6 conspiracy theories about the 2020 election – debunked

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Watch the new CBSN documentary, “Hindsight is 2020: An Unprecedented Election,” in the video player above. It premieres on CBSN Sunday, January 17, at 8 p.m., 11 p.m. and 2 a.m. ET.


On the day Congress officially counted the electoral votes making Joe Biden the next president, chants of “Stop the Steal” echoed through the U.S. Capitol. The deadly assault followed months of President Trump’s insistence that Mr. Biden’s win could only be explained by rampant fraud, and he encouraged his supporters to demand a different result. 

But none of the claims of widespread fraud or election theft hold up under scrutiny. Election officials around the country and the Trump administration’s own attorney general and cybersecurity experts verified the election was the “most secure in American history.” All of the lawsuits claiming otherwise were rejected by state and federal courts.

Here is a look at some of the most common conspiracy claims that were used to try to undermine the election results, and what experts have to say about their validity. 

No, Dominion voting machines did not change or delete votes for Trump

For QAnon and Trump supporters Harry Formanek and Traci Specht, this was one of the most damning fraud allegations. They believe that Dominion voting machines used in some states were somehow programmed to either flip votes to favor Mr. Biden or delete votes for Mr. Trump — a story spread by Mr. Trump and his lawyers.

“What happened was there was 6,000 total votes that flipped, that were Trump’s votes that flipped to Biden that they discovered,” Formanek said, repeating a misconception about the vote count in Michigan. “And they said, ‘oh, it’s a glitch,’ but then they saw in other states this same anomaly happened. And it always happened against Trump.”

Formanek appeared to be referring to Antrim County, Michigan, where an unofficial preliminary tally on election night showed Biden had won the county, which was not accurate. Election officials said it was the result of human error that was quickly discovered and corrected

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson explained in a statement on November 6 that an election worker had made “an honest mistake” and failed to update the software to properly combine the electronic totals, “even though the tabulators counted all the ballots correctly.” 

“Election clerks work extremely hard and do their work with integrity. They are human beings, and sometimes make mistakes. However, there are many checks and balances that ensure mistakes can be caught and corrected,” Benson said, including a bipartisan commission that canvasses the results. The official results show Mr. Trump won Antrim County with 9,748 votes to Mr. Biden’s 5,960. 

Nevertheless, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany and others claimed a “computer glitch” counted Republican ballots as Democrat. 

Similar claims were leveled at Georgia, even though it conducted three recounts — including a hand-recount of paper ballots — to confirm final results showing that Mr. Biden won the state by 11,779 votes

Another location targeted by these claims was Maricopa County, Arizona. 

The county elections department conducted a post-election accuracy test to verify the results and ensure no changes were made to any software throughout the election. With the secretary of state and representatives from Republican, Democratic and Independent parties present, the county announced on November 18 that the results were 100% accurate and nothing had been manipulated. 

Specht also claimed the Dominion voting machine manual tells workers how to change the vote. She said she obtained this information from Ron Watkins, whose internet message board 8kun disseminates QAnon posts and who was an “expert witness” in Sidney Powell’s failed Georgia election lawsuit because he read the Dominion manual. 

“It says right on there how you can open the back of the machine up, and you can change it up, and do all kinds of things,” Specht said. “So, that in and of itself, just that right there is very concerning and alarming.” 

“That’s not happening,” Georgia’s top election operations official, Gabriel Sterling, a Republican, said at a briefing earlier this month. “No one is changing parts of pieces out of Dominion voting machines. That’s — I don’t even know what that means, it’s not a real thing.”

In the lawsuit, which was dismissed by a Republican-appointed federal judge, Watkins claimed Dominion machines may reject ballots that have stray marks or even some with bubbles correctly filled in next to candidates names. Those ballots would then be reviewed by election workers. This, Watkins said without proof, allows workers to manipulate the results.

To get a better understanding of these claims, CBS News spoke with Deen Freelon, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina’s School of Media and Journalism, who studies disinformation, hyper-partisan communication and conspiracy theories. 

This claim, Freelon said, is probably the “wildest” and “largest category” of electoral disinformation in 2020. 

He pointed out that Dominion systems have been used for years and were used not only in swing states, but also in states that heavily leaned in favor of Mr. Trump. He also pointed out that those who believe this claim only used it to cast doubt on the presidential race — and not the Senate and House races that were decided on the same ballots.

