Casting Fraudulent Mail-In Votes Is Doable; Getting Them Counted Is Not
I once had a boss in the Army who used to say about newly assigned officers that, “Everyone wants to tell me how they took a screwed-up unit and straightened it out.” He then quickly got to his punch line. “That doesn’t impress me. I like a guy who took over a good unit and didn’t screw it up.”
I’m sure by that standard my old leader would be most unimpressed with the actions of President Donald Trump and his Postal Service troll Louis DeJoy who are determined to take a process — voting by mail — that works well and screw it up.
Numerous commentators and postal authorities have noted that when it comes to voting by mail there is no evidence of wide-spread voter fraud. The only contemporary case of great note occurred in the recent, rather bizarre House race in North Carolina’s 9th District. That fraud was being perpetrated by the Republican candidate, and he was caught.
But my own recent experience is that voting by mail not only works fine, it works even better than I thought. Let me elaborate.
A couple of years ago I re-located across the country from Arlington, Virginia, to Seattle, Washington — two geographically, culturally, and politically distinct places. When I went to get my Washington State driver’s license, I also registered to vote. Three things happened in short order that gave me great confidence in the coordination of Secretaries of State and mail-in voting.
First, although I did not notify Arlington County’s voting registrar that I was moving, I very shortly received a letter telling me they had been informed that I had moved elsewhere. The notification continued that if this was correct, no action was required and that I would be removed from the Arlington voting rolls. I was impressed. Through some coordinated process, states and localities a continent apart knew I had moved and adjusted their voting rolls accordingly.
Next, in Seattle I received in the mail a pamphlet of the candidates for the coming state and local elections. The pamphlet identified in a very organized manner who was running for what office, and contained a brief statement written by the candidates introducing themselves and explaining their positions on key issues. A few weeks later I received my ballot to be filled out and returned by either mail, or by dropping it in one of the seventy special election drop boxes widely distributed across Seattle. The ballot also contained a tracking code allowing the voter to track whether their ballot was received and processed.
Because of some travel, I neglected to vote in the following election. Seattle noticed. For the next election cycle, I received the pamphlet but not a ballot. I called the elections office to ask why. They informed me that since I had not voted last time they had moved me to an “inactive voter” category. I apologized for my civic failure, which they graciously accepted, and a ballot was mailed — one that I again dropped in the ballot box at the bottom of the hill from my home. And again, I went to the election web site a couple of days later to verify that my ballot had been received and processed. On the same web site, I was able to see the results of the election.
Washington has been using this mail voting process for twenty years, and as Congresswoman Primila Jayapal recently noted the rate of fraudulent voting is an infinitesimal fraction of one percent. Virginia does not use this mail-only system, but it does make early and absentee voting quite accessible and easy.
Mail-in voting has been normal for me. During my twenty-five years in the Army I always voted absentee — in other words, by mail. In fact, all soldiers are given a card (Standard Form 76) from their unit voting officer with information on requesting an absentee ballot. Military votes have been an issue before, such as in Florida in 2000, as mail — especially for deployed units and ships — can be a bit uncertain. But just a bit.
And as for the Washington State system, consider this. For an individual, or a sinister organization, to successfully flood the elections office with fraudulent ballots they would have to overcome some significant obstacles. First, they would have to accurately and completely duplicate the printed ballots. Second, they would have to somehow create the unique bar code and ballot identification number assigned to each voter, and on each return envelope, and embed it in the election office’s data bank.
Third — and significantly, they would have to successfully forge the voter’s signature on the ballot. Washington election officials actually have a record of each voters’ signature, and each ballot is checked by a voting official who is trained to catch forged signatures. Finding one initiates an investigation as to who actually sent in the ballot. In short, although sending in a forged ballot is within the art of the possible, getting it actually counted is not.
Washington State has been steadily refining its voting process for twenty years. Currently, in the middle of the Coronavirus pandemic, with the need for mail-in voting quite evident, other states are rushing to ask Washington how they do it. And they should — quickly.
As for duplicate voting in different locations, thirty states to date have joined a non-governmental, non-profit organization named the Electronic Registration Information Center. ERIC, as it is known, is governed by a board of directors made up of the chief election official of member states or their designee. It is essentially a huge data matching service that compares voting roles in member localities against such other records as drivers’ licenses and the Social Security system. This allows ERIC to eliminate duplicate voters, deceased voters, and even to identify eligible voters who might not be registered and encourage them to do so.
ERIC has been steadily expanding since 2012, but some large states have yet to join, most notably New York and California, likely because of data issues. A few states have expressed privacy concerns. But the trend is clear, and this year ERIC will likely be busier than ever.
What does this mean? It means that someone with sinister, un-democratic motivations could indeed print large numbers of fraudulent mail-in ballots, mark them, and sign them. They could then be either mailed or dropped in vote collection boxes as provided by many jurisdictions. But submitting fraudulent ballots is not the same as getting them counted.
If the phony ballots were not precise duplicates of actual ballots printed by local authorities, they would be quickly identified, pulled aside, and handed to law enforcement for investigation. If the ballots were sufficiently well printed to closely resemble real ballots they would then have to pass the bar-code test matching them to a real voter. This would require the forgers of the fake ballots to have successfully hacked the voter rolls of the local or state voting authorities, extracted the precise bar codes, and successfully printed them on the illegal ballots. Getting past these two steps is no small order.
But even if a highly organized, efficient, clever, devious organization could achieve that, one still has to get past the signature test. The likelihood of successfully breaching all of these procedural barriers is quite low, as the Washington State data shows. Other states might not be as sophisticated or well prepared, but they should be working toward that objective.
As many have predicted, a huge increase in mail-in and early votes will certainly slow vote counting. This is an undesirable but inevitable outcome of the coronavirus pandemic and the necessary need for social distancing. And there are certain to be those who do not correctly mark and return ballots, which can further slow counting as officials verify the ballot, or as campaign lawyers seek their preferred judicial remedy in court. But that is just another dimension of the fundamental reality that the actual challenge of mail-in voting is not from fraudulent voting but in counting legitimate votes.
After the 2016 election, President Trump quickly claimed that perhaps five million people had voted illegally. He had no evidence that this had happened, and his effort appointing Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach to investigate the matter found nothing. The reason was pretty clear — there is nothing to find regarding illegal voting, duplicate voting, or mail-in voting. As the recent experience with Kanye West indicates, and as the Heritage Foundation has shown, most voter fraud seems to be associated with forged signatures on petitions rather than actually voting itself.
It is, of course, certain that Washington State’s current procedures are much more mature than those of other states. For those now wanting to expand voting by mail it will likely be challenging to quickly establish more secure mail-in voting procedures. But as our military well knows, mail-in voting is normal, natural, and workable. As for other states scrambling to get ready for November — call the Washington Secretary of State. He’ll tell you how to do it.