Mail-in voting: Is it really safe? All you ever wanted to know, FAQ style

Credit: California Secretary of State’s office

Voting by mail is safe – at least as safe as any other way you’ve voted in a U.S. election. It’s hardly new.  I voted by mail for years when I lived in Washington State, one of five states that currently have all-mail elections.  Is it perfect? No. Are there ways to commit fraud? Yes — basically, the same ways that fraud is committed with in-person.  I’ll explain what the real risks are in this Frequently Asked Questions piece, what security measures are in place, and what voters should do now to help make sure their vote counts.

(Why does this newsletter look so different from Bob’s old newsletter?)

President Trump and a few of his followers have made broad allegations about widespread mail-in vote fraud, never citing evidence (remember, anecdotes are not evidence). I hope this piece will answer all the questions you have about the safety of mail-voting. There are lots of links so people of good faith can do all their own research. If and when specifics about fraud are shared with me, I’ll add them to this piece.

First, this: After the hanging chads of 2000, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, which really didn’t help much, I think we all know the U.S. isn’t great at counting votes.  There are thousands of jurisdictions that collect votes in our country, many of them free to pick their own technologies and methods for doing so.  Collection and counting votes seems simple; it’s actually really complex.  And we fail, often.

Even a single image of people waiting on line for hours, let alone endless images of this on election night, is an embarrassment, an affront to our Founders, and an attack on the entire notion of democracy. Really, that’s no hyperbole. I’ll let curious readers who’ve never experienced such lines on voting day read for themselves where this is most likely to happen, and why. That’s a different story. Today, I want to summarize all we know about mail-in voting, and why it’s a safe and smart measure to avoid long lines outside on Nov. 3 during a pandemic and flu season.

I spent a month two years ago examing all the ways our election could be hacked, hosting this 1-hour podcast with Alia Tavakolian. If you want to really understand how bad things are, give that a listen. Any discussion about the security of mail-in voting can’t begin without understanding the current context of voting problems in the United States. In that podcast, we make the point repeatedly that whoever happens to be in power, they got there via whatever flawed election process existed on the prior election day. So no one in power has any incentive to improve the situation. Keep that in mind when you hear criticism of voting methods that might be new to some.

For an even deeper look at the way our current voting methods can be hacked, watch the excellent HBO Documentary Kill Chain with Harri Hursti.

Is mail-in voting perfect? No. I’d argue mail-in voting is SAFER than many of our current vote collection methods, but I think honest people could debate that.  It’s surely no more risky than letting a computer count your vote without getting so much as a receipt, or many other flawed ways we collect and tally votes today.

Does mail-in voting help one party or the other?

It’s too early to tell. Maybe it helps poor voters without access to transportation cast their votes, and they skew liberal. Maybe it helps housebound elderly people vote, and they skew conservative.  One study I found suggests it’s a wash.   That study also found mail-in voting increases voter participation slightly, by about two percent.  Would it help even more during a pandemic? We just don’t know. But any claim that mail-in balloting helps or hurts a certain candidate or party is unsubstantiated.

The real risks of mail-in voting

Like all voting methods, mail-in voting has its issues. The risks probably aren’t what you think, however.  One might conjure up an image of fake ballots pilled high in a dark office, or being stuffed into mailboxes. That can’t happen because only pre-registered voters can vote, and they can vote only once.

You might also imagine a pile of mailed ballots being thrown in the trash and not counted — all the worse if one party’s ballots are discarded this way. That theoretically could happen, but it’s no more likely than someone throwing away a memory card full of votes collected at a voting machine. Even this risk can be strongly mitigated by post-election “risk-limiting auditing.” Oddball voting patterns, such as 1,000 votes for the same person in a row, or votes from a district falling 80% below normal rates, betray themselves pretty quickly when there is proper auditing. That’s not standard everywhere, but it should be.

Post vote auditing is *basically* how the now-notorious North Carolina mail-in fraud in 2018 was discovered. The most realistic risk from mail-in ballots is known as “ballot harvesting.” Someone goes door-to-door and collects legitimate ballots from real voters, and one way or another coerces the voters to pick their candidate — or changes the ballots.  In North Carolina, a small set of voter witnesses each turned in dozens of votes, all for the same slate of candidates.  It wasn’t hard to uncover, and the mastermind is now facing felony charges. (Read local coverage of this incident.)

