is currently trailing in the polls harnesses the reality-warping powers of social media and the resources of at least four federal agencies to undermine faith in an election he could very well lose.

Voter fraud is an adaptable fiction, and the president has tailored it to the moment. Even as the coronavirus pandemic poses a grave obstacle to his re-election, the crisis is providing him an opportunity to do what no other president has done before him: use the full force of the federal government to attack the democratic process, suppress the votes of American citizens and spread grievance and suspicion among his followers. Recently, perhaps predictably, the president has begun to suggest that because of his professed distrust in the election process, he will not agree to a peaceful transition of power.

It is remarkable, but not at all accidental, that a narrative built from minor incidents, gross exaggeration and outright fabrication is now at the center of the effort to re-elect the president. As we approach an election in which the threat of voter fraud is being used as a justification for unprecedented legal and political interventions in our democratic process, it is important to understand what this claim actually represents: It is nothing short of a decades-long disinformation campaign — sloppy, cynical and brazen, but often quite effective — carried out by a consistent cast of characters with a consistent story line. Even the Indiana Voter Registration Project remains in play. “In my own state of Indiana in 2012,” Pence said on Fox News in July, “literally, there was a group of people that were prosecuted for falsifying ballots.” He had the year wrong and the facts wrong. But the Indiana case was nevertheless proof, he said, that “the reality of voter fraud is undeniable.”

The modern era of voter-fraud claims began on a November morning in 2000, inside a drab office building in downtown Miami — home of the Miami-Dade County election supervisor. Al Gore was contesting the results of the Florida presidential vote count, which showed a very small margin in favor of George W. Bush. Up against a court-imposed deadline, the Miami-Dade canvassing board voted to recount 10,750 ballots that had been rejected by its electronic machines, letting the 643,250 others stand, a decision that, at the time, seemed as though it could tip the vote to Gore.

With a Republican protest growing inside and around the building, the election board had moved its counting to a room on the 19th floor, away from the crowd. Stone, who helped guide Trump’s first, short-lived bid for the presidency during the 2000 primaries, has proudly promoted himself as an organizer of the demonstration, which involved several young white male rising stars of the conservative-operative ranks. The group stormed the counting room in a crashing human wave of clenched fists, pleated khakis and button-down shirt collars. Banging on doors and walls, they chanted, “Stop the fraud!”

The effort was obviously in bad faith — reporters called it the Blue Blazer Riot, the Bourgeois Riot and the Brooks Brothers Riot — but the board was sufficiently intimidated. It suspended the count less than a quarter of the way through, when it had shown a net gain of nearly 160 votes for Gore. It would never resume. If the rest of the ballots had broken the same way, Gore would have gained more votes than Bush’s final winning margin in Florida of 537. The success of the Brooks Brothers Riot confirmed that a fraud claim — even an unconvincing one — could help determine a chaotic, contested election.

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Credit...Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times

The incident heralded a new approach to an old technique. Powerful Americans have long deployed the claim of fraud to disenfranchise powerless Americans. White-supremacist poll watchers emerged in the Reconstruction era, along with poll taxes designed to prevent supposed repeat voting and other methods to suppress Black voters. The Voting Rights Act of 1965, the crowning achievement of the civil rights movement, did away with these “tests or devices,” as it called them, but its passage also set in motion a historic realignment of the parties, largely along racial lines. The Republican Party became increasingly white, even as white Americans represented a shrinking portion of the electorate.

After the messy outcome in Florida, the Bush administration quickly moved to embrace the new cause of what his administration called “election integrity.” The Justice Department’s civil rights division, established by the Civil Rights Act of 1957, had long worked to protect Black and Latino citizens from intimidation at the polls. Now, though, it would begin working toward what conservative legal thinkers were calling “colorblind” enforcement, recruiting a new generation of right-leaning lawyers with hard-edged views about voter fraud and the need to protect against it. They included the lawyer J. Christian Adams — who would go on to co-publish the 2016 “Alien Invasion in Virginia” report through his Indianapolis-based Public Interest Legal Foundation, or PILF — and Hans von Spakovsky, a Georgia elections official and PILF board member who was also on the scene as a Bush recount observer in Florida.

