Evidence Gaps in ‘2000 Mules’
A conservative film now playing in select theaters around the country isn’t “determinative, definitive” proof of widespread voter fraud, as former President Donald Trump has claimed.
“It’s called ‘2000 Mules,'” Trump said at a rally in Pennsylvania on May 7, “and basically [Joe] Biden didn’t get the votes, but he did get the ballots, okay, in a sense. But it’s an incredible, it’s an incredible documentary. … This exposes the fraud like nothing else.”
But the supposed evidence is speculative and does not provide the “definitive” proof that Trump and the filmmakers claim.
The film, which the makers say has been viewed by millions, comes at the issue of voter fraud from a unique angle. The conservative group True the Vote paid $2 million for geotracking data of cell phones used in targeted areas of five swing states in the weeks leading up to the presidential election. The group says it identified some 2,000 cell phone users who were geolocated in the immediate vicinity of 10 or more ballot drop boxes and five or more liberal nonprofits.
The film argues there can be no other reasonable explanation for that other than that the cell phone users were acting as “mules” in a massive, nationwide scheme in which they were paid to illegally “traffic” fraudulent ballots. And the producer of the film, conservative activist Dinesh D’Souza, says if the group’s calculations are correct, it was done in large enough numbers to have swung the election in Biden’s favor.
Some experts in geotracking data analysis told us the technology is only precise enough to place a cell phone user in the vicinity of a drop box, not necessarily at it, and there may be many good reasons why people might have been “pinged” in the area of multiple drop boxes.
True the Vote attempted to corroborate its premise with surveillance video of drop boxes obtained from public sources, which the group contends provides visual proof of the conspiracy. But notably, none of the video footage used in the movie shows any individual depositing ballots at multiple drop boxes — a shortcoming D’Souza attributes to the fact that many jurisdictions did not capture surveillance video of drop boxes as required by law, or that in many cases the video was too grainy to definitively identify people.
We are, however, shown numerous surveillance videos of people placing multiple ballots into a drop box — which the film claims is direct evidence of crime. But in at least three cases so far, Georgia investigators say the video actually shows people legally dropping off ballots for eligible voters who are immediate family members living in their home.
In Georgia, it is unlawful for people other than relatives or caregivers to collect and mail completed absentee ballots on behalf of other voters — a practice that is referred to by critics of such ballot collection practices as “harvesting.”
Georgia is one of 31 states that allow someone to return an absentee or mail ballot on behalf of a voter, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Like Georgia, most of those states limit who may return a ballot on behalf of a voter, typically to a family member or caregiver. But 16 of those states allow a voter to designate someone — not necessarily a family member or caregiver — to return their ballot. Some states also limit the number of ballots that any one person may return on behalf of others, and some states specifically prohibit certain people from returning someone else’s ballot, such as employers, candidates and campaign workers.
In a Sept. 30, 2021, letter to True the Vote and the state Republican Party, D. Victor Reynolds, director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, said the data collected by the group — and provided to law enforcement officials — “while curious, does not rise to the level of probable cause that a crime has been committed.”
We’ve viewed the film, and we’ll lay out some of what it does — and does not — show, and some of what it does and does not prove.
Accuracy of cellphone geotracking
Unbeknownst to some users, smartphones transmit data that disclose their location, and some private companies compile the movements of cellphones, store the information in massive data files, and sell it. (This New York Times story examines the practice). In the film, True the Vote says it purchased geolocation data in five swing states that Trump lost in the 2020 election (Georgia, Arizona, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania), starting from the time drop boxes were opened until Election Day (and through Jan. 6 in Georgia to capture the runoff election there as well). It collected 10 trillion signals in all.
True the Vote says it created virtual “fences” around drop boxes and unnamed nonprofit organizations to capture people who visited them. It then aggregated lists of people who were in the vicinity of 10 or more drop boxes and five or more of the nonprofits (none of which is named). True the Vote founder Catherine Engelbrecht alleges that the so-called “mules” picked up ballots from a “stack house” (one of the unidentified nonprofit organizations) and ran them to drop boxes.
“According to the people who have shared information with us, it’s generally $10 a ballot,” Engelbrecht said in the movie.
