Weeks out from the 2020 presidential election, John Oliver takes a look at various efforts to destabilize the vote, how to ensure your ballot is properly counted, and why we may need to prepare not just for an election night, but for an election month.
Election 2020: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver
Season 7 Episode 25
Aired on October 4, 2020

Main segment: 2020 United States elections
Other segments: White House COVID-19 outbreak, Museums


Moving on. Our main story tonight concerns the 2020 election, among other things, the inspiration for the single best voting PSA the world has ever seen.

Do you know who elects the DA? But you don’t wanna vote. Can’t make it rain if you locked up on some bullshit. Wanna end cash bail? Well, then vote for the sheriffs and county officials that feel the same way you do. But you talkin’ about, “Oh, they gon’ pick who they pick, shawty.” Ferguson just elected their first Black mayor. You know how that happened?

NARRATOR: For information on how and where to vote as well as resources to find out who’s running where you live, go to

♪ Get yo booty to the poll Get yo booty to the poll ♪

Excellent! They hit prosecutors, cash bail, sheriffs, and the importance of down-ballot races. All subjects we’ve talked about on this show, but they did it in less time and more entertainingly while also providing a much better “get out the vote” message than anyone currently working for Joe Biden. I have no notes.

And even though Trump is currently in the hospital with coronavirus and everything is up in the air right now, we’re taping this show on Saturday, so who knows what things are like whenever you’re watching this. We do need to talk about this election because it’s happening right now. More than three million votes have already been cast, and yet Trump and his supporters have engaged in a deliberate campaign to undermine the process. For months now, Trump has been questioning whether he will even leave.

In general, not talking about November, are you a good loser? I’m not a good loser. I don’t like to lose. -I don’t lose too often.

But are you gracious?

You don’t know until you see. It depends. I think mail-in voting is gonna rig the election. I really do.

Are you suggesting that you might not accept -the results of the election?

I have to see.

John: Yeah! He has to see, and by that, of course, he means he has to see if he wins because if he doesn’t he’ll refuse to accept the results. Deep down, you know there is no scenario in which Trump loses but decides the process was legit and then shows up to Biden’s house with a congratulatory ice cream cake. That is just not going to happen. And look, given the frequency with which one party has been trying to destabilize this election. We thought tonight it might be a good idea to take a look at the ways they’ve tried to do that, and even more importantly how we can help prevent that from happening. And first, let’s acknowledge there’s nothing new in Republicans attempting to depress turnouts. They’ve done it for years. Sometimes with a veneer of fighting voter fraud and tactics like strict voter ID laws and aggressive purchase of voter rolls. But sometimes, they’ve just said it out loud.

Paul Weyrich, Conservative Strategist: I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people. They never have been from the beginning of our country, and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite clearly goes up as the voting populous goes down.

John: Now, that man is Paul Weyrich, a founding father of modern conservatives and the co-founder of right-wing groups like The Heritage Foundation and The Moral Majority. Although, I’m not sure you can really keep calling it a moral majority when the philosophy of one of your founders is immorally suppress the majority of voters.

But the fact is that this year, the Trump campaign is turbocharging efforts to mess with the vote. For starts, the president has repeatedly instructed his supporters to go to polling places and monitor for instance of fraud.

Trump: Watch those ballots. I don’t like it. You know, you have a democrat governor. You have all these Democrats watching that stuff. Be poll watchers when you go there. Watch all the thieving and stealing and robbing they do.

John: Yeah. That’s not good because he’s not describing official poll watchers there. People whose role is to monitor elections so everyone is treated fairly. He’s essentially giving his supporters the greenlight to walk into polling places and start playing fucking ballot Batman.

And it’s not like we haven’t had problems with aggressive poll watching in the past. In 1981, the year after Weyrich spoke, the RNC formed a fake National Ballot Security Task Force and hired armed off-duty policemen to patrol largely Black and Hispanic precincts in New Jersey, where they prominently displayed revolvers and armbands with the task force’s name. And just as a general rule, revolvers and armbands at a polling site is never a great look, considering that the literal definition of an actual Nazi is someone with guns and armbands who threatens the safety of the polls. That incident caused such an outcry the Democrats sued and the RNC entered into a consent decree, pledging to stop such behavior in the future which is great. Unfortunately, a judge lifted that consent decree in 2018. Because if there’s one thing Republicans have done over the last few years is regain the nation’s trust.

