Let's put the vote-by-mail 'fraud' myth to rest

Let's put the vote-by-mail 'fraud' myth to rest
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Widespread calls to conduct the 2020 elections by mail, to protect voters from COVID-19 exposure, are being met with charges that the system inevitably would lead to massive voter fraud. This is simply not true.

Vote fraud in the United States is exceedingly rare, with mailed ballots and otherwise. Over the past 20 years, about 250 million votes have been cast by a mail ballot nationally. The Heritage Foundation maintains an online database of election fraud cases in the United States and reports that there have been just over 1,200 cases of vote fraud of all forms, resulting in 1,100 criminal convictions, over the past 20 years. Of these, 204 involved the fraudulent use of absentee ballots; 143 resulted in criminal convictions.

Let’s put that data in perspective.

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One hundred forty-three cases of fraud using mailed ballots over the course of 20 years comes out to seven to eight cases per year, nationally. It also means that across the 50 states, there has been an average of three cases per state over the 20-year span. That is just one case per state every six or seven years. We are talking about an occurrence that translates to about 0.00006 percent of total votes cast. 

Oregon is the state that started mailing ballots to all voters in 2000 and has worked diligently to put in place stringent security measures, as well as strict punishments for those who would tamper with a mailed ballot. For that state, the following numbers apply: With well over 50 million ballots cast, there have been only two fraud cases verifiable enough to result in convictions for mail-ballot fraud in 20 years. That is 0.000004 percent — about five times less likely than getting hit by lightning in the United States.

This hardly seems like a world in which “thousands and thousands of people [are] sitting in somebody’s living room, signing ballots all over the place.”

We should make two things clear. First, there is no excuse for any type of voter or election fraud, by any method. States are justified in creating systems that are intended to deter and detect fraud, and for prosecuting it when discovered. All do.

Voting by mail presents challenges to the prevention of voter fraud that voting in person lacks.  Most obviously, in-person voting occurs in public. A voter must announce their name out loud, and it is checked against the voter registration list. All states make provisions for some form of objectors, who can question the identity of the person at the check-in table, within the constraints of state law. Some states require a photo ID to be shown. Many states require the voter to sign a poll book. These and other procedures have been in place for a century-and-a-half, since the widespread election reforms of the 1880s and 1890s.

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Second, no voting methodology is perfect. In-person voting has its own examples of fraud, however rare. It is also full of stories of missing power cords, missing keys, an inadequate number of ballots, machines that switched the voter’s intent, improper application of ID requirements, long lines and more. Nonetheless, in-person voting also has a role to play even in states that use the 100 percent mail-ballot election model.  

As with in-person voting, states have methods to guard against fraudulently casting votes by mail too. Most have signature-matching requirements, either to scrutinize the application, the returned ballot, or both. We have seen this done effectively using a mix of human oversight and technology. Many states restrict who can return a ballot for a voter, or require those who return ballots on the behalf of others to identify themselves on the return envelope. Finally, the states with the most expansive vote-by-mail systems — such as Colorado, Oregon, Utah and Washington — send ballots to all registered voters and rely on the steady stream of mail between election offices and voters to keep the rolls clean, and to minimize the number of stray ballots that might be distributed.

Expanding voting by mail will be a challenge in most states in 2020. Logistical and security issues will need to be reviewed to ensure that every registered voter can do so safely and effectively, and that no one votes more than once. But we reiterate: There is no evidence that mail-balloting results in rampant voter fraud, nor that election officials lack the knowledge about how to protect against abuses.

Amber McReynolds is CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute. She formerly was the director of elections for Denver, where she helped to design and implement Colorado’s vote-at-home system. Follow her on Twitter @AmberMcReynolds.

Charles Stewart III is the Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Political Science at MIT, the director of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab, and co-director of the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project. Follow him on Twitter @cstewartiii.