The new team made history by bringing a successful Voting Rights Act case on behalf of white citizens in Mississippi, claiming that the Black leadership of a majority Black county had employed illegal voting schemes to dilute the votes of the white minority. When career voting rights lawyers at the department recommended blocking a new voter-identification law in Georgia — on the grounds that the law threatened to disproportionately restrict the voting rights of poorer citizens, who were also disproportionately Black and Hispanic — von Spakovsky and like-minded officials overruled them. (A judge later ruled that the law was discriminatory.)

But the voter-fraud effort was not limited to the civil rights division. When Attorney General John Ashcroft pushed United States attorneys to bring more voter-fraud cases, prosecutors struggled to find deliberate schemes, in many cases sweeping up people who made mistakes on forms or misunderstood eligibility rules. And congressional and inspector-general investigations later unearthed documents revealing that the Bush Justice Department, in consultation with the White House, had abruptly fired multiple United States attorneys after they refused to accede to pressure to hew to partisan political considerations, including, in three instances, declining to bring voter-fraud-related cases.

In October 2008, as another presidential election neared, several F.B.I. field offices began investigating the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, which, among other community services, was then engaged in one of the largest national voter-registration drives in the country. The group, which mostly served poor neighborhoods, many of them nonwhite, had tenuous ties to Barack Obama, who was one of three attorneys who represented it in a 1995 voting rights suit. Like the Indiana authorities in 2016, the F.B.I. was investigating canvassers who provided fraudulent registrations, in this case to ACORN. And like Mike Pence in 2016, John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate, took the opportunity to portray voting rights activists not as the victims of a minor fraud but as the perpetrators of a major one, asserting that ACORN was on the verge of “destroying the fabric of democracy.”

The F.B.I. investigations led to no major federal indictments, but among some conservatives, “ACORN” quickly became the one-word explanation for nefarious forces that propelled a Black man to the presidency. O’Keefe reinforced the narrative when he released videos purporting to show ACORN staff members offering advice to O’Keefe, who presented himself as a pimp seeking advice on how to secure a loan for a brothel, the profits from which he could use to fund a political campaign. The highly edited videos offered no evidence of illegality, but the scandal on top of the investigation ultimately forced ACORN out of existence.

Even as McCain lost the race, the ACORN “scandals” helped usher in the largest curtailment of voting rights since the 1960s. As the reactionary Tea Party wave swept Republicans into statehouses, restrictive new laws took hold across the country, all in the name of combating “fraud.” Many states rolled back early voting, which had been vital to successful “Souls to the Polls” efforts by Black churches. Kansas and other states passed restrictive new voter-ID or “proof of citizenship” laws, whose new burdens fell harder on nonwhite voters, who were statistically less likely than white voters to have the necessary paperwork. Those laws came even faster after 2013, when the Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., a Bush appointee, gutted the most powerful enforcement mechanism of the Voting Rights Act. “Our country has changed,” Roberts concluded in his opinion for the majority, “and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.”

Trump filed his paperwork for the 2020 election on the day he was inaugurated, and within weeks he started an effort that would be central to the campaign: forming his Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. The purpose of the commission, as Trump explained on Twitter, would be to collect evidence of the widespread voter fraud that had robbed him of a popular-vote win and suggest actions that he could take as president to prevent it from happening again.

Pence would be its chairman, but the real work would fall to its vice chairman, Kris Kobach. As the Kansas secretary of state, Kobach had created some of the harsher immigration and election policies enacted during the Obama years, including proof-of-citizenship requirements for voter registration. Kobach had his eyes on higher office, but a shot at the No. 2 spot in Trump’s Homeland Security Department was blocked by its new head, John Kelly. Now he had found a home.

