Mail Voting Fraud Risk: How To Avoid It?
President Donald Trump says voting by mail is ripe with fraud again
Charles Stewart: There Could Be More Than 2 Million Voters Whose Vote Doesn’t Count
In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, more and more experts in the United States have begun talking about mail-order voting as a possible way out to ensure greater voter safety. Others note the possible risks and potential difficulties associated with this..
What are these risks? What are some examples of fraudulent mail voting, and what can you expect in November? How is such a vote going, what steps must be taken to be able to vote by mail? How many people are estimated to vote by mail in November, and which US states are ready for this?
To these questions to the Russian service «Voices of America» replies Charles Stewart III, professor of political science and director of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab. According to him, preliminary estimates show that in November about 50-60 percent of Americans can vote by mail, and the number of unrecorded votes in this case could reach 2 million..
Margot Gontard: How common is mail-order fraud and how high the risks are??
Charles Stewart: Fraud is rare in the case of mail-order voting. I do not want to underestimate the danger of fraud in general, but the number of cases is very small. This can be measured by the number of mail-ballot fraud cases. Over the past 20 years, there have been several hundred such cases in the United States, while hundreds of millions of people vote by mail. Thus, we get a ratio of about one case per million. If you look closely at these cases, it is rarely a coordinated effort to falsify large numbers of votes. Usually it is one or two bulletins in which some mistake was made..
But there are risks, of which the most important are two. The first is overcoming technical difficulties in order for the mailed bulletin to be counted. For example, one of the ways to combat fraud is the procedure for verifying the ballot when it comes for counting. An important part of this process — comparison of the signature on the envelope in which the ballot came with the original signature of the voter. About 3-4 percent of ballots are not counted because there is no signature on them, or the signatures do not match. According to election officials, this is almost always not evidence of fraud, but the result of an oversight and oversight in which people simply forgot to sign on the ballot, or their signature has changed over time. Many states in the United States do not have a re-appeal procedure to correct such errors. Such cases range from 1 to 2 percent.
Sometimes voters make mistakes when filling out the ballot. The most common case is when they put «X» where you need to circle. In many states in the United States, you can enter a candidate’s name if it is not on the ballot. A significant number of people first shade a circle next to the candidate’s name on the list, and then write his name below. Any sane person looking at the ballot would agree that a voter voted for that particular candidate. But the scanner will consider this to be an error. Such cases account for another 1.5 percent of uncounted ballots. If you vote at a polling station, you are usually told how to avoid these mistakes. The most common problems in general can be easily resolved when a person votes at a polling station. During the scanning phase of the newsletter, you will receive information about whether you filled it out correctly, and the opportunity to correct errors if the scanner finds them. But you don’t have that option when you vote by mail.
Voters worry that the mail might delay or lose the letter, but in practice this is a very small fraction of the percentage of votes uncounted.
M.G .: And yet, it turns out that we are talking about 3 percent of US voters whose vote may not be counted.?
Ch. S .: Exactly. It could be millions of people. Until this year, only about 20 percent of Americans voted by mail. In 2016, this figure was about 25 million ballots. 3 percent of 25 million is about 750 thousand ballots. Now imagine that instead of 20 percent, you have 60 percent of Americans voting by mail, and then the number of potentially uncounted ballots tripled. As a result, there may be more than 2 million voters whose vote will not be counted..
M.G .: 3 percent of potentially uncounted votes is a lot or a little?
Ch. S .: Here’s one way to look at it. I have been researching the so-called «lost votes» when voting at a polling station. This number ranges from 1 to 2 percent of the vote. When voting by mail, it can be slightly higher – approximately 3 to 4 percent. The voter should take into account that there is a slightly greater chance that in the case of voting by mail, the vote will not be counted. But personally, I think this, although a risk, is relatively small and measurable..
M.G .: Please tell us in more detail how it works and what a voter needs to do to vote in the USA by mail?