And the thing is, even if Trump supporters don’t show up to harass voters, there are plenty of other reasons in person voting could be tricky this year. Thanks to the pandemic, many poll workers are choosing to stay at home and many polling sites may be closed which can cause real problems especially for Latino and Black voters who already face substantially longer wait times than white voters. We’ve already seen the impact of fewer polling places in this year’s primaries. Because watch this Georgia voter show you how long his line was.

Terence Rushin, Georgia voter: Seven hours, 45 minutes and 13 seconds it took for me to vote in Fulton County, Georgia. As soon as I saw the line, I hit the stopwatch on my phone. I spent the first couple hours listening to the new Run the Jewels album and then I ended up listening to the entire discography. And then I started watching season eight of Curb Your Enthusiasm and it’s five hours. It is one o’clock in the morning and somebody was like, “Hey, y’all remember we came to vote yesterday, right?

Holy shit! Can you imagine watching five hours of streaming video on your phone, while standing in line to vote? You can’t? Well what if each video was less than 10 minutes at a time with commercials? Still no? How about if you could watch the show vertically or horizontally? No again? Okay, sorry Quibi, I guess it’s official, you’re a bad idea.

MAN: Bad idea!

John: Yep, I hate to break this to you two billion dollars in, but you know what, who knows, maybe one of your shows will be a hit. You know, like the one about flipping houses where grisly murders took place?

MAN: Bad idea!

Really? Aww, come on, stranger things have happened. After all, HBO Max still exists, -and they charge 14.99–

MAN: Bad idea!

You know what? You’re absolutely right, you’re completely right, I can’t argue with that.

And when you take all of this together, the long lines, the possibility of harassment, and the looming threat of the pandemic, it’s frankly no wonder that around 40 percent of Americans say they’ll be voting by mail this year. But that has actually opened up a whole new front in republican’s war on democratic votes. And to understand why, it helps to understand one key statistic… The majority of Trump supporters say they will vote in person on election day, while the majority of Biden supporters say they’ll vote by-mail. So it’s clearly very much in Trump’s interest to try and discredit voting by mail, claiming it’s rife with fraud. Despite the fact, as studies and court cases have repeatedly shown, it isn’t. And it’s not just Trump claiming they’re illegitimate. Even Bill Barr, his attorney general has joined in, saying shit like this.

Bill Barr, Fox News: When– When state governments start adopting these practices like mail-in ballots, that open the floodgates of potential fraud, then people’s confidence in the outcome of the election is gonna be undermined. And that could take the country to a very dark place if we lose confidence in the outcomes of our elections.

John: Yeah, but you’re the one undermining our confidence. You’re doing it right there. And as for the notion that this could take the country to a dark place, I don’t know if you’ve noticed but everything within driving distance of Disneyland is covered in smoke, there’s a global pandemic that just infected the president, and you’re on television in stupid Woody Allen glasses, calling the legitimacy of our democracy into question. We’re in that “very dark place” already, Billiam.

Trump himself has gone out of his way to claim that all manner of ballot fraud is already taking place. He even rattled off examples during Tuesday’s debate.

Trump: They’re sending millions of ballots all over the country. There’s fraud, they found them in creeks, they found some with the name Trump– Just happened to have the name Trump just the other day in a wastepaper basket. They’re being sent all over the place, they sent two in a democrat area, they sent out 1,000 ballots everybody got two ballots. This is going to be a fraud like you’ve never seen.

John: Okay, I know that sounds like a lot, but as you’ve probably already guessed, that was a 12-course tasting menu of horseshit. Because he is wildly misrepresenting every single one of those cases.

First, on the “ballots in the creek” example. He seems to be referring to reports of a few absentee ballots in Wisconsin being found in trays of mail that were found in a ditch. But, you should know, the trays were full of all sorts of mail, and state election officials later clarified that they actually “did not include any Wisconsin ballots” whatsoever.

As for the “wastepaper basket” example, that was an instance where a temp worker who’d only worked at the county election office for three days, mistakenly discarded nine ballots. And when his bosses realized what he’d done, they immediately “reported it to law enforcement at the local, State and Federal level. And just spare a quick thought for that temp there. ‘Cause imagine if some stupid mistake you made at work, ended up being held up as evidence of a leftwing conspiracy against the president. Just imagine buying the wrong K-cups for the breakroom, and next thing you know, Tucker Carlson is on TV, screaming about how the radical left is decaffeinating the suburbs.

And finally, as for those thousand extra ballots he mentioned, that was a fuck up where some voters in Fairfax County, Virginia, were sent two mail-in ballots by mistake. Which sounds bad, but the key thing to understand there is that because ballots are matched to individual voters, the system is designed to prevent people voting twice. You may have two ballots, but you can only cast one.