The right staffing would be essential to success. Pence had assigned two senior aides to help Kobach run the commission, Andrew Kossack and Mark Paoletta. Kossack, who would be the commission’s executive director, had been Pence’s revenue commissioner in Indiana and knew his way around bureaucracy. Paoletta, Pence’s chief counsel, was a conservative legal ace who had served with distinction in Republican political and congressional theaters: He helped run the opposition-research effort against Anita Hill during the Senate confirmation hearings of Justice Clarence Thomas; was part of the war room that the McCain campaign set up to defend Sarah Palin in 2008; and led the investigative team of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce during the Enron and Martha Stewart investigations.

They quickly engaged with the two leading proponents of the voter-fraud narrative, the former Bush Justice Department lawyers Adams and von Spakovsky, who would advise on research and personnel. The commission needed commissioners, of course, and the team initially picked three conservative veterans of the partisan voting wars. The first was Lawson, the Indiana secretary of state. The second was Christy McCormick, a Bush-era Justice Department lawyer who was then a Republican member of the Election Assistance Commission, the federal agency responsible for distributing federal election money to states and setting national guidelines on security and registration standards. She had made her bones with Trump by publicly questioning the intelligence reports on Russian election interference while speaking out against the Obama administration’s post-election steps to secure the national voting infrastructure. Rounding out the initial three Republican board members was Ken Blackwell, a former Ohio secretary of state whose partisan approach to voting rules during the 2004 presidential election was widely credited with delivering the state to George W. Bush.

To satisfy a tradition of balanced presidential commissions, they would also need some Democrats. For von Spakovsky, this was a concern from the start. “There isn’t a single Democratic official that will do anything other than obstruct any investigation of voter fraud,” he warned in an email. But the commission leaders found two safe-seeming bets: Bill Gardner, who as New Hampshire’s secretary of state had supported stricter voter-ID laws, and Matthew Dunlap, who as Maine’s secretary of state had bonded with Kobach at national conventions. “We’d sit at dinner, and we’d talk about various loads of the thirty-aught-six — which is best for elk, which is best for moose,” Dunlap told me this summer.

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Credit...Wulf Bradley for The New York Times

Over time, Dunlap came to believe that either he was being used as a figurehead or the commission wasn’t doing anything, because he heard little else after he was named. But behind the scenes, von Spakovsky, Adams, Kobach and the vice president’s aides were in regular contact and were soon planning a public meeting to showcase the latest research on voter fraud. All the commissioners would be present at the meeting, which was set to take place in New Hampshire that September.

Among the findings was a report from the Government Accountability Institute — a conservative think tank founded by Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s former campaign chief, and the conservative writer and political consultant Peter Schweizer. Much of the funding for the institute came from Robert and Rebekah Mercer, the billionaire political activists who had also backed Bannon’s website, Breitbart News. Schweizer introduced Paoletta to the report’s author, and Paoletta helped arrange his testimony, internal commission emails showed. (Schweizer and Paoletta had other common concerns. It was Schweizer who would go on to write a book raising questions about Joe Biden’s son Hunter and his actions in Ukraine; it was Paoletta who would help devise the Trump administration’s legal rationale for withholding congressionally approved aid from Ukraine as Trump pressured its new government to investigate the Bidens. Through a spokeswoman, Paoletta said he had not maintained contact with Schweizer after his work on the commission.)

A central claim of the report was that some 8,500 people voted twice in 2016. The evidence was shaky, though — one prominent political scientist, Paul Gronke of Reed College, called the research “sloppy and misinformed.” But days before the meeting, Pence’s office came across information that could make for a blockbuster announcement, giving Trump exactly what he was looking for: An analysis of voter rolls by the New Hampshire secretary of state’s office found that 6,540 people who had registered to vote on the day of the 2016 election had presented out-of-state driver’s licenses, yet only 1,014 of them had switched their licenses over to New Hampshire in the months since. Kossack alerted Kobach and Paoletta in an email, suggesting that the rest appeared to be out-of-state residents who could have swung the election. Hours later, Kobach published a column on Breitbart’s website, declaring that, in all likelihood, the New Hampshire election “was stolen through voter fraud.”

