Be wary of voting by mail initiatives

Be wary of voting by mail initiatives

“Never let a crisis go to waste” is the advice former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel famously gave to his party while serving as President Obama’s White House chief of staff. As the coronavirus takes a devastating toll on the U.S. public and economy, a chorus of his fellow Democrats appear to be heeding his advice, especially when it comes to the upcoming November presidential election.

They are advocating a series of measures, emphasizing greater use of voting by mail, which they say will make voting easier and safer and increase election participation. But without adequate safeguards firmly in place to prevent fraud and abuse, it will likely undermine the integrity of the election and shake the confidence of many voters. 

House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiGOP lawmaker: Democratic Party 'used to be more moderate' White House not optimistic on near-term stimulus deal Sunday shows - Stimulus debate dominates MORE (D-Calif.) unsuccessfully sought to include $4 billion of government funding in a recent coronavirus stimulus bill to finance mail and early voting ($400 million was appropriated) but plans on trying again. Former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonState polling problematic — again 4 reasons why Trump can't be written off — yet 'Unmasking' Steele dossier source: Was confidentiality ever part of the deal? MORE wants to make voting by mail the norm and provide free postage. Former Attorney General Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderObamas discuss pandemic, voting, anxiety and community in new podcast Joy Reid debut delivers 2.6 million viewers for MSNBC The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Facebook — Republicans rejigger summer convention plans MORE proposes voting from home. Clinton campaign attorney Marc Elias proposes mail-in voting and ballot harvesting. 

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Conversely, President TrumpDonald John TrumpOklahoma City Thunder players kneel during anthem despite threat from GOP state lawmaker Microsoft moving forward with talks to buy TikTok after conversation with Trump Controversial Trump nominee placed in senior role after nomination hearing canceled MORE opposes proposed mail balloting and harvesting initiatives, claiming that it could lead to fraudulent activity, especially without adequate safeguards in place like voter identification. 

To place the issue in context, the U.S. Elections Project reported for 2016 that about 138.8 million of 230.9 million U.S. voting-eligible people (60.1 percent) participated in that election. The U.S. Election Assistance Commission surveyed the states for that election and found that 32.8 million of these votes, or 23.6 percent of total counted votes, derived from absentee and mail balloting. EAC further reported that during the past seven national election cycles (2004-2016) the percentage of absentee and/or mail-in balloting has increased nearly two-fold, from 12.1 percent to 23.6 percent. 

Voter Identification is a highly partisan issue. In general, Democrats and liberals argue that the requirement to use photo ID to register and vote discourages and prevents voting-eligible people from participating in elections. Conversely, Republicans and conservatives view voter ID requirements as a reasonable safeguard against potential fraud and abuse at the polls. 

Political party disagreements notwithstanding, public opinion surveys commissioned and/or performed by Politico, Gallup, Rasmussen, Pew Research and others during the past several years show that the use of voter ID for election purposes is very popular among Americans, with approval ranging from 67 percent to 80 percent. It’s also popular among the states. The National Conference of State Legislatures reported in 2020 that 36 of 50 states have laws requesting or requiring voters to show some form of identification at the polls.   

Ironically, NCSL also reports (as the percentage of absentee and mail balloting has substantially risen) that voter ID requirements generally apply to in-person voting, not to absentee or mail ballots. In other words, increased use of mail balloting can conceivably be used to circumvent existing voter ID laws unless the completed ballot is accompanied with an ID. 

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The Heritage Foundation produces voter fraud reports and maintains a voluminous database of electoral-related convictions, stolen elections and examples of how the fraud is perpetrated. The examples include false registrations, and fraudulent use of absentee ballots such as illegally preparing ballots for voters forging voter signatures and telling a voter for whom to vote. 

The Landmark Legal Foundation cautions election officials and elected representatives against making sweeping changes to the voting system because of the coronavirus, emphasizing that absentee voting is inherently susceptible to fraud. It proposes reasonable restrictions such as requiring a written request for a ballot or limitations on who can handle these ballots, which are important safeguards to protect the sanctity of the vote. 

Overall, election security and integrity could be enhanced by ensuring:

  • Voter registration rolls are current with correct addresses. At a minimum, persons who have died or moved outside of the district should be removed from the rolls. 
  • Voters are asked to provide a valid signature and a photo ID whenever appropriate, upon registering to vote, and voting in-person or by mail.
  • Voters submit absentee and mail ballot requests in writing to ensure only registered voters receive ballots with signatures and photo IDs validated.
  • Partisan and campaign workers are prevented from harvesting and delivering ballots. A voter’s ballot should be treated as sacred and secret and generally should not be given to a third-party non-election official.
  • All persons registering to vote, voting in-person and receiving absentee ballots should be notified that they are subject to perjury charges if they vote under false pretenses.

Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution makes voting a right and a privilege. It gives states the responsibility of overseeing federal elections and protecting each citizen’s vote. Many constitutional amendments and federal laws have been passed to protect these voting rights, and to punish those who abuse the electoral system for personal or partisan gain. While it’s desirable to have citizens fully engage in the electoral process, in this nation, no one is required by law to vote in a federal, state or local election. 

Politicians should not use the coronavirus pandemic to significantly alter the way elections are conducted to achieve political objectives and power. The voter’s right to freely and fairly select his or her national, state and local representatives should be preserved. And the only way to do that is to ensure that any increased use of mail voting is accompanied by strong safeguards, including voter ID, to protect the integrity of our elections. The future of our constitutional republic and U.S. national security depends on it.   

Fred Gedrich is a foreign policy and national security analyst. He served in the U.S. departments of State and Defense.