SEATTLE — Tens of millions of Americans are expected to vote by mail for the first time this fall, as pandemic-stricken states look to safeguard what John Lewis, the late congressman and civil rights leader, called in a final essay “the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society.”
For Washington voters, sticking a ballot in the mail or a drop box is old hat — a system that has been the default for a decade and which has recently expanded to become postage-free.
But because much of the 2020 election revolves around President Donald Trump, what might seem a common-sense shift has become sharply politicized.
Trump for months has tried to sow distrust about the November election — and mail voting in particular — as he sags in national and swing-state polling that shows dissatisfaction with his performance dealing with COVID-19 and the related economic collapse.
In a July 30 tweet, Trump claimed that mail-in voting will make the 2020 “the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history.” He also floated delaying the election — a power he does not have — which was swiftly condemned by Democrats and some prominent Republicans.
Notwithstanding the president’s claims, election experts in Washington and nationally say there is no evidence universal mail balloting has proved particularly vulnerable to widespread fraud.
Studies of elections in Washington and other vote-by-mail states (Oregon, Hawaii, Colorado and Utah have vote-by-mail statutes) have shown the system has modestly increased turnout without leading to widespread fraud or notable partisan advantage for either Republicans or Democrats.
“We shouldn’t be complacent about fraud. We shouldn’t say it never exists, but most of the evidence we have suggests the risks are fairly minimal,” said Anthony Fowler, a political scientist at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy.
Lawrence Norden, director of the Election Reform Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, said, “I think Washington state is proof that we know how to conduct mail voting securely.”
Still, as Washington voters cast mail ballots in last Tuesday’s primary — and looked ahead to the Nov. 3 general election — news cycles and social media accounts were awash in efforts to discredit or question the security of mail voting.
The dynamic creates a perhaps unprecedented challenge for faith in Washington’s elections system, even as recent years have brought acknowledgment that it is one of the safer ones in the nation. Now, officials must not only fend off domestic and foreign interference — like Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election — but also defend against the perception the system is rigged.
Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman said she worries most about misinformation that could weaken voters’ trust in the democratic process.
“All of that misinformation gets passed on as very credible, real, factual information,” said Wyman, a Republican who is running for reelection this year. “And election officials are going to have to focus on getting trusted information out.”
King County Elections Director Julie Wise, who has worked on local elections for two decades, called mail balloting more secure than poll voting in states that use electronic systems and no paper trail.
“What I have witnessed is that vote by mail is the most secure system we have in this country and the most accessible,” she said.
Fowler, however, cited some vulnerabilities with mail-in ballots, noting it’s harder to know whether the person casting the ballot is actually the correct registered voter. He and other experts also said they worry about inexperienced states spinning up mail voting in just a few months’ time.
Still, with the coronavirus pandemic still among us, and surging in some areas of the country, mail ballots offer a hygienic alternative to voters having to stand in long lines for hours at overcrowded polling stations. In April, after Wisconsin held its presidential primary, in-person polling led to an estimated 700 additional COVID-19 cases, according to estimates in a working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
A visit to King County Elections headquarters in Renton late last month showed workers taking extra precautions as they processed ballots. All visitors and staff have temperatures scanned upon entry. Masks are required, and election workers sit farther apart, separated by Plexiglas barriers.
No form of voting is fraud-proof
Attempts at fraud do happen, including people casting votes in multiple states, for dead people, or even trying to register animals to vote by mail.
But such cases are rare, and prosecutions are even rarer. The conservative Heritage Foundation, which tracks vote fraud cases, has identified at least 1,290 proven instances of voter fraud nationally going back to at least 1992 — with most not involving mail ballots.
In Washington, for the 2016 and 2018 elections Wyman’s office identified 216 cases of potential fraud — about .003% of the 6.5 million votes cast in those two general elections.
Wyman’s office forwards suspected fraud cases to county elections officials, who examine them and refer possible cases for prosecution. She said she was not aware of any prosecutions based on the 2016 or 2018 referrals. If no county prosecutors pursue the 2018 cases, she said, she plans to refer them to the FBI.
In late 2017, King County Elections referred 18 cases of suspected voter fraud from the 2016 elections to King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg’s office. No charges were filed.