“The story really just does not add up at all when you really look at its particulars,” he said. “Folks are just relying on the idea that they can just advance this claim without any evidence and folks will accept it.” 

Dominion says it provides voting systems in 28 U.S. states and has supported “tens of thousands of elections.” It says all of its machines have undergone “certification and logic accuracy testing before the election,” publicly and with the oversight of bipartisan election inspectors. The company also says all votes counted by the system can be easily checked with hand audits. 

The company has filed a defamation suit against Sidney Powell.

No, Sharpie markers did not invalidate Trump votes in Arizona

This claim was quickly debunked by state election officials. 

“Sharpie markers are recommended by the manufacturer of Maricopa County’s vote tabulation machines as the preferred way to mark ballots for use in those machines,” Maricopa County said. “Ink from ballpoint pens can cause smudges in the machines and foul them, while Sharpie markets do not. … Even if bleed through should occur, there is no impact on any race.” 

Maricopa County was sued for this alleged interference, but on December 9, a judge ruled that the plaintiffs failed to provide any factual support for their “extraordinary claims.” 

Dominion has also said that its voting machines have no problem with felt-tip markers. 

“It really just seems to me to be a situation where it’s any port in the storm,” Freelon said of the claim, “where people are grabbing onto any possibility that there may have been malfeasance that resulted in Trump losing a particular state.”

Freelon also noted that this claim, as with many of the others, would have impacted Biden voters, too, if it were true. 

“All of the ballots that used Sharpies were counted, as they should’ve been,” he said. “There’s no evidence that Trump voters are disproportionate Sharpie users any more so than Biden voters. So, I’m not really sure exactly where they were going with that one.” 

No, mail-in voting is not rife with fraud

As the coronavirus pandemic surged in the months leading up to the election, many voters favored voting by mail to avoid crowded polling sites on Election Day. Amid that surge, conspiracy theories about the safety of mail-in voting started to circulate, largely at the hands of Mr. Trump.

In the months leading up to the election, he continuously insisted that mail-in ballots could be tampered with or enable people to vote multiple times.

But the system has a long and successful history. “People in this country have voted by mail since the Civil War,” said Debra Cleaver, founder and CEO of VoteAmerica. She explained to CBS News some of the safeguards mail-in ballots have in place. 

“There is a lot of security built into the ballots themselves,” Cleaver said. “The outgoing ballots have a barcode, and then when you send your ballot in, you put it in a return envelope and that barcode has to match the barcode that was sent out in order for the ballot to be counted.” 

Many election offices have ballot tracking websites that allow voters to track the location of their mail-in ballot and confirm when it is counted.

There have been a few cases in the 2020 election in which counties sent voters ballots with the wrong or missing information. However, those counties rectified the situation and sent correct replacements.

“Widespread voter fraud is a myth,” Cleaver said. “You are more likely to be struck by lightning twice than you are to commit voter fraud.”

Christopher Krebs, the former director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), has said that voting by mail is a “resilient and secure” system because it generates paper trails that can be audited. 

Freelon agreed, telling CBS News there is “no evidence” that mail-in voting is more subject to fraud than in-person voting. A tampering effort of such magnitude, he said, would have “some kind of smoking gun.” 

“If you consider the degree of coordination that would be required to shift the vote in one direction or another via mail-in voting in any given state, it’s massive,” Freelon said, “and it’s not something that you could cover up with no evidence.” 

No, people were not throwing out bags of ballots or “finding” suitcases full of ballots

A number of videos went viral after the 2020 election purporting to show fraudulent handing of ballots, but they were misleading. 

In one video, an election worker in Georgia was seen throwing away a piece of paper. Social media posts accused him of throwing away a ballot when he was actually tossing a list of instructions, as proven by the Fulton County Elections Supervisor Richard Barron.

Another video showed a man in Detroit taking a box from a white van and moving it into a polling center. While many speculated the box had ballots that were going to be counted after polls had closed, it turned out the man seen in the video was a cameraman from a local news station who was loading equipment. 

In Washington state, radio station KOMO reported that two trash bags filled with mail, including several unopened ballots, had been found along a road in October. Those ballots, according to officials, were returned to the post office and re-sent to recipients. 