Ch. S .: In most US states, a voter must request a ballot from a local electoral representative. This usually happens at the county level. In some cases, you will be allowed to submit your request online. They consider your request, check whether you are a registered voter, whether there is a signature on the application, whether it matches the original. If everything fits, you will be sent a letter by mail, which includes a ballot, two envelopes and a form to confirm the identity of the voter. One of the envelopes is a secret one in which you put the ballot paper and seal it. It is empty on both sides. The outer envelope may have your name or a place where you can write it. It also contains the address from where the bulletin was sent. This envelope is used to identify the voter. In most cases, you mail the ballot to the office of the local electoral authority.
There, first of all, they check the outer envelope and everything that confirms the identity of the voter. The system of two envelopes is especially important here, since it makes it possible to study the identity of the voter without looking at the ballot itself. All supporting information is on the outer envelope (in some US states, it is inside the outer envelope — ed.), including the vow you take (that you are who you say you are — ed.), and your signature. If they notice that there is no signature, or it does not match the original, then the voter is notified that the ballot paper may not be counted, and that the voter needs to come to clarify the situation. If the situation is not clarified, the ballot remains sealed in the sent envelope, ready for revision in case of recount. If the electoral committee confirms your identity, then it opens the envelope and puts the ballot paper in a secret envelope with other ballots sent by mail..
In most cases, there are high-speed scanners in the US that can handle thousands of newsletters per hour. Most of the time is spent confirming the identity of the voter and verifying the ballot.
M.G .: What can be done to reduce the risks associated with voting by mail?
Ch. S .: Voters need to do two things. The first – request a ballot paper by mail as early as possible. In some states, it is considered that the ballot must arrive before election day, in others it may arrive a couple of days after. If you request a ballot too close to Election Day, you risk not getting it in time. And when you send it back, it may not arrive on time. Therefore, it is important not to postpone, but to request it in advance..
Most US states are ready to mail ballots as early as 45 days before election day. So a month and a half months would be a sufficient margin of time. Most US states expect you to request no later than a week before Election Day, but I believe this is too late..
Secondly, you need to be careful and follow the instructions, where it is strongly recommended to take your time to read the rules, find a quiet place and fill out your newsletter..
M.G .: What are the possible types of fraud with sent by mail newsletters?
Ch. S .: Ballots can be stolen, filled in for a specific candidate, or thrown away. Another kind of violation — it is a fraudulent request for ballots to be filled in favor of a particular candidate. This happens, but rarely enough..
M.G .: Should, in your opinion, all voting be done this year by mail?
Ch. S .: Not this year. Large-scale administrative preparation is required to conduct voting solely by mail. There are very few US states that are at least somewhat ready for this. The state of California opted for a full mail-order vote, but they’ve had 60 percent of voters this way before. So it is with the state of Utah. They were ready for this.
One of the reasons why you shouldn’t send automatic mailing ballots to everyone if you are not ready for such an election. — this is due to the addresses indicated on the voter lists. They are accurate enough to conduct elections at polling stations – for this you need to generally know where the voter’s home and area of residence is. But we need such lists so that the parcel sent by mail really reaches the addressee. In addition, people in the United States are constantly moving. Almost half of the population moves between any two presidential elections. So if you are going to vote entirely by mail, you need to constantly monitor the movement of people. States that elect in this way are constantly sending something to their constituents – Americans have elections all the time – and this helps keep track of the movement of people. But if you haven’t, then it may turn out that many of the people in your state or area have simply moved. So if you send newsletters to everyone, it may turn out that you send them to those who are no longer there. Therefore, it is important that people apply for the newsletter themselves..
M.G .: I would also like to ask about the possible benefits of voting by mail. Some experts, for example, point out that this method gives people the opportunity to better understand the identity of candidates and their programs. Do you agree with this and do you see other advantages in voting by mail?
Ch. S .: The opportunity to spend time with the newsletter can be perceived positively. Give people the opportunity to vote at a convenient time for them — this is definitely a plus. And finally, if you manage to organize voting by mail, then you can save on the conduct of elections, since you will not need to pay salaries to the people working in the polling stations and spend money on staff training..
M.G .: Are there already estimates of how many people will vote in November in the US by mail??
Ch. S .: Several opinion polls have already been conducted on this matter. Polls now show numbers somewhere between 50 and 60 percent of Americans who are going to vote by mail in November. Sometimes I wonder if Americans are good at predicting what they are going to do in the future. So I take these estimates with some skepticism..