When Gardner, New Hampshire’s secretary of state, heard Kobach’s description of the findings at the meeting, though, he immediately objected. The discrepancy could be explained by the simple fact that residents of other states are allowed to vote in New Hampshire if they are effectively living there, as thousands of out-of-state college students most certainly were. When Kobach asserted that perhaps the legitimacy of the election would never be known, Dunlap was incredulous. “Making this equation that somehow people not updating their driver’s license is an indicator of voter fraud would be almost as absurd as saying that if you have cash in your wallet, that’s proof that you robbed a bank,” he said, drawing laughter from the audience.

From that point on, Dunlap said, he was shut out. The commission had come to view him as “a saboteur,” as Adams put it to me, and Dunlap came to see Kobach and his cohort as “voter-fraud vampire hunters” who treated any rare example of actual fraud, no matter how accidental or inconsequential, as proof of its ubiquity. Stonewalled by the committee, Dunlap decided that he would need to take more extreme steps. That November, with the help of the nonpartisan watchdog group American Oversight, he sued his own commission, demanding that it share its records and stop excluding him from commission business. He would ultimately obtain 8,000 pages of pages of emails and plans and post them publicly on his Maine secretary of state website.

The documents showed that there was a much larger project in the works. In several meetings, Kobach, von Spakovsky, Adams, McCormick and the vice president’s office had discussed the creation of a gargantuan database of government-held information to search national voter rolls and find irregularities. Such list matching, as the practice is known, is the means by which states regularly analyze their voting rolls to ensure that they do not contain dead people or people who have moved out of state. But when data matching is done poorly, it can be a prolific source of false claims about supposedly invalid voters and can cause wrongful cancellations of large numbers of legitimately registered citizens. In the wrong hands, there could be no more powerful engine of voter suppression.

Kobach had built out a prototype for such a database as Kansas secretary of state. His Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck system matched first and last names and birthdays of registered voters across nearly 30 states. But it had serious flaws. One study showed that Kobach’s program would cause 300 wrongful terminations for every double registration it might prevent; another study found that nonwhite voters — who are more likely to share the same names than white voters are — were far more likely to be flagged in its data. The entire program was ultimately suspended because of litigation.

Now the commission was planning a sprawling federal version of Kobach’s Crosscheck system. Its Republican members wanted access to government data from the Department of Education, the Internal Revenue Service, the Department of Homeland Security, Citizenship and Immigration Services, public-assistance services and the federal court system, as well as from all 50 states. All of it would feed into what was to be the mother of all voter-fraud reports. The premium data it was seeking to use could have helped lead to more accurate voting rolls, with hundreds of data scientists and a long period of study, Charles Stewart III, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who provides expert analysis for voting rights cases, told me. But with the resources the commission had and the time frame on which it was working, he said, the final product promised to be “a total dumpster fire” of sensational charges based on flawed data matching. (A spokeswoman for Kobach said the commission would have handled voter data responsibly and that any match would have been “a starting point for additional investigation.”)

The Dunlap documents revealed a project with high hopes. Before any of this data had even arrived, the commission’s staff prepared a draft version of a report with a section titled: “Evidence of Election Integrity and Voter Fraud Issues.” There were subcategories labeled, with anticipation, “False registrations (deceased individuals, fictitious identities, etc.)” and “Noncitizen registration.” Blank spaces were left to be filled in later. The draft report also called for unspecified changes to be made to the Help America Vote and National Voter Registration Acts, the two most important federal laws since the Voting Rights Act, devised to further expand access to voting and enhance security measures. And it proposed unspecified new methods for “investigating and prosecuting election crimes.”

By January 2018, with Dunlap winning early decisions and with lawsuits over state data requests progressing, Trump made an abrupt announcement. “Rather than engage in endless legal battles at taxpayer expense,” he said, he would be shutting down the committee. But the larger project would live on elsewhere. The president had asked a different agency — the Department of Homeland Security — “to review these issues and determine next courses of action.”

