Fact check: Georgia investigation into alleged ballot harvesting is not evidence of election fraud

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The claim: Ballots were sold for $10 a piece in Georgia's 2020 election

In response to President Joe Biden’s speech marking the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, Donald Trump issued a series of statements containing false and misleading claims about the 2020 presidential election results.

The former president has repeatedly promoted baseless claims about voting in the battleground state of Georgia, and in January 2021 he attempted to persuade election officials there to recalculate the state’s vote in his favor. Now, he claims ballots were sold there for $10.

“Where did all those votes show up from in Georgia, where it was just revealed they sold ballots for $10 a piece,” Trump said in a statement, which was shared to Twitter on Jan. 6 by his spokesperson Liz Harrington in a tweet that accumulated more than 4,000 interactions in a day.

Similar versions of the claim made their way to Facebook, where users shared a screenshot of Trump’s Jan. 6 statement shortly after it was posted.

Trump and his allies have pushed baseless and debunked election claims for more than a year. However, they have produced no evidence of widespread fraud. Meanwhile, dozens of lawsuits aimed at overturning the presidential election results have been dismissed by judges, and an array of recounts, audits and even partisan reviews pushed by conservatives have confirmed the legitimacy of Biden’s victory.

Trump's reference to selling ballots for $10 significantly misstates a claim made by a conservative group – which has also not been verified by election officials. True the Vote, a conservative organization that defines itself as a voter integrity group and has previously filed 2020 election lawsuits backing Trump, claims a person who it has refused to publicly identify was paid $10 each for ballots that he gathered from others.

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Trump referenced this claim while asserting the 2020 election was "rigged," but True the Vote is not claiming or presenting any proof the ballots were fraudulent.

Complaint prompts investigation

True the Vote filed a complaint with the Georgia Secretary of State's office Nov. 30, and the agency is investigating it as a potential case of ballot harvesting. This practice of third parties collecting and submitting absentee ballots on the behalf of others is legal in some states, but not in Georgia.

The group claims it has video footage of people collecting and delivering absentee ballots, as well as an interview with an unnamed man who alleges he was paid thousands of dollars to collect and submit ballots during the November election 2020, according to a Jan. 4 report from Just the News, a site that has previously shared misinformation about Georgia’s 2020 election.

The Just the News article notes that True the Vote “does not allege the ballots delivered by couriers were fraudulent,” which Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, has reiterated as well.

“Ballot harvesting, those are still lawful ballots, they’ve just been handled fraudulently. Many states actually allow ballot harvesting,” Raffensperger told the National Desk. “We outlawed it because we think that the only person that should touch the ballot is the voter and the election worker and there shouldn't be any people and intermediaries in between.”

Ari Schaffer, a spokesperson, for Raffensperger declined to comment to USA TODAY, referring instead to the comments Raffensperger made to National Desk.

While the process of ballot harvesting is illegal under Georgia law, 31 states allow a voter to authorize someone to return a ballot on their behalf, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Ballots gathered in this way still would have had to be issued following the process that includes verifying voters are eligible.

In Georgia, voters must register to vote and provide a form of identification in order to obtain an absentee ballot. An absentee ballot can be returned via mail or at a drop-off location, and it must be properly signed, according to the state's website. Those signatures are then verified by election officials.

True the Vote has not identified the name of the person who claims he was paid $10 for each ballot he collected and delivered, and the group did not respond to a request for comment from USA TODAY. Raffensperger told The National Desk, “We’re going to have to subpoena 'John Doe' because that’s where the information is” and “no one knows who that person is.”

On Jan. 5, True the Vote posted a message on its website saying, “This statement is the limit of our public comments at this time so as not to impede investigative efforts currently underway.”

Fact check: How we know the 2020 election results were legitimate, not 'rigged' as Donald Trump claims

In an email to USA TODAY, Harrington – the Trump spokesperson – pointed to the article from Just the News about the group's complaint. The social media users who shared the post did not respond to a request for comment.

Allegation has been previously reviewed

Georgia's GOP chairman and True the Vote made a similar allegation in September 2021, in which they claimed to possess geolocation data from cell phones linking people with trips to ballot boxes, according to news reports.

At the time, Vic Reynolds, director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, said “an investigation is not justified” because there was not “any other kind of evidence that ties these cell phones to ballot harvesting.”

"For example, there are no statements of witnesses and no names of any potential defendants to interview," Reynolds said in a letter. "Saliently, it has been stated that there is a 'source' that can validate ballot harvesting. Despite repeated requests that source has not been provided to either the GBI or to the FBI."

Biden won Georgia and its 16 Electoral College votes, and three separate audits found no evidence of widespread voter fraud that affected the state’s election results. Claims about poll workers, late-night “vote dumps” and other Georgia 2020 election claims have been previously debunked.

Fact check roundup: Debunking false narratives about the Jan. 6 Capitol riot

In a 10-page letter to Congress on Jan. 6, 2021, Raffensperger said “there is nowhere close to sufficient evidence to put in doubt the result of the presidential contest in Georgia."

Our rating: Missing context

Based on our research, we rate MISSING CONTEXT the claim that people were paid $10 per ballot in Georgia’s November 2020 election because it is misleading and unproven. This assertion from Trump is based on a complaint about ballot harvesting, which has prompted an investigation by the Georgia’s Secretary of State office. True the Vote has not identified the witness who claims he was paid, and the group is not alleging that the ballots themselves were fraudulent. Georgia investigators previously looked into a similar allegation and said there was not enough evidence to justify an investigation.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: Trump makes misleading claim about Georgia 2020 election