On May 26, President Trump tweeted this prophecy about mail-in voting in California: “There is NO WAY (ZERO!) that Mail-In Ballots will be anything less than substantially fraudulent.” The president predicted that the November election will be rigged and went on to describe how: “Mail boxes will be robbed, ballots will be forged & even illegally printed out & fraudulently signed.”
This wasn’t the first time Trump issued such warnings. Since the beginning of the year, he’s done so at least 50 times, according to a tally by The Washington Post. He also questioned election integrity in 2018. And in 2016, Trump famously claimed the reason he lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton was because of millions of fraudulent ballots.
The issue of mail-in voting is particularly timely now as several states have adopted or proposed measures to expand the practice in order to facilitate social distancing in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Thirty-four states plus the District of Columbia are allowing voters to request absentee ballots in the weeks leading up to Election Day. Eleven states made it easier to do so in primary elections this spring, according to the Brookings Institution.
In 2016, nearly one-quarter of U.S. votes were cast by mail according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. This year, that figure will likely be significantly higher.
In the latest showdown, the president has announced his opposition to coronavirus-related emergency funding for the U.S. Postal Service and state election operations on the grounds that such funding will facilitate expansion of mail-in voting.
So is the president right? Is mail-in voting really a threat to free and fair elections? The answer is more complicated than you might think.
Voter Fraud Is Real
First, it must be said that voter fraud is not a myth.
In 2017, the conservative think tank Government Accountability Institute collected voter data from 21 states and commercial data services, and used it to cross-check voter histories. That study found 7,271 cases of votes in more than one state using matching names, birthdates, and at least one other identifier in the 2016 election. Of those, 3,885 involved mail-in ballots.
In 2018, Republican operatives in North Carolina illegally collected absentee ballots and they were caught and convicted. The election results were dismissed and a new election was held.
A 2012 report by the Pew Research Center found that one in eight voter registrations in the country was inaccurate or invalid, including 1.8 million active voter registrations of deceased people. These inefficiencies don’t prove fraud, but they certainly describe a system that is vulnerable.
More than 130 million Americans voted in the last presidential election. Whenever that many people do anything, some of them are bound to cheat. And for those with designs on cheating, mail-in voting seems to present the best opportunity.
Hans von Spakovsky, a former member of the Federal Election Commission now manager of the Election Law Reform Initiative at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, said mail-in ballots are “the ballots most vulnerable to being altered, stolen, or forged.”
That stands to reason. If you’re looking for a way to vote twice, it would seem more attractive to do so by mail than to stand in front of an election official with a fake ID.
Voter Fraud Is Rare
On the other hand, American elections are remarkably fair, perhaps more so than any nation on Earth. By some estimates, mail-in voter fraud happens in 0.000001 percent of cases. That’s one fraudulent ballot for every 1 million ballots cast, or about 130 per presidential election. If you and your spouse cheated in the last election, you’re probably the only household in your state who did so.
The rarity of voter fraud is confirmed by myriad sources.
The Heritage Foundation keeps a database of known voter fraud cases, dating back to 1982. As of August 18 of this year, that resource totaled 1,296 cases of fraud. In the same period, more than 1.8 billion ballots were cast. That’s a rate of 7 cases of fraud for every 10 million ballots. And that number includes things like bribing or intimidating voters that have nothing to do with mail-in voting. If you sort the Heritage Foundation data for fraudulent use of absentee ballots, the number of cases drops to 210.
A Justice Department initiative to suss out voter fraud during the first three years of the George W. Bush administration resulted in just 26 people convicted or pleading guilty to fraudulent registration or voting, out of 197,056,035 ballots cast in the two federal elections held during that period, according to a study by Lorraine C. Minnite, an associate professor of public policy at Rutgers University-Camden.
In June, Brookings studied states who had used expanded mail-in voting prior to 2018. It found 29 cases of mail-in voter fraud in those 5 states, out of 49,917,586 votes cast. That’s a fraud rate of 0.00000058.
Of course, not all cheaters get caught. The Heritage database, as von Spakovsky is quick to point out, only includes confirmed cases, mostly from the last 20 years. But even if the amount of fraud is 10 times what Brookings, Heritage Foundation, and the Justice Department uncovered, even including all 7,271 likely cases in the GAI report, that’s still a vanishingly small ratio.
During a press briefing in April, President Trump described “thousands and thousands of people sitting in somebody’s living room signing ballots all over the place.”
As far as the best policy minds in America can tell, that has never happened. It’s unlikely to happen. And if it does happen, the cheaters are likely to be caught, like the 1,296 others cataloged by the Heritage Foundation. The president’s assertion that there is zero chance expanded mail-in voting will not be “substantially fraudulent” is not supported by the facts.
The White House declined to provide a comment for this article.
The fact is that Americans are, by and large, an honest bunch. They hold their right to vote as a sacred trust, and they don’t attempt to cheat the system very often. Just as importantly, the American Constitution created a remarkably robust system for ensuring free and fair republican representation. In contrast to the world’s weaker democracies (see what’s happening now in Venezuela and Belarus), the American system has demonstrated extraordinary strength through all manner of cultural and technological change for two centuries.
Voter Fraud Isn’t The Biggest Problem With Mail-In Voting
Trump’s concern about fraud seems misplaced, but that doesn’t mean mail-in voting offers no cause for concern. Quite the contrary, a mammoth, complicated logistical task that relies heavily on the bureaucratic and cash-strapped U.S. Postal Service is a recipe for disaster. As anyone who’s stood in line at a post office will attest, efficiency and problem-solving aren’t the organization’s strong suits. And in recent weeks, it’s only gotten worse.
In an effort to save the postal service from insolvency, new Postmaster General Louis DeJoy restructured the agency in a way that has slowed mail delivery. He cut worker hours, shortened post office operating hours, and removed collection boxes — although recently he walked back some of those decisions in response to pressure from lawmakers.
DeJoy also started hedging his bets when it comes to mail-in voting. On July 30, attorneys for the postal service sent letters to 46 states and the District of Columbia warning that mail-in ballots could be delivered late.
“To the extent that the mail is used to transmit ballots to and from voters, there is a significant risk that, at least in certain circumstances, ballots may be requested in a manner that is consistent with your election rules and returned promptly, and yet not be returned in time to be counted,” read the letter sent to Texas signed by attorney Thomas J. Marshall.
The postal service can barely keep up with current demand. It’s requesting a $25 billion infusion just to stay afloat. With almost 180 million Americans eligible to vote by mail, it’s reasonable to doubt the agency’s ability to handle the load.
So What Do Voters Think?
In April, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 67 percent of American voters supported allowing anyone to vote by mail this November, and 58 percent favored permanent reform of that kind even after the pandemic ends. The debate over mail-in voting won’t end November 3.
With fraudulent ballots accounting for such a small percentage of votes, Americans can be reasonably confident the candidate installed in January will be the one chosen by the will of the people. But for confidence to remain high in coming elections, the country needs to pay attention to the growing concern over fraud.
Ryan Sanders is a freelance journalist and author in Irving, Texas, and a frequent contributor to The Dallas Morning News. He writes about faith, culture, leadership, and civil discourse. Any views expressed in this article are his own. His first book, Unbelievable: Examining the Unlikely Beauty Of the Christian Story, is available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter at @theryansanders.
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