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Credit...Colby Deal/Magnum, for The New York Times

Voter registration may have seemed like an odd fit for the Department of Homeland Security, but within days, the Kobach commission’s work had found an enthusiastic reception in the department’s border, immigration and trade policy office. The office had a hand in developing many of the nativist policies promoted by Trump’s lead immigration adviser, Stephen Miller: the president’s “big, beautiful wall,” family separation, “extreme vetting.” Now it would help lead the department onto new terrain.

The focus, according to emails produced in a public-records lawsuit filed by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University with a legal group called Protect Democracy, would be on blocking another perceived threat from Latinos. Among those who picked up the remit, emails show, was a policy analyst named Ian M. Smith. In a column for The Daily Caller, Smith had described Hispanic immigration as a threat to “America’s historic character.” He had also been, according to a copy of his résumé obtained by American Oversight, an intern for Hans von Spakovsky at the Heritage Foundation, where he “drafted reports and memoranda on voting and election law.”

In a January email, Smith revealed that his team was working on ideas for a national voter-identification requirement as part of the project. At first glance, such a requirement might seem reasonable enough, but voter-ID requirements can be tailored to create disproportionate burdens on historically disenfranchised groups. A 2018 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute and The Atlantic found that Black and Hispanic people were three times as likely as white people to say that they had been told at polling stations that they lacked the proper identification. Even when Black citizens do have government-issued ID, states may deliberately reject it. In one version of its voter-ID law that was struck down in the courts in 2019, North Carolina had excluded from its list some forms of ID held disproportionately by Black residents, including all but a small number of government-employee cards.

Dunlap told me that, from the emails, Smith appeared to be working on the same “harebrained” proposal that had come up while he was on the commission, one that would require all voters to present “Real ID” cards in order to cast a ballot. Real ID cards, a Homeland Security Department innovation dating to 2005, will be required for entry at federal facilities and to board commercial flights starting late next year. In order to obtain one, people must present an array of documents proving their citizenship. Requiring such a test in order to vote, Dunlap said, “would be a game changer.”

Smith, whose involvement in the voting project has not been previously reported, would not last long enough at the department to see it through. The department forced him to resign later that year, after The Atlantic obtained several emails revealing his friendly interactions with prominent white nationalists and neo-Nazis and his acceptance of an invitation to a “Judenfrei” (Jewish-free) dinner. (Smith declined to comment in detail about his resignation or his work on the project.)

The department emails also give a hint of an even more ambitious plan to expand Kobach’s crosschecking. Several exchanges involved questions about the department’s position on providing state election officials with access to its Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements, or SAVE, database, which tracks the status of immigrants. After Florida sued for access to the database in 2012, the Obama administration agreed to share the data with states on a limited basis. Now Republican state officials were clamoring for more extensive access to identify undocumented immigrants who were supposedly illegally registered on voter rolls. Its potential utility had been mentioned in internal communications of the Kobach commission. Heavily redacted emails from January and February 2018 appear to show Department of Homeland Security officials discussing whether the department had legal clearance to grant it. A message from an official with its civil rights division urged safeguards for those “who could be disenfranchised based on erroneous determinations.”

Adams, for his part, was about to discover the consequences of bad data. In April 2018, the League of United Latin American Citizens filed suit against Adams’s group on behalf of several Virginians who accused PILF of defaming them in its 2016 “Alien Invasion in Virginia” report or its 2017 sequel, “Alien Invasion II.” PILF and a related group called the Virginia Voters Alliance had identified them as being among thousands of “noncitizens” who had registered to vote in Virginia and, in many cases, did vote, committing “felonies upon felonies.” The plaintiffs, however, were American citizens.

The reports were based in part on lists of people that local election officials had removed from voting rolls because they had indicated on driver’s-license renewal forms or other state records that they were not citizens. Emails released in the discovery process show that one election official had warned PILF that such lists could be unreliable: Actual citizens appeared to sometimes answer questions about their citizenship on renewal and application forms incorrectly. In another email, an associate said that he had found some specific cases in which a supposed noncitizen did seem to be a citizen.