And look, mistakes are going to happen in an election with over 100 million ballots. They shouldn’t, but they will. And when they do, we should move fast to correct them. But none of those examples that Trump cited, all of which have lit up rightwing media, appear to be part of any scheme to steal votes. And if they are, the scheme seems to be horribly coordinated, totally nonsensical, and extremely dumb.

So the fact is, that fears over mail-in ballot fraud have been wildly overblown. And to the extent there is any danger with them, it’s actually a far more mundane one. And that’s that you could end up having your ballot rejected for technical reasons.

REPORTER: In the 2020 primaries, more than 550,000 ballots were rejected in 30 states. Due to missing signatures, missed deadlines, or signatures that could not be verified.

John: Think about that. Over half a million ballots were rejected in the primaries. That’s practically an entire Wyoming disappearing into thin air. That is really bad. Unless of course it’s the actual Wyoming disappearing, in which case, it really might be for the best. It’s a semi-arid sandbox filled with fluffy cows and nothing. The most famous part of Wyoming is the state trying to swallow itself up. And the second most famous part is it spitting itself out again. It’s clear that even you don’t like you, Wyoming. And it’s getting hard for the rest of us to watch.

And to be fair to voters, ballots can be tricky. Some states have secrecy envelopes, which you don’t sign. Which you then have to put inside a decoration envelope, which you do. It can be confusing, so do make sure that you read the instructions carefully. And it’s also surprisingly important to think about the signature that you’re using. Because they match them against the one that they have on record for you. Either from when you registered to vote, or the one you have on file at the DMV. And replicating your own signature, can be more difficult than you might expect. As this handwriting expert explains.

REPORTER: Orsini says no two signatures are identical, and vary over time.

Richard Orsini, Forensic Document Examiner: Hand size and age and illness, medication, the writing position they were in, were they depressed? All of those kind of factors come into play.

REPORTER: Look at these actual signatures from former president, Richard Nixon, over a six-year period. It does not look like the same person. Exactly. But it is, it’s the same signature.

John: Yeah. The truth is, our signatures change over time. And sometimes they change over the course of a single day. ‘Cause let’s be honest here, we all have at least two signatures. The real one, and your coffee shop signature. Which is usually just a line and depending on your mood a couple of loop de loops. Look, you’re getting a muffin, what are you gonna do? Calligraph the iPad? Of course not, it’s your pointer finger. It’s not your art finger, it’s for pointing.

And in theory, some states are supposed to let you know if your ballot was disqualified, but in practice, that doesn’t always happen. Just watch one California man learn that it happened to him in 2018.

REPORTER 2: Tattoo artist Johnny Trevino loves to create.

JOHNNY TREVINO: You good to go?

REPORTER 2: Drawing on human skin.

JOHNNY: Look at how smooth it is too…

REPORTER 2: That’s why Trevino says it came as a shock when we showed him that the way he draws his signature actually caused his ballot to be rejected during the last major election in 2018.

The reason is no signature matched. I wish I would have known this.

Does that frustrate you?

Yes, because I’m a tattoo artist, and sometimes I write it beautiful, and sometimes I just sign it quick. And I bet you a lot of people do that.

John: Okay, that is unfortunate to find out, although, I will say, “Sometimes I write it beautiful, and sometimes I just sign it quick,” is one of the last things you want to hear from someone giving you a tattoo. It’s right up there with, “You know, I’m more of a hands-free artist.”

But look, let’s say that none of what I’ve talked about so far turns out to be a problem. Everyone behaves themselves at polling places, the lines aren’t too long, and nobody fucks up their mail-in ballots. There is still one more potential wrinkle in this election, and it happens after you voted. Because mail-in ballots in particular can take a long time to count. Which does make sense, it’s a logistical nightmare.

REPORTER 3: Before the count can begin, a series of procedures needs to be followed. Like, making sure the vote count from a particular precinct matches up with the actual number of ballots received. The city of Grand Rapids has issued some 35,000 absentee ballots.

Joel Hondorp, City Clerk, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Just the simple process of opening that many envelopes, that takes a long time.

Yeah, of course it does! 35,000 is a shit ton of envelopes, and opening them is gonna take a long fucking time. Which, by the way should probably be the official tagline of every single awards show. The Oscars, there are a shit ton of envelopes to open, so it’s gonna take a long fucking time. Sunday, 8/7 Central on ABC.