Could ballot harvesting happen on a wide scale? It would have to be done with utmost care to avoid such obvious patterns. Everyone involved would have to be “in” on it. And if you think about it, is it *that* different from driving a bus around on election day and filling it with people who wouldn’t otherwise vote, paying them for doing so?

If you look hard, you’ll find ghost stories about party hacks harvesting ballots from unsuspecting voters by offering to deliver them, then taking them home and steaming the voting envelopes open to change the ballot — check-washing style. Is that impossible? No. Is it possible on a wide scale, without anyone noticing the altered ballots and resealed envelopes? I’ll just say that’s an extraordinary claim, and anyone making it should have extraordinary evidence. A “journalist” writing a story on the basis of one anonymous tipster making such claims is a hack. If I’m considering conspiracy theories, the one that involves Internet-connected DRE (direct recording electronic) machines being hacked by a foreign power is far more believable.

Mail-in voting is old hat. Why the complaints now?

Fully 23 percent of votes cast during the 2016 Trump election were mailed, and 26 percent in 2018’s midterms. Long before Covid-19, mail-in voting was a thing.  You probably didn’t notice anyone ringing alarm bells then.  Today, 46 states already allow pretty liberal use of mail-in ballots.  Anyone who sincerely thought the method was unsafe would have complained long ago. Already, five states have all-by mail voting. Mail-ballots aren’t popular only in liberal west coast states. The state of Arizona says 80% of voters have mailed ballots at some point.

Not all mail-in voting is the same. What types are there?

Absentee voting and mail-in voting are essentially the same thing.  The only difference is the hurdle a voter must clear to vote by mail. According to TrustTheVote.org (PDF), there are basically five ways states deal with this hurdle.

  • All by-mail: States with “universal all-mail elections.” All registered voters automatically receive blank ballots for each election, without needing to make a request. This is how I voted in Washington state.
  • Mostly by-mail: States with “no excuse” by mail voting, and where approximately 70% of all ballots cast by-mail.
  • Already “no excuse” absentee by-mail voting (i.e., before COVID-19): States that allow any voter to request an absentee by-mail ballot, without needing to provide a justification or reason for not voting in-person.
  • “Excuse required” states that recently relaxed requirements: States that previously required an “excuse” to be able to obtain an absentee by-mail ballot, but that have recently officially stated that COVID-19 concerns are a valid reason for any voter to request an absentee ballot.
  • “Excuse required” states, with no changes: States that have still not changed policies during the Covid-19 era.

And here’s where the states break down in these categories: 46 of 50 states currently offer some form of by-mail voting that is available to all voters (Again, thanks TrustTheVote.org)

  • Five states are all by-mail (CO, HI, OR, UT, WA)
  • Two states are heavily by-mail (CA, MT)
  • 27 states already provided “no excuse” absentee by-mail voting, before the pandemic (AK, AZ, FL, GA, IA, ID, IL, KS, MD, ME, MI, MN, NC, ND, NE, NJ, NM, NV, OH, OK, PA, RI, SD, VA, VT, WI, WY).  (By the way, 14 had Republican governors, 13 have Democratic governors)
  • 12 states require an “excuse” to vote absentee, but have relaxed restrictions to make COVID-19 a valid excuse to request an absentee ballot (AL, AR, CT, DE, IN, KY, LA, MA, NH, NY, DC, WV).
  • Four states have made no changes (TEX, TN, MO, MIS)

(NOTE: These are fluid; I’ll update this story on my website as needed)

What are the security measures? How are votes, and voters, verified?

