The first 2020 general election debate touched on the issue of universal and absentee mail-in voting as the two candidates sparred over election integrity.
So what’s the controversy? President Donald J. Trump expressed concern about the possibility of rampant fraud, while former Vice President Joe Biden says he has complete faith in the system.
Americans, including President Trump, have used the mail system to vote via absentee ballot for decades. However, over the last 20 years, new universal vote-by-mail practices have entered the picture and restrictions on absentee voting have been loosened. That trend has only further intensified as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2020, it’s expected that as many as 80 million Americans will be eligible to cast their vote by absentee or universal mail-in ballot, more than double the 33.6 million who used these practices in 2016. That raises—or should raise—genuine concern.
Absentee vs. Universal Balloting
According to the Bipartisan Policy Center, all 50 states have some type of absentee voting. In absentee voting, a potential voter has to proactively request an absentee ballot. Some states require a valid reason before a citizen is allowed to vote by absentee ballot, such as being out of town on Election Day or ill, while other states do not. Many states also have historically required certain security mechanisms, such as sending a valid ID with the application and signing the ballot in front of witnesses or a notary public, but some of these restrictions have been lifted or changed this year.
In a universal vote-by-mail scenario, states send ballots to all registered voters. Only five states had a universal mail-in process in place before the COVID-19 lockdowns. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 10 states are now automatically mailing ballots to all eligible voters in the wake of COVID-19.
What are the Possible Concerns?
It takes a massive effort to successfully implement mail-in voting, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center. When it comes to something as serious as a Presidential election, states cannot afford to figure things out as they go. The infrastructure must already be securely in place and tested and the state has to communicate all of the changes to the state’s voters.
Another logistical issue centers around the U.S. Postal Service. In most states, mail-in votes must be either postmarked or received by Election Day—or they don’t count. The Postal Service is often excoriated for inefficiencies and COVID-19 has only made effectively delivering the mail more challenging.
Jordan Davidson of The Federalist experienced first-hand the problems with mail-in voting. Despite her diligence in requesting an absentee ballot, the ballot never arrived.
Unfortunately, this scenario isn’t a rarity. In an April 2020 research brief based on U.S. Election Assistance Commission survey data, the Public Interest Legal Foundation found that during the last four federal elections, 28.3 million absentee or mail-in ballots either went missing or were misdirected after being given to the U.S. Postal Service.
Is Fraud a Concern?
The Brookings Institute wrote that there are controls in place to ensure the security of mail-in voting, including the requirement that the person be registered to vote, and ballots can only be sent to the address listed for that person’s voter registration. Voters are required to sign the envelope and Brookings wrote that some states use signature verification to guard against fraud.
Fraud, however, is not a myth, as some mail-in proponents contend. Serious legal issues raised in elections held just this year contradict that claim.
A New Jersey judge in August ordered that a new election be held due to charges of voter fraud related to mail-in voting during a city council election. In Detroit, 72% of precincts reported that poll books and the number of absentee ballots cast did not match, leading county officials to request an investigation and a state election monitor for November’s election. And Georgia’s secretary of state determined that about 1,000 voters had “double-voted,” or cast both an absentee ballot and an in-person ballot, in the June 9 primary.
An Ongoing Issue
Mail-in voting has actually been just as controversial in prior presidential elections. In 2012, for example, the New York Times talked to several election experts and officials about their concerns over the integrity of mail-in voting, specifically absentee ballots. At the time, mail-in voting accounted for 20 percent of total votes.
“Votes cast by mail are less likely to be counted, more likely to be compromised, and more likely to be contested than those cast in a voting booth, statistics show,” the article stated. “Election officials reject almost 2 percent of ballots cast by mail, double the rate for in-person voting.”
Another issue raised by the Times was so-called “granny farming,” wherein people affiliated with political campaigns go to senior centers and nursing homes to “help people vote absentee. And help is in quotation marks,” noted Murray A. Greenberg, a former county attorney in Miami.
Today, that same practice is better known as ballot harvesting, which allows a third-party to collect someone else’s ballot and deliver it to the polls. In most states, the practice is illegal, but many states have since passed legislation allowing it, including California.
Critics say ballot harvesting is ripe for fraud, and in fact, a 2018 congressional election in North Carolina was overturned after it was found that several Republican operatives had illegally harvested and tampered with absentee ballots. A current investigation in Minneapolis is looking into claims that Democrat operatives have been engaging in illegal ballot harvesting and vote-buying.
While the extent of intentional fraud is unknown, fraud is likely to increase to some degree as the use of mailed ballots increases. And the Postal Service will be hard-pressed to effectively deliver tens of millions of mail-in ballots in a timely manner.
Mail-in voting has its benefits. It increases voter participation and provides an opportunity to vote at your convenience and from the safety of your home. At the same time, mail-in voting increases the risk that your vote will be lost, compromised, or discounted.
To be able to have a say in your own governance is both a hard-won privilege and an obligation. It should not be passive or taken for granted. You have a responsibility to do everything in your power to make sure that your vote counts. So unless it is physically or logistically impossible, you should either place your mail-in ballot in a secure, designated drop-off location or vote in person.