Where did the nonprofits get the ballots? The movie speculates they could have been from a variety of sources: people who moved or dead voters, stolen from mailboxes, or coerced from incapacitated elderly people. But even assuming the ballots were dropped at drop boxes illegally, they also could have been legitimate ballots filled out by eligible voters.
Gregg Phillips of True the Vote says that in Atlanta, the group identified 242 “mules” who went to an average of 24 drop boxes and made an average of eight stops at one of the nonprofits during a two-week period. The group says it proves “coordinated, systematic fraud in all key states where the election was decided” and that the number of alleged illegal votes was enough to swing the 2020 presidential election in Biden’s favor.
“This is organized crime,” Phillips says in the movie. “You can’t look at this data in aggregate and believe anything otherwise.”
But some experts say the data prove nothing.
Aaron Striegel, a professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Notre Dame who has analyzed data from smartphones, told us the geotracking data used by True the Vote are just not accurate enough to reach the kind of definitive conclusions it did.
“Could it have happened? Yeah, it could have happened,” Striegel said. “But is it likely to have happened? Not really. The data could tell you it’s possible, but that’s all it’s telling you with any reasonable certainty.”
Cooper Quintin, a senior staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which describes itself as “the leading nonprofit organization defending civil liberties in the digital world,” told us the accuracy of geolocation data can vary widely based on numerous factors that include signal strength, the type of cellphone being used, and atmospheric conditions like whether the cellphone is in a dense urban area or not.
But generally, he said, GPS data from apps on cellphones are only accurate to around 40 feet. Research published by the University of Georgia in 2019 concluded that iPhone GPS was only accurate in a range of 7 to 13 meters (23 to 43 feet).
“That’s not accurate enough to tell if someone stopped at a ballot box, or if someone simply walked near the box,” Quintin said. “If it is a high-traffic area, I can think of any number of legitimate reasons why someone would be in the vicinity of a ballot box.”
Delivery drivers, poll workers, election officials — all might have reason to be in the vicinity of numerous drop boxes, he said. Certainly, he said, it doesn’t provide enough evidence to uphold the group’s claims about 2,000 mules, he said. And, he noted, “they have the burden of proof.”
In a recent podcast, D’Souza defended the conclusions the film draws from the data.
“Quite frankly, if you’re within 30 feet of 10 or more drop boxes, obviously, you are going to those drop boxes to do what? Well, there’s only one thing you can do,” D’Souza said in a recent podcast (at the 22:50 mark). “These drop boxes have one purpose, and that is to put in mail-in ballots. They’re ballot drop boxes. So the only reason to go to them is to dump ballots.”
But stuffing fraudulent ballots is not the only reason to be in the vicinity of a drop box. For example, Pennsylvania state Sen. Sharif Street told the AP that he was probably counted as a so-called mule because he attended numerous drop box rallies and stopped by nonprofit offices. And, he said, he likely accounted for several of the signals, as he carries a cellphone, a watch with a cellular connection, a tablet with a cellular connection and a mobile hotspot, and he has a staffer who typically travels with him and carries two devices.
“I did no ballot stuffing, but over the course of time, I literally probably account for hundreds and hundreds of their unique visits, even though I’m a single actor in a single vehicle moving back and forth in my ordinary course of business,” Street said.
At one point in the film, Phillips shares a visual purporting to show the movements of a single cellphone.
“What you see here on this screen is a single person on a single day in Atlanta, Georgia,” Phillips explains. “They went to 28 drop boxes and five organizations in one day.”
But as Philip Bump of the Washington Post learned, the dots purporting to be drop box locations did not match up with actual drop box locations. And he called Phillips on it.
Phillips responded via email that “the movie graphics are not literal interpretations of our data.”
True the Vote has provided some of its geotracking data to law enforcement officials in hopes they will identify the cellphone users and question them about ballot harvesting. But in Georgia, at least, the state Bureau of Investigation says it won’t be doing that without more information.
“What has not been provided is 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,” Victor Reynolds, director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, wrote on Sept. 30, 2021, to the chairman of the Georgia Republican Party and Phillips from True the Vote. “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.
“As it exists, the data, while curious, does not rise to the level of probable cause that a crime has been committed,” Reynolds wrote. “For the GBI to get the same CSLI [cell site location information] information you provided, we would need to obtain a search warrant based on such probable cause. We cannot make that showing with what has been provided. As such, based on what has been provided and what has not been provided, an investigation is not justified.”