  • As I mentioned earlier, you can’t vote twice. Piles of fake ballots won’t be counted. Votes are checked against existing voter registration records. One registration, one vote.
  • Ballots are only sent to previously registered voters. Ballots aren’t junk mail, sent randomly. They are sent to specific voters, already in the voter rolls. In some states, voters must specifically request them. In places like Washington state, ballots are sent to all registered voters. They don’t count until they are mailed in, or dropped off, and verified one-by-one by a poll worker.
  • In many states, ballot envelopes come with a code so voters can track their vote, the way people track Amazon packages.
  • In many cases, “mail-in” ballots can be dropped off at polling places or other vote collection boxes. I usually did this for extra confidence that the vote made it to the right place (73% of voters in Colorado, 59% in Oregon and 65% in Washington returned their ballots to some physical location, according to this Brennan Center report).
  • Identity authentication: How do we know the right person is voting? Voters sign a security envelope before their ballot is mailed. The voter’s signature must match their registration record.  This is very similar to the way voters check-in at polling places.  Of course, nothing compares to verification from poll workers in small towns who actually *know* voters as they arrive.  Sadly, that’s a dying breed. And it also creates its own problems (“Now, John, I don’t see your registration record here, but if you tell me how you are voting, that might help”). Obviously, signature checking is imperfect. If there are problems, I’d wager they’ll surround voters signatures. That’s why they get their own category (and they”ll be the subject of a future story.)

Why might signature verification be a problem?

In most places, a non-partisan board has the job of making sure the signature on the outside of the ballot envelope matches the signature in the registration record.  Then, the ballot envelope is opened and the votes counted separately, to preserve anonymity.  What if the signatures *don’t* match, or don’t seem to match? Thanks to a new law in California, voters there must be given a chance to “cure” the mismatch, or authenticate themselves in some other way. In some places, the votes are set aside and not counted.

It’s easy to see how someone could manipulate this process by challenging signatures that all come from a reliably Republican Party or Democratic Party area.  This situation isn’t much different from the problems that often occur when voter registration records contain errors and citizens aren’t allowed to vote in person, or are forced to fill out provisional ballots.

There are some added challenges with mail-in signature matching.  For one, many young people don’t write cursive any longer. They quite literally don’t have signatures.  They print in block letters. It will be hard to verify them. In other cases, people’s signatures change over time. Poll workers might be asked to compare signatures from 30 or 40 years ago.  In California, millions of registration records draw signatures from electronic signing machines at motor vehicle offices.  Consumers often don’t use their, ahem, best penmanship at such machines.

Here’s a good academic study on the problem of signature matching.  And here is the ACLU explaining the various lawsuits it has filed over the issue.

This is a real-life problem. In California’s primaries, 14,000 votes were rejected this year because of mismatched signatures (out of 7 million cast). The numbers aren’t as dramatic as one might think. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, “Los Angeles County, with 1.1 million mail ballots, rejected 267 for mismatched signatures. San Mateo County, with just under 200,000 mail ballots, eliminated 1,169.”  And the good news is that, unlike election day voter registration snafus, mail-in vote snafus can be cured early, when the votes arrive.

Still, it’s easy to imagine a surge in mail-in voting might make this very labor-intensive signature verification process extremely painful and slow.  That’s the real risk we face in November: Understaffed voting jurisdictions and overworked poll-workers causing a bottleneck on election night and beyond.  All that would set the stage for a slow vote count and open the door for Florida 2000-style controversy.

Wait a minute. It seems like voter registration might be the weak link here!

You’re right. Falsified or outdated registrations can be problem when people request mail-in ballots. What if someone registers fraudulently, then gets a mail-in ballot? That’s an issue; but that person could also fraudulently claim to be sick and get an absentee ballot, or fraudulently vote in person. Mail-in ballots don’t really add to that risk. Duly noted, however: The state of American poll books is a serious clusterF&&f that we should spend real money on fixing. Please continue to feel that way even after your candidate wins or loses in November.

So as a voter, what should you do right now? 

Behavioral economics tells me that the most important thing is to have a specific, concrete plan to vote. Know when and where and how. Don’t think, “I’ll walk into the firehouse sometime on election day.” Think, “I’ll check my registration record right now; I’ll tell my boss I’m coming in late on Tuesday, Nov. 3; and I’ll get in line at 9 a.m. I’ll request a ballot right after reading this story. I’ll mail it on Oct. 15.” Or whatever your version of that is.

Also, given this worry about signature matching, it could help to check your registration record and update your signature ahead of time, if your state allows that. In addition, mail-in voters should:

  • Vote early in case there is a signature mismatch, so you’ll have a chance to fix it
  • Include contact information, such as cell phone number and email address, so you can be contacted to “cure’ any problems.
  • Make sure to sign, not print, your name on the ballot return envelope

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About Bob Sullivan 1470 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.

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