After reviewing the cases, Satterberg’s office sent warning letters to 10 people who allegedly voted twice. One cast two ballots in Washington, while others appeared to have voted here and in another state, said Casey McNerthney, a spokesman for Satterberg’s office.
“We didn’t file those cases, but reminded them that double voting is a crime our office takes very seriously” and that charges could be filed in the future if they violated the law again, said McNerthney.
One person who received a letter had registered a dog to vote. No vote was cast for the canine, and the animal’s registration was canceled.
“It is worth noting that to the extent your actions were intended to expose some purported flaw in the state registration process, you were unsuccessful,” Mark Larson, then chief of the King County Prosecutor’s criminal division, wrote in a warning letter to the dog’s owner.
Security features on ballots make widespread tampering extremely difficult, said Marian Schneider, president of the nonprofit Verified Voting Foundation, a group that advocates for secure and accurate elections.
And at the end of the day, elections officials can go back and review paper ballots. She cited the 2018 election in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District that was ultimately thrown out due to suspected ballot fraud by a political operative working for a GOP candidate.
“In order to change a statewide election, the size of the conspiracy needed ... would be so large that it would fall apart,” said Schneider. “And we actually saw that happen in North Carolina’s congressional election.”
Creating ballot security
Washington’s current vote-by-mail system evolved over decades. In 1993, the state began to allow vote-by-mail in precincts with fewer than 200 voters. In 2005, that was expanded to allow counties to adopt vote-by mail.
By 2011, 38 of 39 counties were voting by mail and the Legislature adopted it statewide.
Washington requires people registering to vote to provide a valid driver’s license, state ID or Social Security number. Ballots mailed to voters have intricate defenses against fraud, from the type of paper they are printed on, to time stamps and a bar code individualized to each voter.
Voters sign the envelopes that hold the ballot, and county elections officials match those signatures to ones on file. If they don’t match or if a signature is missing, they reach out to the voter to check the discrepancy. Observers from the Republican and Democratic parties are allowed to observe vote-counting, and King County Elections has several live webcams for anyone to view its work.
Fears of voter fraud could ultimately be the least of the challenges confronting election systems in what has already become one of the most tumultuous eras of the America’s democracy.
It will be difficult for states not accustomed to mail-in elections to adopt it on such short notice in light of the pandemic, said Norden, of the Brennan Center.
As the virus spread during the spring presidential primaries, states like Wisconsin and Georgia “just didn’t have the infrastructure to process the number of applications” for absentee ballots they received, he said.
Congress could help by approving funding to help states conduct mail balloting in the coronavirus relief package currently being debated, Norden added.
Meanwhile, elections officials continue to brace for more attempts at foreign meddling in the elections, after Russia in 2016 targeted voting systems in all 50 states. In that instance, foreign actors scanned the online systems in search of weak spots. They didn’t manage to breach Washington’s system, officials have said.
There are also fears the Trump administration could disrupt vote-by-mail across the country as it puts new restrictions on the U.S. Postal Service, an agency Trump has called a money-losing “joke.”
Louis DeJoy, a top Trump political donor recently named Postmaster General, has ordered changes — like cutting overtime and making letter carriers leave mail behind in instances to avoid late deliveries or additional trips, according to news reports. The measures have been described as ways to cut costs. But postal workers say it could hurt their ability to deliver ballots for the November election on time, according to news reports.
Despite Washington’s 18-day voting period, Wyman worries such slow downs could disenfranchise any voters whose ballots don’t “get postmarked in time.”
That issue could be more pronounced in states that require ballots to be in the hands of elections offices by Election Day — instead of merely postmarked like in Washington.
On July 31, the Michigan Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal to allow votes to count absentee ballots in the swing state so long as they are mailed by Election Day.
Some elections observers fear a nightmarish scenario in November if a close presidential contest hangs on disputed ballots with delays in results due to mail votes trickling in.
Washington state voters have grown accustomed to not knowing the winner of elections for a week or more. But national news and partisan operatives could be whipped into a frenzy over such delays come Nov. 3.
Trump already has claimed that any delays in counting will be evidence of a “rigged” election.
Fowler and other elections experts urged patience to allow votes to be counted.
“Our appetite for knowing who won on election night is probably a dangerous thing,” he said. “It would be better for democracy if a lot of media outlets said we are not going to call the election on election night.”