D’Souza says (at the 10:50 mark of his podcast) that the project was initiated based on information from a whistleblower in Georgia — never mentioned in the movie — who told the group they got paid by a nonprofit organization to deliver ballots to drop boxes, and that they were part of a larger group doing this.
The secretary of state’s office says that’s the kind of information that might lead to probable cause to allow investigators to independently obtain some of the data provided by True the Vote. But so far, the whistleblower, whose identity is not known to investigators, has not agreed to be interviewed.
On May 17, Ryan Germany, general counsel to Georgia’s secretary of state, told the Georgia Board of Elections that True the Vote had some “genuine concerns” about protecting the confidentiality of the whistleblower. The board authorized Germany to enforce subpoenas of True the Vote officials and to get a protective order to allow investigators to interview the whistleblower, while also protecting their confidentiality.
“Given the allegations that True the Vote has come forward with, I believe that it is incumbent of us and the attorney general to pursue those allegations and to see if it indeed has any merit or not,” election board member Ed Lindsey, a Republican, said.
Video of drop boxes
Trump claimed at his May 7 rally: “The ballot box was stuffed, and stuffed like never before—and it’s all on video.” But Georgia officials have found some of the videos show voters legally depositing ballots from their household members.
At a pivotal moment in the film, state-captured surveillance video shows a man depositing several ballots into a drop box before getting into a white Ford SUV whose license plate is visible, but blurred by the filmmakers.
“What you are seeing is a crime,” D’Souza says in the film as the video plays. “These are fraudulent votes.”
In fact, investigators say it was not a crime. And those were not fraudulent votes.
Rather, an investigator for the Georgia Board of Elections has determined the man was depositing his own ballots, plus the ballots of his wife and adult children, who are also registered voters. That’s all perfectly legal in Georgia.
Although True the Vote’s main investigative tool was the geotracking data from cellphones in five swing states, it also sought to corroborate its premise about mass ballot trafficking by reviewing video surveillance of drop boxes.
The movie purports to show video of numerous “mules” illegally stuffing drop boxes with multiple ballots. In some cases, the videos show people wearing latex gloves and disposing of them after making the deposit — an attempt, the movie suggests, to conceal fingerprints. Other videos show people taking cellphone pictures of ballots being deposited — which the movie suggests may have been required to get paid.
Georgia secretary of state investigator Dana DeWeese looked into video provided by True the Vote in three cases in which the people putting multiple ballots into drop boxes left in vehicles whose license plates were clearly identifiable. But in all three cases, nothing untoward was found (beginning at the 1:19 mark).
In the case of the white Ford SUV, investigators were able to identify the man and interview him. Prior to that interview, investigators checked public records and found there were five legal electors living in the home, all family members. Using the state’s ElectioNet or eNet voter verification system, DeWeese said he determined that ballots for all five of the voters were dropped at the drop box in question on the date the man was seen in the video depositing the ballots.
DeWeese said that during the interview the man confirmed, “That’s me in the video. That’s me placing five ballots. Those are all my family members’ ballots.”
As we said, it is legal in Georgia for people to collect and mail completed absentee ballots on behalf of immediate family members living in the same household. There are other exceptions, too. Caregivers can deliver ballots for disabled voters. And certain jail employees can mail the ballots of legal voters being held in jail.
Not only was the video of the man featured in “2000 Mules,” it was also shown during a segment of the Tucker Carlson’s “Fox News” show on May 5 as he was interviewing Engelbrecht of True the Vote.
Lindsey, the Republican election board member, said he appreciated people coming forward with specific allegations for it to investigate, but he said the case should serve as “a cautionary tale” that the group ought to allow an investigation to take place before they “bring into question someone’s good name.”
“You know, voter harvesting is a crime,” Lindsey said. “Claiming that someone is committing a crime without a full investigation carries with it some legal liability as well.”
The board dismissed that case and two others: one involving a red Toyota Corolla and the other a black Volkswagen Passat. Videos of those cases also appeared to be shown in the movie with the license plates visible, but blurred.
As the videos appeared on screen, D’Souza said, “In two of our five key states, you were allowed to give your ballot to be delivered by a family member or a caregiver. This is vote harvesting, but it’s not the same as ballot trafficking. In no state in America is it legal for nonprofit organizations to collect ballots and pay mules to deliver them to mail-in drop boxes.” (Actually, there are various exceptions in four of the five states that would allow someone to deliver a ballot on someone else’s behalf).