Yet another viral video misrepresented a shot of Georgia election workers pulling a case of ballots out from under a table. It wasn’t fraud or fake ballots — it was a routine part of the legitimate vote-counting process, which was entirely video-recorded for security, explained state voting official Gabriel Sterling.

“And this is what’s really frustrating. The president’s legal team had the entire tape, they watched the entire tape, and from our point of view intentionally misled the Senate, the voters and the people of the United States about this,” Sterling said.  

As for the claim that votes for Mr. Trump were burned or discarded, Freelon said it’s “a lot easier said than proved” and there is “simply nothing behind it.” 

No, poll watchers were not blocked from observing 

Another common complaint alleged that poll watchers were not permitted to conduct their observation, which allowed some votes to be manipulated. Mr. Trump’s attorneys argued some aspects of this claim in court, and it was found to be untrue. 

In Philadelphia, for example, Mr. Trump’s attorneys argued that poll observers were being kept too far away from the vote counting process. Courts ruled that they were allowed to get within 6 feet.

Along with having Democratic, Republican and Independent observers on site, many election sites also live-streamed their counting process so that voters could see what was happening from home. 

Though claims surfaced that poll workers were allegedly changing ballots and that vote-counting sites were banning people from entering, Freelon explained these claims are false, and in many instances resulted from a misunderstanding of the typical counting processes. 

For example, only a certain number of certified poll watchers are legally allowed in the rooms where vote counting is taking place. The specific rules and guidelines are different in every state, but those regulations are available online. These observers do not count the votes themselves; rather, they monitor the process to make sure that all votes are counted, that eligible voters are able to fill out their ballots, and that any suspicious activity is reported. 

“These kinds of claims trade on people’s lack of familiarity with the vote counting process,” he said. “Things that are perfectly normal and happen in every election may look like, to the uninitiated viewer, as something irregular or problematic.” 

No, there were not thousands of votes by dead people or people voting multiple times

Another popular claim is that people were able to vote multiple times in the election, and that lots fraudulent ballots were cast in the names of dead people. Mr. Trump even urged his supporters to attempt voting twice. 

Formaneck told CBS News he knows of people “that said they received four or five ballots in the mail.”

But Freelon said there is “very, very little evidence of this” and that it is an old claim that resurfaces in every election. 

Voting multiple times is a federal offense, and those found guilty could face imprisonment for up to five years, a fine of up to $10,000, or both. 

The conservative Heritage Foundation has reported that there were 15 convictions for voter fraud in the entire country last year, for activities in previous elections. Just one person was convicted of attempting to vote multiple times in the 2016 general election. 

There were some reports of people voting twice in the 2020 election, but election officials say they have safeguards in place to ensure that multiple votes by a single person are not counted in the final tally. In North Carolina, for example, the Elections Board said it automatically audits after every election and if there are multiple votes by the same registered voter, they are pulled out of the count. 

Kira Lerne, managing editor of VoteBeat, told CBS News that “most states have signature-matching requirements for absentee ballots, meaning that the signature on your mail-in ballot has to match the signature that you used to register to vote, or the signature that the county has on file for you otherwise.” This signature and identification-based system prevents cases involving multiple or fraudulent votes.

Cases in which ballots were cast in the names of dead people have been known to happen, Freelon said, but they are few and far between. Sometimes, according to FactCheck.org, the person in question died in between the time they sent in their vote and the time of the election. Georgia’s Gabriel Sterling says the state has identified two possible instances in 2020 — nothing close to the “thousands” claimed by President Trump.

CBS Philly reports one man in Pennsylvania was charged in December with illegally registering and voting for his deceased mother. He cast her ballot for Donald Trump.

Freelon said the real question about such cases is whether those votes were counted, and if they were, was it enough to shift the result of the election. 

“Even if we do allow for the possibility that a few of these did squeak by, if there were some errors or even some malfeasance on the part of somebody, the idea that there would be anywhere near as many as necessary to shift the election relies on, one, a massive conspiracy of doing this in which many, many people would be involved, and secondly, the idea that all of these votes would need to be on one side.” 

Nationwide, voter turnout set a record in 2020 with more than 155 million Americans voting for president  — 81.2 million of them for Joe Biden and 74.2 million for Donald Trump. 

Attorney General William Barr authorized U.S. attorneys across the country to pursue any “substantial allegations” of voting irregularities, but he said they found no evidence of fraud that would have affected the outcome.





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