But Adams and others on the project weren’t concerned. In one email, the PILF spokesman Logan Churchwell wrote that even if the lists turned out to be inaccurate, it would create even more questions about how Virginia was handling its voter rolls. “We still have the opportunity to convert pushback into official confusion to justify our call for top-down overhaul,” Churchwell wrote to Adams. “The fog of war favors the aggressor here.” Discussing the second report on Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News in 2017, Adams said, “This is the real foreign influence in American elections.” In a settlement in July of last year, PILF agreed to apologize and strike exhibits featuring the names of people who were in fact citizens and did not commit felonies.

In late August, Adams told me that PILF deserved credit for showing that Virginia was removing voters from rolls based on flawed conclusions about their citizenship. In Adams’s view, liberal bias was causing reporters to overlook serious problems in state registration lists that groups like his were identifying. “This is all in earnest,” he said. “We’re not doing this because we’re trying to help somebody win an election. The stuff we’re finding ought to concern everybody.”

Yet the sensationalistic particulars of voter fraud that were thriving online and on Fox News were withering in the evidentiary fluorescence of the courts. In Kansas, a federal judge struck down Kobach’s proof-of-citizenship law, ruling that “the magnitude of potentially disenfranchised voters” could not be “justified by the scant evidence of noncitizen voter fraud.” (She also questioned the value of one of his expert witnesses, von Spakovsky, citing his “misleading evidence” that was “largely based on his preconceived beliefs about this issue.”) A federal judge decided against the plaintiffs in a suit that Adams helped bring to compel Broward County to winnow its rolls more aggressively, saying the argument relied in part on a “misleading” analysis.

The 2018 midterm elections did see one bona fide large-scale ballot-fraud effort. A political operative in North Carolina ran a complicated scheme in which he requested hundreds of ballots on behalf of unwitting voters and then intercepted them and filled them out for the candidate he was working for: the Republican congressional candidate Mark Harris. Election officials spotted the suspicious activity shortly after the vote, refused to certify the results and conducted a new election. Trump never posted on Twitter about this rare actual instance of fraud.

The North Carolina case had nothing to do with “ghost voters” or “double voters” or undocumented immigrant voters. Yet the hunt to rid voting rolls of these supposed specters was increasingly becoming the primary focus of conservative efforts. Between Georgia, Ohio and Texas alone, at least 160,000 people had been wrongfully blocked, scheduled for removal or removed from voter-registration lists in 2018 and 2019. Those marked for ejection were disproportionately Black and Latino. The states said these were simple mistakes. But Nina Perales of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which in 2019 sued to stop a Texas purge of purported noncitizens that ensnared 98,000 voters, saw something else at play: “They’re trying to freeze the electorate in place,” she told me, “by preventing new folks from getting on the voting rolls.”

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Credit...Zerb Mellish for The New York Times

The coronavirus introduced a menacing new element of disruption to the coming presidential election. This April, as shutdowns and fear of exposure meant that voting by mail would be used by more Americans than ever before, David C. Williams quietly stepped down from his seat on the board of governors of the United States Postal Service, where he had served for nearly two years after having spent the previous 13 years as the service’s well-regarded inspector general. A week later, the board announced its selection of a new postmaster general, Louis DeJoy.

The appointment was curiously timed. DeJoy’s predecessor, Megan Brennan, an Obama holdover who worked her way up from the letter-carrier ranks, had announced her resignation in October. The board had been using two separate search firms in its methodical approach to choosing her successor. DeJoy, the longtime chief executive of a major logistics company that held several Postal Service contracts, was not on either firm’s list. He did not go through the normal vetting process, Williams would later assert, citing that irregularity as one reason for his resignation, as well as his personal reservations about DeJoy’s qualifications. Yet DeJoy had a clear conflict of interest: He still held a major stake in the firm that had bought his company and employed him for several years, which itself still had Postal Service contracts and stood to gain from a privatization plan that Trump was promoting. (In a statement, the Postal Service said that the Postal Inspection Service conducted a background check of DeJoy after he was offered the position but before he started and that DeJoy has recused himself from all decisions involving his old firm.)