In the case of the man in the red Toyota, DeWeese said the man “did admit that it was him on the video and he admitted to placing four ballots. … They were all family members (his, his wife’s, and two children’s) who lived at that home. …They were all counted, and they all appeared to be legal votes, and my interview confirmed that.”
In the third case, involving the black Volkswagen, a man deposited ballots for himself and his mother, DeWeese said. Election records confirmed ballots for the two were deposited in that drop box on that date, DeWeese said.
“I found no violation of Georgia code in this,” DeWeese said.
In a recent episode of his podcast that aired May 19, D’Souza said that although Georgia investigators concluded these were ballots of family members, there’s no way for them to know that for sure.
Said D’Souza: “So, all the Georgia investigator did is essentially ask, does this guy have other people he’s related to A. And B, talk to him, ‘Whose ballots did you drop off?’ ‘I dropped off the ballots of my family members.’ ‘Oh, I see. Excellent. Well, that’s of course allowed. No problem here. This investigation is closed.’”
“Show me what you did that will convince me, or any reasonable person, that you now know for sure that those were not trafficked ballots, that you weren’t paid for those, but rather you were merely doing your family a favor, making it easy for them, dropping family ballots,” D’Souza said.
But again, investigators said they checked voter records for registered voters in the home and confirmed via the state’s eNet voter verification system that ballots for those family members were deposited in those drop boxes on the day in question.
Although the movie shows numerous people depositing multiple ballots into a drop box, importantly, it does not show a single example of any person making deposits at multiple drop boxes.
D’Souza promised during the same podcast episode that True the Vote is going to produce video of “the same mules at different drop boxes.” He said the group didn’t do that in the movie because “the footage is so bad.”
“First of all, most drop boxes have no footage,” he said, because some states that were supposed to install video surveillance of all the drop boxes didn’t do that.
“But there are some cases where we have the same guy at more than one drop box,” D’Souza said. “The problem is the footage is so grainy it’s not obvious it’s the same guy. … But we do know it’s the same guy. Why? Because it’s the same cellphone ID. And so even though the image is fuzzy, we come back here to the simple point that electronic or digital or DNA evidence is better than eyewitness evidence.”
Although the Georgia Board of Elections dismissed the three cases mentioned above, the Georgia secretary of state’s office says the investigation into alleged illegal ballot harvesting, based on information provided by True the Vote, is ongoing. These three cases were just the easiest ones to check — the license plates of people seen depositing multiple ballots were clearly visible on drop box surveillance video. But the cases do expose holes in the case presented by True the Vote.
No proof of fraudulent ballots
The film also fails to prove its allegation that the alleged harvested votes are actually illegal ballots.
Sara Tindall Ghazal, the only Democrat on the state’s election board, noted that ballots “are only counted once the identity of the voter has been verified by checking the signature on the ballot, and that is the process that was followed in 2020.”
Matt Mashburn, Republican chairman of the election board, agreed.
“Sara is exactly correct in that a vote delivered by a ballot harvester, if there is one, is treated in exactly the same manner as the vote that you have delivered yourself,” Mashburn said. “It still goes to the same people. It still goes through the same process. It still gets checked against the voter rolls. The signatures at that time must still match.
“So the idea that I got from watching the movie was that they were saying there were 92,000 illegitimate, manufactured votes in Georgia,” Mashburn said. “But that is not true. A ballot harvested vote might be a perfectly legal vote. It’s just the manner of its delivery was illegal.” (The delivery of legitimate ballots may also be legal, as the three cases investigated and dismissed by the state election board show.)
D’Souza addressed that point in a Q&A with Bump of the Washington Post. D’Souza alleged there was a “paid mule operation” so the votes wouldn’t be legal.
“The question is this: Once you have paid ballot trafficking enter the process, does a legal vote nevertheless remain a legal vote? My answer to that question, by the way, is no,” D’Souza said. “And the reason is that the process has been corrupted with the inclusion of money.”
But again, the movie provides no hard evidence of a paid mule operation.
“I’ve read all of the complaints and I’ve watched all of the accompanying videos that have been sent to the board,” said Ghazal, the Democratic board member. “The claims made in the movie have been reviewed and refuted by numerous Republican-appointed and elected officials.