And making it worse, in some key battleground states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, they’re not even allowed to begin processing mail-in ballots until Election Day itself. Which brings us to something very important, because there is a natural vulnerability here that the Trump campaign may be able to exploit if we’re not extremely careful. Remember, he may receive a larger proportion of in-person votes, and those will get counted faster leading to a potential problem.

REPORTER 4: Election experts say one possible election scenario is what is known as the blue shift, with Trump ahead on election night, and Biden pulling in front after election night through mail-in ballots.

David Becker, Fmr. Justice Dept. Civil Rights Attorney, CNN Live: There is no such thing as election night results. They’re only partial results and they always have been partial results.

Exactly. Many votes are counted after election night. And this year, the discrepancy in how people vote could lead to a so-called blue shift, which I know sounds like a euphemism for a Smurf’s bowel movement, but it actually refers to the idea that since more Biden supporters are voting by mail, Democrats could initially be behind, then pull ahead once all the mail ballots are counted. And the concern is, that in that early stage, the Trump campaign could declare victory and claim any additional ballots are fraudulent. He himself has tweeted that we “Must know election results on the night of the election, not days, months, or even years later,” but here’s the thing, we don’t need to know on the night at all.

Projecting winners on election night can be a bit like summarizing Get Out when you’ve only seen the beginning. Oh, it’s about a young man who meets his girlfriend’s parents for the first time, which is obviously nerve-racking. But luckily, her parents seem like a couple of real sweeties, so everything’s cool. Yeah, that is how it starts, but maybe you should stop talking until you know the whole story.

And in an election with so many mail-in votes, it may take significantly longer to get the final results than it has in the past. And the swing could be even more pronounced. That is why election officials are so anxious to reset our expectations.

Kim Wyman, Secretary of State, Washington: The expectation is election night, like most election nights, around midnight, one o’clock, we know who the president is going to be, and in 2020 that is simply not going to be the case. The expectation should be that we will probably not know the president of the United States until mid to late November.

John: Yeah, if this election is close, we may not know for a while. So it might actually help to stop thinking of it as election night, and more as an election month, which is a lot like when someone says it’s their birthday month, in that the very concept makes every decent American want to vomit.

And this is going to take an adjustment on everybody’s part. From individual voters, to TV networks that are accustomed to going all out and selling election night as an event, to social media networks that could become cesspools of misinformation. So, they are a lot of places where Republicans might be able to put their thumb on the scale of this election.

And if you think any of this is me being paranoid, you should know it’s already started. In Wisconsin, Republican legislators threatened to sue election officials for holding an early voting event where 10,000 people cast ballots, suggesting they might seek to have all those votes invalidated.

Meanwhile in Texas, their governor has insisted that drop off locations for absentee ballots be limited to just one per county, whether it’s Loving County which has just 169 residents, or Harris County which has more than four million. Although that does track with Texas’s famous slogan, “Don’t mess with Texas, unless you’re directing them to a single voting nexus, even while some of them could be dangerously infectious.” That slogan honestly never made sense to me until just now.

And this brings us to our final point. What can we do to help the system run smoother? Well, luckily there are steps you can take. First, as an individual, make a plan to vote. You can find information for your state at If you want to do it in person, on Election Day, that’s great. Although, we don’t want everyone doing that, because remember, with fewer polling places open this year, that could lead to a Run the Jewels listening party that nobody wants. So, if your schedule is flexible enough, and you live in a state where you can vote early, you should do that especially to make the line shorter on Election Day, for those who don’t have that luxury.

Now, if you wanna vote by mail, that’s great too. But we should be trying to flatten the voting curve to take the pressure off the system. So, request your ballot as early as possible, read all the instructions, and send it back or drop it off as soon as you filled it in. Oh, and also, do be careful with your signature unless you want some local news reporter to show up two years from now and tell you that your vote didn’t count and throw your skills as a tattoo artist into significant doubt.

And by the way, if you are still worried about mailing your ballot in, it is worth knowing 46 states have some sort of ballot tracking so you can be sure it was received and counted, and you should absolutely use that resource if you can.

The really important thing to remember is, this election is already very different from all those before it. So we all need to be on top of not only our own voting plans, but making sure our friends and family are on top of theirs as well. Because, I have to say, if you plan is to just sit back and expect the system to just magically work itself out, and that this man will have a three-quarter life crisis and suddenly turn into a good loser, I’m sorry to tell you, that is simply a…

MAN: Bad idea!

It really is.


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