DeJoy’s recommendation originated with the chairman, Robert M. Duncan. Duncan and DeJoy hailed from the same world of high-dollar Republicanism, and a Postal Service spokesman said they knew each other socially. Duncan is on the board of the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC linked to Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader; as the Republican National Committee chairman in 2008, he echoed the McCain campaign, warning that Democrats would benefit from “voters that do not exist.” DeJoy was a longtime Republican fund-raiser who had given lavishly to Republicans in recent years. An invitation for a big-donor event he held for Trump at his home had lamented “the extreme and unreasonable challenges” Trump faced, including from “federal employees,” The News & Observer of Raleigh had reported. The raw commingling of political interests was unusual for the Postal Service. But the service was entering unusually political territory.

Just a few weeks earlier, an election for the Wisconsin Supreme Court revealed the newly pivotal role that mail-in voting would play in American elections during a pandemic. The winner of the race would have influence over a suit to force a planned purge of 200,000 from voter rolls, which had been paused because of concerns about data errors.

With Covid-19 cases surging, Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, issued strict stay-at-home orders. By then, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had released urgent guidance directing election officials to move toward “voting methods that minimize direct contact with other people and reduce crowd size at polling stations.” The first of its specific recommendations: “Encourage mail-in methods of voting if allowed in the jurisdiction.”

Democrats quickly sued to suspend the state’s strict requirements that mail-in votes arrive by 8 p.m. on Election Day. They won an initial six-day extension for mail ballots, but in response to a late Republican appeal, the Supreme Court ruled on the election’s eve that no ballot would be counted that didn’t have a postmark from Election Day or earlier. In a smaller victory for Democrats, it let stand the order to extend the counting period.

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Credit...Lyndon French for The New York Times

Local data compiled over the following weeks showed that in several towns, the conservative incumbent won the in-person vote but the liberal challenger prevailed in the mail. Democratic officials said that at least 92,000 people who asked for ballots didn’t receive them in time to mail them back by Election Day. According to the Wisconsin Elections Commission, some 5,500 voters sent ballots that were postmarked after Election Day — too late to be counted under the Supreme Court’s new terms. At the same time, the extended counting deadline appeared to have saved nearly 80,000 people whose ballots had arrived after Election Day from disenfranchisement.

Here was a test that made one thing clear: For mail voting to work, time was an important X factor. Voters needed time to obtain and send ballots, the Postal Service needed time to deliver them and election officials needed time to count them. And more of them were likely to be Democrats. There were variables that Trump could control, in no small part through the Post Office.

With that realization, questions about DeJoy’s hiring began to take on added urgency, and Senator Chuck Schumer drafted a letter to Duncan, requesting a full and extensive accounting of DeJoy’s selection and any possible hand the White House might have had in it. He promptly received a letter from the Postal Service’s board secretary, Michael Elston, denying his request for information. (A White House official, who would speak only on the condition of anonymity, said the president was not directing internal decisions at the Postal Service.)

As it happened, Schumer had bumped up against Elston before, when Schumer helped lead the investigation into the Bush administration’s politically motivated firings of the United States attorneys. Elston was a senior Justice Department political appointee at the time and resigned under pressure. A later internal investigation determined that he had consulted on the firing plans and was “close to the line” of intimidation in his apparent efforts to keep the fired attorneys from speaking out. One witness in another investigation, this one in the Senate, also connected him to a questionably timed voter-fraud case against four workers for ACORN during the 2006 midterm elections. During the Trump era, Elston was elevated to board secretary, which meant he helped handle the logistics of DeJoy’s nomination. (After DeJoy’s nomination, Duncan assigned Elston to the postmaster general’s office to serve as an adviser, a Postal Service spokesman said, adding that he would have no role in mail operations.) About a week after DeJoy’s appointment, the Postal Service announced that another senior official was resigning, the deputy postmaster general, Ronald Stroman. Adams tweeted, “Good news from the #swamp: Ronald Stroman — deputy postmaster general who was working at cross purposes with @realDonaldTrump on #VoteByMail got booted, the hard way.”