“The analysis is flawed and the assertions there are wholly unsupported by any evidence that I have been provided,” she said. “Aside from individual, isolated instances that I can count on one hand, with fingers to spare, I’ve seen no credible evidence of any organized effort of unauthorized persons delivering ballots, let alone widespread invalid votes being cast.”
Nonetheless, she said, “real harm has been caused by these unsupported allegations asserted by individuals seeking to profit off of them,” including new laws put in place in response to alleged voter fraud that limit access to voters.
“And I’m deeply concerned that the individuals who are pushing these false narratives for their own purposes are fueling inflammatory rhetoric that risks conflict,” Ghazal said.
D’Souza has taken credit for his movie prompting law enforcement in Arizona to pursue cases of ballot harvesting there. There are a number of ongoing ballot harvesting and voting fraud investigations in Arizona, but they do not appear to be tied to any revelations from “2000 Mules.”
On May 11, the Yuma County Sheriff’s Office issued a press release stating that they are currently investigating 16 cases of potential voter fraud in the 2020 election, including “impersonation fraud” which might include voting in the name of voters who have died or moved away; false registration; duplicate voting; and fraudulent use of absentee ballots. (Biden beat Trump in Arizona by nearly 10,500 votes.)
Although D’Souza claimed the investigations were “in direct response to the research findings of True the Vote,” Yuma County Sheriff Leon Wilmot told Lead Stories these investigations long predate and are in no way connected to the film.
“The Yuma County Sheriff’s Office has been working jointly with the Yuma County Recorder’s Office and the Arizona Attorney General’s Office extensively regarding allegations of voter misconduct for over a year,” Wilmot told Lead Stories. “These ongoing investigations are not related to or inspired by any movie or celebrity figure but rather facts and evidence regarding violation of Arizona statute. I am not familiar with, nor have I ever communicated with any individuals who may now be claiming I am investigating on their behalf or because of any supposed inspiration from a documentary film.”
On May 31, the Arizona Republic reported that search warrants were served recently on a woman who works at a nonprofit in San Luis headed by the chair of the Yuma County board of supervisors, a Democrat. According to the executive director of the organization, the warrant was to confiscate the phone of a co-worker and to search her home in connection with a ballot harvesting investigation. Although D’Souza is taking credit for that development to promote his film, there’s no publicly available information to date that confirms any widespread ballot collection scheme in the November 2020 presidential election, let alone one with a nationwide reach.
Nonetheless, we will continue to monitor developments in Georgia and Arizona that either support or discredit claims made in the movie, and we will update our story if necessary. D’Souza said efforts will be made to have investigators in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania also look into the film’s claims.
Update, June 13: On the second day of its public hearings, the House Jan. 6 select committee released an interview of former Attorney General Bill Barr, who spoke about “2000 Mules,” calling it unimpressive and based on a faulty premise. “My opinion then and my opinion now is that the election was not stolen by fraud,” Barr said. “And I haven’t seen anything since the election that changes my mind on that, including the ‘2000 Mules’ movie.” Barr then let out a long laugh.
Asked for his assessment of the movie, Barr continued, “Well, I mean, just in a nutshell, you know, I just think the GBI [Georgia Bureau of Investigations] was unimpressed with it, and I was similarly unimpressed with it. … [T]he cellphone data is singularly unimpressive. I mean, it basically, if you take 2 million cell phones and figure out where they are physically in a big city like Atlanta, or wherever, just by definition you’re going to find many hundreds of them have passed by and spent time in the vicinity of these boxes. And the premise that if you go by five boxes, or whatever it was, you know, that that’s a mule is just indefensible. …
“But then, when the movie came out, I think the photographic evidence in it was completely lack … I mean there was a little bit of it, but it was lacking. It didn’t establish widespread illegal harvesting,” Barr said. “The other thing is people don’t understand is that it’s not clear that even if you can show harvesting, that that changes the results of the election. The courts are not going to throw out votes and then figure out what votes were harvested. It’s still the burden on the challenging party to show that illegal votes were cast, votes were the result of undue influence or bribes or the person was non compos mentis [not of sound mind]. But absent that evidence, I just didn’t see courts throwing out votes anyway.”
This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center.