Late last week, Students for Trump founder Ryan Fournier declared on social media that he had unearthed definitive proof of widespread voter fraud in Detroit. He pointed to an absentee ballot cast by “118-year-old William Bradley”, a man who had supposedly died in 1984.
“They’re trying to steal the election,” Fournier warned in a since-deleted Facebook post, though the election had already been called for Joe Biden by every major news network days before.
But the deceased Bradley hadn’t voted. Within days, Bradley’s son, also named William Bradley, but with a different middle name, told PolitiFact that he had cast the ballot. That was confirmed by Michigan election officials, who said a clerk had entered the wrong Bradley as having voted. Though the living Bradley had also received an absentee ballot for his father, he said he threw it away, “because I didn’t want to get it confused with mine”.
The false claim that the deceased Bradley had voted in the 3 November election is one of a barrage of voter fraud conspiracy theories fired off by Trump supporters across the country during recent weeks, and all have been debunked while failing to prove that widespread irregularities exist.
Instead, the theories often reveal Trump supporters’ fundamental misunderstandings of the election system while creating a game of conspiracy theory whack-a-mole for election officials.
“We are confident Michigan’s election was fair, secure and transparent, and the results are an accurate reflection of the will of the people,” secretary of state spokesperson Tracy Wimmer told the Guardian.
Bradley was only one of dozens of allegedly dead Michigan voters who were found to be alive. Trump supporters pointed to Napoleon Township’s Jane Aiken, who they claimed was born in 1900, and cited an obituary as evidence that she was deceased. But the township’s deputy police chief investigated and found the obituary to be for a different Jane Aiken.
Police told Bridge Magazine that the Aiken who cast the ballot is “94 years old, alive and well. Quite well, actually.”
Meanwhile, CNN examined records for 50 Michiganders who Trump supporters claim are dead voters. They found 37 were dead and had not voted. Five are alive and had voted, and the remaining eight are also alive but didn’t vote.
The Michigan secretary of state cited several reasons for confusion. Though election officials across the country purge dead people from voter rolls annually, some are missed and remain as registered voters. Occasionally a worker will accidentally enter a vote by a living person as being cast by a dead person with a similar name.
The voting software in Michigan also requires a birthday for each voter. If a clerk doesn’t have it, then 1/1/1901 is used as a placeholder until the clerk can find the accurate birthday. Rightwing conspiracy theorists pointed to multiple examples of residents with that birthday voting.
Among them was Donna Brydges, a 75-year-old Hamlin Township resident. In a phone call with the Associated Press this week, she confirmed she’s alive and passed the phone to her husband so he could do the same. He added: “She’s actually beat me in a game of cribbage.”
Michigan election officials, “are not aware of a single confirmed case showing that a ballot was actually cast on behalf of a deceased individual,” the secretary of state wrote on its website.
Similarly, in Pennsylvania, Trump supporters like Representative Matt Gaetz claimed 21,000 dead people in the state “overwhelmingly swung for Biden”.
In reality, the conservative Public Interest Legal Foundation had filed an 15 October federal lawsuit claiming 21,000 dead people were on the rolls, and asked a judge to order them to be removed before the election. A judge found that more than half of the voters had already been removed, questioned PILF’s intentions and methodology, and didn’t require the state to take action.
The dead voter theory is only one one of the several conspiracies Trump supporters have used to cast doubt on election results.
In Pennsylvania, a postal worker who claimed to have heard a supervisor directing staff to backdate late-arriving ballots recanted his allegation once he was visited by postal service investigators. In Arizona and Michigan, Trump supporters filed a lawsuit claiming that votes were tossed out because they had used Sharpie markers to fill out their ballot, but quickly dropped it.
Several viral videos also purported to reveal suspicious activity. In Detroit, Trump supporters claimed a video showed someone bringing late-arriving mail in ballots into a vote-counting center. In reality, it was a WXYZ Detroit cameraman wheeling his equipment in a wagon. Meanwhile, a video that Eric Trump claimed showed 80 Trump ballots being set on fire was proven to be false – the ballots were sample ballots.
The Trump campaign also claimed that recent federal lawsuits would prove widespread voter fraud with hundreds of pages of testimony from poll watchers and ballot challengers in Michigan. Almost all of them have failed in court so far.
Though Trump and his supporters have claimed thousands of dead people voted in Michigan, only one allegation was included in the lawsuits. Warren, Michigan resident Anita Chase wrote in an affidavit that her deceased son, Mark D Chase, who had died in July 2016, was marked in the secretary of state’s online voter tool as having voted in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections.
But the secretary of state said Anita Chase had identified one of two other Mark D Chases registered to vote in Michigan – a ballot had not been cast in her son’s name. In their response to the affidavits, Detroit election officials lambasted the Trump campaign over such errors: “Most of the objections raised in the submitted affidavits are grounded in an extraordinary failure to understand how elections function.”