As election officials from both parties are expanding their mail-voting operations ahead of the November election, the president and attorney general are making unverified claims that foreign actors could alter those ballots.
In an interview with Fox News on Sunday, Attorney General Bill Barr said voting by mail “absolutely opens the floodgates to fraud” and stated that “a foreign country could print tens of thousands of forged ballots, and (it would be) very difficult for us to detect what was the right and what was the wrong vote. ”
It was the second time this month that Barr had speculated on voter fraud in November. In an interview with the New York Times, the attorney general said that several foreign countries “could easily issue counterfeit ballots, name them and send them.” In a series of tweets Monday, President Trump did the same, claiming that the 2020 elections would be “rigged” because “foreign countries will print millions of ballots by mail.”
The comments have puzzled election officials and experts who say a complicated and detailed set of safeguards in place is expressly designed to detect and prevent such interference.
“It would have to reproduce the entire electoral administration apparatus somewhere in the middle of Siberia,” says Charles Stewart, founding director of the Electoral Laboratory of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Tina Barton, a Republican serving as secretary in Rochester Hills, Michigan, said her city’s ballots are printed by one company, they have a unique ballot number for each voter, they include a barcode that can show the registration of a voter and are programmed to be compatible with the city’s counting machines. Beyond those steps, the ballot mailing envelopes, secret sleeve, and ballot instructions are standardized, making it even more difficult to imitate mailing.
“There is a complete package of information and duplicating that would be an extreme effort,” Barton said. “But once again, even if they made that extreme effort, they are not going to have a ballot that will be read by programming on my machine.”
In Michigan, a key battlefield state Trump won in 2016, this will be the first cycle of presidential elections with unexcused absentee voting, which two-thirds of voters approved in a 2018 ballot measure. preparing for an increase in absentee voting and the secretary of state has mailed all registered voters absentee ballot request forms, despite the president’s harsh condemnation.
Barton says that although the volume of absentee voting has increased, the safeguards in place to ensure voting remain the same. She tells her staff to be concerned with precision rather than convenience in dealing with the largest number of absentee ballots.
The wide variation in ballots (different local candidates and problems depending on where you live) also makes it difficult for bad actors to commit fraud. In Colorado, which has held its elections by mail since 2013, “there are literally thousands of voting styles in each election,” says Secretary of State Jenna Griswold. In Jefferson County, which includes Denver, there are 500 styles of ballots for the general election. And in the surrounding Adams and Arapahoe counties, there are between 350 and 500 different ballots.
While intelligence officials and the Mueller Report detailed the ways in which Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election, the method was primarily through disinformation campaigns and not through manipulation of the vote by mail. Election officials and experts say that one benefit of voting by mail is that it creates a paper trail. “We know that Russia tried to penetrate electoral systems,” says Griswold. “Russia or any cyber hacker cannot hack a piece of paper.
Colorado is one of the five states that conduct elections primarily by mail. Twenty-nine other states allow absentee voting without excuse, which means any voter can request an absentee ballot, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, secretaries of state from both parties have been calling for more resources to conduct elections safely. And states across the country have been looking to expand mail voting operations as an option to allow voters to cast their ballots if they don’t feel comfortable going to the polls.
“Experts universally agree that voting by mail is an important contributor to the solution of how our fundamental right to vote is respected and how we keep people as safe as possible,” says Myrna Pérez, director of the Voting Rights Program and Elections. in the center of Brennan. “The president who discourages people from voting by mail flies in the face of data and common sense, and is out of reach for Americans who want more options when you’re in a state of crisis.”
A Gallup poll released last month found that 64% of Americans support voting by mail. But while 83% of Democrats support the effort, only 40% of Republicans do.
The partisan divide also exists among concerns about mail-vote fraud. That same poll found that 31% of Americans say that if all voters are allowed to vote by mail there will be a “large amount” of fraud. That includes 50% of Republicans, but only 16% of Democrats.
Still, cases are rare and not done with impunity.
In November 2016, 13,215 people voted absentee in Rochester Hills, and Barton said he filed two police reports for fraudulent voting. In one case, a woman tried to vote for her deceased husband. In the other case, one person attempted to vote on behalf of a family member. Barton said the signature on that ballot did not match the voter’s signature on file, a common technique for verifying the identity of an absent voter. He traced the family member to a nursing home and discovered that the person had been in a coma for months.
“I have been doing this for 15 years and there have been very minimal cases where we have had to go to those extremes,” Barton said. “The system did what it was supposed to do.”
In Colorado, Griswold says the number of cases of possible fraudulent activity in the interim periods of 2018 amounted to .0027 percent. “We have rules and laws to make sure that the person is who they say they are,” he said. “If there is ever any reason to believe that something is happening, we mean prosecution.”
The conservative Heritage Foundation maintains a database of voter fraud cases, which shows few cases of absentee vote fraud in key battlefield states. In Michigan, for example, she found only five cases since 2007 where there was a criminal conviction. In Florida, there were eight cases in a 20-year period, and in Ohio, seven cases in two decades. Overall, there have only been around 200 cases of fraud absent in all states in its database with various penalties for perpetrators.
That’s not to say there isn’t some concern about rapidly expanding the voting-by-mail infrastructure without the resources to manage and process ballots, especially in states that don’t yet have a robust system.
“There are sophisticated and well-regarded structures, precisely because of fraud concerns,” says Stewart. “When you leave the ballot out of sight of the election official, there are opportunities to cast a fraudulent ballot …[but] if you wanted to commit wholesale fraud, doing it by mail vote is the dumbest way to do it because you have all kinds of paper records. “
Barton has expressed some frustration with the president’s repeated claims that voting by mail is fraught with fraud. In April, she responded to one of those tweets about vote-by-mail fraud, which she has since removed, saying it was insulting to her and other poll workers who had sworn to protect the Constitution.
“Having someone say the words you said felt like a personal insult not only to every election official who takes that oath and takes it very seriously, but also to all of my staff workers, as well as the electoral inspectors who take the oath – the same oath that we are not doing our job or that we are committing a crime or that we are lying, “Barton said.