As many more voters will likely shift to mail-in ballots for the 2020 election due to the coronavirus pandemic, President Donald Trump has repeated the unfounded claim that voting by mail will lead to massive voter fraud — even raising the idea of delaying the Nov. 3 presidential election and stating he opposes additional funding for the U.S. Postal Service in order to handle the influx of ballots.
But according to top election officials and research on the subject, incidents of voter fraud are “very, very low.”
“It’s infinitesimal. People have studied this. There’s been litigation over this. Commissions have been established on this,” said Commissioner Ellen L. Weintraub of the Federal Election Commission.
Election workers process cast ballots at the Utah County election office on June 30, 2020 in Provo, Utah. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)
Early in his administration, Trump set up a commission to find evidence of widespread voter fraud in the 2016 election. The president made unsubstantiated claims that millions of ballots had been illegally cast, but the commission later disbanded without any findings.
In the months leading up to the 2020 election, Trump has maintained his claims on widespread voter fraud and suggested there could be chaos ahead — despite having recently voted by mail himself. Many others in his administration have also voted by mail.
"With Universal Mail-In Voting (not Absentee Voting, which is good), 2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history," Trump wrote on Twitter.
Absentee vs. mail-in voting: What’s the difference?
“Absentee” and “mail” voting are essentially the same thing, according to David Becker, founder of the Center for Election Innovation and Research.
In some states, voters just have to request a mail ballot. A small number of states require an excuse to do so. But all ballots are subject to that state’s verification requirements — no matter what.
Five states — Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington — were already holding their elections almost entirely by mail. Three more states — California, Nevada and Vermont — will automatically send ballots to registered voters for the first time this fall in response to the pandemic.
No ‘rampant fraud’ in Washington state
Kim Wyman, the secretary of state of Washington, is a Republican who oversees her state’s mail-in voting process, which has been the default for a decade.
Washington has not seen “any kind of rampant fraud in my 27 years of doing elections,” Wyman said.
During the 2018 election, the state found that out of 3.2 million ballots cast, there were 142 cases of voter fraud — where people had either voted more than once or cast a ballot for a deceased family member.
“Is it perfect? No. But is it rampant fraud? No,” Wyman said.
In Washington state, voters are mailed ballots 20 days prior to Election Day for races in which they are eligible to vote. Wyman said there are safeguards in place to protect the authenticity of those ballots.
When county officials receive ballots, the signature on every single ballot envelope is compared to the voter registration signature on file. If those two things don’t match, they contact the voter and give them a second chance — which Wyman says is also a fraud check.
“If you received a letter from your county saying your ballot signature did not match and you hadn’t voted, you’d pick up the phone and call the county and they can process a fraud investigation,” she explained.
Research shows that voter fraud is rare
Oregon — another state that votes primarily by mail — has found only about a dozen cases of proven fraud out of more than 100 million mail-in ballots since 2000, according to the Brennan Center, a nonpartisan law and policy institute.
That works out to 0.00001% of all votes cast.
Numerous studies on the incidence of voter fraud, including both in-person and mailed ballots, have found it to be exceedingly rare. A 2007 report found that most reported incidents of voter fraud were actually due to clerical errors or bad data matching practices.
Election officials, including Wyman and Weintraub, echoed that finding — stating that the rare counts of voter fraud are less nefarious in nature and more about people not knowing the voting rules.
“Most people are pretty law-abiding. I’ve been administering and enforcing laws related to politics for a good part of my career, and in my experience, most of the violations that we find are actually inadvertent,” Weintraub said.
Weintraub cited examples of people voting absentee for a spouse who has passed away but “would have wanted to vote for this candidate.” Or people with homes in two different locations.
“They think, ‘Well, I’m interested in the local elections in this location. But I want to vote in the national elections in this other location, so as long as I don’t vote in the same race in two different places, that’s okay, right?’ No, it’s not okay. You can only be registered in one place,” Weintraub said.
“It’s not nefarious. It’s not evil. They’re not trying to break the law. They just don’t know what the law is,” she added.
According to Weintraub, the actual instances of knowing and willful violations of the law as it relates to voting “is pretty low.” Voter fraud is a criminal offense that can be punishable by up to five years in prison, a hefty fine, or both.
“Imagine risking going to jail for five years in order to change one vote, to go in and vote twice or fill out an absentee ballot for your spouse or your parent who has passed away and risk five years of jail time for that. It would make no sense. It’s completely irrational as a crime, because you get very little benefit. You’re probably not going to change the results of the election with that extra one vote, and you’re risking going to jail or incurring substantial fines — so people don’t do it,” Weintraub said.
Criticism of mail-in voting
There are some drawbacks to mail-in voting. For Wyman, it’s the loss of ceremony and tradition for those who prefer going in person to the polls to cast their vote. Washington state does allow some registered voters to cast their ballot in person, including those who may need an assistive device or translation service.
Another criticism of mail-in ballots is that voters risk being coerced.
“That somebody could be taking someone’s ballot, like a spouse maybe, telling a spouse how to vote. I’ve heard of organizations that have voting parties. We haven’t really seen evidence on it,” Wyman said, who also acknowledged that coercion is harder to discern and prevent.
Risk of foreign influence on mail-in voting is ‘far-fetched’
Trump’s fight against the supposed dangers of voting by mail was bolstered by Attorney General William Barr, who raised the prospect in a June interview with FOX News.
“Right now, a foreign country could print up tens of thousands of counterfeit ballots, and [it would] be very hard for us to detect which was the right and which was the wrong ballot,” Barr said.
His allegation, which suggests that foreign governments or individuals could print mail-in ballots on a massive scale to undermine the results, would be “an insurmountable task,” Weintraub said.
Foreign governments or organizations printing up ballots would need to know the personal details of registered voters, sometimes including parts of their Social Security number, their address and other information.
“It just seems very far-fetched,” Weintraub said. “They’d have to have the right paper stock, and of course all these things vary from one jurisdiction to another. We have a very decentralized system. There isn’t any one ballot that you would have to copy for every voter in the country. There are countless numbers of ballots, in all of the different jurisdictions with different state races, different local races on it.”
“I don’t know any election official who thinks this is a credible threat,” she added.
Partisan effects of mail-in voting
As the pandemic rages on, voting by mail has become a health and safety measure and an increasingly partisan issue — with Democrats more likely to support it than Republicans.
But does it give either political party an advantage? An April 2020 study by Stanford University concluded that voting by mail didn’t provide a clear benefit to either side. Voter turnout even modestly increased for both parties.
The study confirmed “important conventional wisdom among election experts” that mail-in voting offers voters “considerable convenience,” but it has “no discernible effect on party vote shares or the partisan share of the electorate.”
As Washington state’s top election official, Wyman says her goal is to instill public confidence that the election is fair and accurate.
“On the Democratic side — I like to be bipartisan — typically you’ll hear critics of elections talk about voter suppression, that people had to stand in line and couldn’t wait for five hours to cast a ballot, and that has suppressive effect on a group of voters. On the Republican side, you hear claims of voter fraud, that there was ballot box stuffing or some sort of activity that resulted in that,” Wyman explained.
“You have to acknowledge it but you also have to put in policies and procedures and laws that address both equally, so you have a fair and accessible election that was secure,” she continued. “And that’s really what the work of election officials is every day.”
This story was reported from Cincinnati.