Stroman told me that he wasn’t pushed out. “My leaving had more to do with the independence of the Postal Service,” he said. He said he had also developed a more fundamental disagreement with the Trump administration’s approach to the department over all, which included a proposed privatization scheme. Before he left, Stroman had been implementing a yearslong plan to improve the mail balloting system. As the coronavirus began its rapid spread, he came to realize that his plan was “nowhere near sufficient, given the volume we’re going to see, and you have states that just do not have the infrastructure or history of dealing with significant numbers of absentee ballots.” He was confident that they could get up to speed for November, but the Postal Service was going to have to continue to prioritize the work under its new management, and states were going to need far more resources to build out their vote-by-mail capabilities.

The $2 trillion Cares Act emergency-funding bill passed in March included $400 million for elections. Democrats had proposed federal requirements for states to effectively make mail-in ballots available to all voters for any reason and the extension of early voting, something closer to the $4 billion experts believed was necessary. Republicans, citing their opposition to federal mandates, treated those provisions as nonstarters. In the divisive Trump era, the $400 million was a result of a rare moment of shared purpose, and Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, the senior Democrat on the Rules Committee, which is responsible for the election money, had reason to be optimistic that Republicans would release more money in future relief bills. For one thing, she told me in July, the Rules Committee’s Republican chairman, Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, had said publicly that he would work to get more money to states, and that as a former secretary of state, he understood the need.

Klobuchar had important allies on the Republican side in secretaries of state like Kimberly Wyman of Washington, who oversees one of the nation’s only vote-by-mail election systems. In Wyman’s determination, $400 million was a fair start, but it was woefully insufficient on its own.

“It’s not even knocking on the door of what these states are going to need,” Wyman told me. More money was vital to securing the most important element in achieving a clear-cut election outcome: the speed with which it can be determined. The longer a result remains in doubt, the more time there is to question the legitimacy of the entire election.

States that did not have all-mail elections — all but five — simply didn’t have the equipment necessary to quickly count the number of mail ballots they were going to be receiving. They required more high-speed sorters and envelope splicers and printers.

But as June became July and July became August, there was no sign that Senate Republicans would agree to release more money. A senior Democratic staff member with knowledge of the negotiations lamented to me that Republicans were opposing more financing with claims that fraudsters were going to show up at election offices with “bags of ballots.” The staff member, speaking on condition of anonymity, told me, “They’re starting to churn the Republican misinformation machine — that it lends itself to fraud, and it’s just not true.” It was beginning to dawn on Democrats that even if they did secure more money, it would have to pass through the Office of Management and Budget, which during Paoletta’s tenure had already set a precedent of holding back congressionally approved funds in the Ukraine scandal.

Republicans still had at least one compelling reason to more fully finance mail-in voting — the undeniable public-health imperative to switch to absentee balloting, recommended by the administration’s own top health agency. But quietly, in early summer, the C.D.C. changed its guidance on voting. Its elections web page no longer specifically mentioned mail-in voting as a safer alternative to in-person voting. The changes, which have not been previously reported, addressed mail ballots only in a brief section about possible dangers associated with them, suggesting that workers allow mail to sit for a few hours before handling it “to further reduce risk” and to carefully disinfect all machinery that comes into contact with it. Its final point: “Mail-in voting can make it more difficult for voters with disabilities to exercise their right to vote.” This was misleading. Mail voting is the primary means of voting for many people with disabilities. At that point, though, the White House was already moving to take over all government communications about the coronavirus.

Then came news that the new leadership at the Postal Service was cutting back on overtime and ending delivery shifts as scheduled, rather than when all the daily mail was delivered, leading to delays throughout the system. Union officials reported that sorting machines were being removed from post offices at unusual rates. Now the central mechanism of the vote-by-mail system was being badly hobbled — by executive action and congressional inaction. (A Postal Service spokesman said the cutbacks