This year’s US presidential election will see unprecedented numbers of Americans sending in their ballots by mail due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, as states moved to expand voting by mail, President Trump and his supporters have cast doubt on the integrity of mail-in ballots, particularly “universal mail-in voting”   where states automatically send ballots to all registered and active voters. In recent weeks, voters have been expressing concern on social media after receiving mail-in ballots for people who have moved or passed away. 

On September 30, Twitter user Richie McGinniss posted a picture of what he said were four ballots from Washington D.C. for people who no longer lived in his home. His post provoked a flurry of worried responses and was retweeted by White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, who called it an example of a system “prone to fraud”. 



On September 27, Facebook user Tom Daniel posted a picture of an automatically mailed ballot from New Jersey that he claimed was sent to him mistakenly. In a message with the hashtag #TRUMP2020, he said he had lived and voted in Florida since 2016, and called on other users to “expose the fraud coming out of states who automatically send out mail-in ballots”, adding: “we know which side is pushing for this”. Both New Jersey and Washington D.C. are mailing ballots to all active and registered voters due to the coronavirus.

I just received my automatically distributed mail-in ballot in MIDDLESEX COUNTY, NJ, after having never participated in...

Posted by Tom Daniel on Sunday, September 27, 2020


President Trump has sent at least eight tweets since September about what he calls “unsolicited ballots”, warning that states are sending “80 million unsolicited ballots to voters” and that “the Unsolicited Mail In Ballot Scam is a major threat to our Democracy, & the Democrats know it.”
 
Ballots for dead relatives 

Others report receiving ballots for dead relatives, like Twitter user Carolyn Quinn, who posted a picture on October 6 of mail-in ballots from New Jersey that were meant for her deceased parents with the caption: “VOTER FRAUD ALERT!”. Quinn told the FRANCE 24 Observers that her parents both passed away around one year ago, and provided court documents attesting to the fact.


Twitter user Carolyn Quinn sent documents to the France 24 Observers showing that her parents are deceased. 

In 2020, the coronavirus has spurred 23 states and Washington D.C. to expand voting by mail. A total of 24 states now allow mail-in voting for any reason including fear of the coronavirus, compared with 16 in 2016. The number of states mailing ballots to all registered voters has also doubled, going from five in 2016 to 10 this year. The New York Times has reported that ballot request data indicates that more Democrats than Republicans are likely to vote by mail in 2020.

“It would be very difficult to orchestrate some kind of national election fraud”

To understand whether mistaken mail-in ballots could lead to significant election fraud, the FRANCE 24 Observers team spoke to professors Lonna Atkeson of the University of New Mexico and Trey Hood of the University of Georgia, both specialists in election administration. 

Dr. Hood said that erroneously sent ballots are only a threat if someone tries to use them to vote: 
 
“These administrative mistakes occur. If you’re a state that’s suddenly ramping up your mail-in balloting because of the coronavirus, there’s likely to be more mistakes made. But unless someone takes the ballot of a deceased person and votes on their behalf, it’s not fraud. Voter fraud from what we can tell is fairly rare and episodic.”

A comprehensive review by the Brennan Center of Justice found that voter fraud in the United States is rare and does not approach rates that would be required to “rig” an election. An in-depth 2014 study published by the Washington Post found 31 credible instances of voter impersonation fraud from 2000 to 2014, out of a total of one billion ballots cast.

There has been at least one instance of targeted mail-in ballot fraud this year, Dr. Atkeson said:
 
“Mail-in voting is not filled with fraud, but the fraud that we find is targeted in places where election results are going to be close. An example of this is a municipal election earlier this year in Paterson, New Jersey that was overturned after charges of mail-in voter fraud caused nearly 20 percent of the ballots to be rejected.

It would be very difficult to orchestrate some kind of national election fraud. But the fear in universal mail-in voting is that you’re creating more opportunity for mischief and losing chain of custody for ballots.”

“Security checks should prevent the most egregious acts of fraud”

More than half of states check the signatures on incoming mail-in ballots against signatures they have on file for registered voters, but Dr. Atkeson says that the rigour of these checks varies.
 
“Every state has their own more or less stringent process for qualifying ballots. In states with universal vote-by-mail like Colorado and Utah, we certainly see instances where submitted ballots are signed by someone other than the voter   and those are caught. There are security checks that should prevent the most egregious acts of fraud. However, signature matching is not an exact science, both in terms of qualifying votes that should be counted and votes that shouldn’t be counted. But I do believe that processes in place are strong attempts to assure the security of the system.”

Dr. Hood agrees:
 
“It really depends on the state - the United States basically has 50 different election systems with different safeguards. North Carolina has what they call witness affirmation   someone has to sign witnessing that the person sending the ballot voted the ballot. Another safeguard is if the state -- like Georgia -- requires voters to request absentee ballots. This way, the voter is initiating the process.”

“If we don’t feel our leaders are elected honestly, we lose the … promise of democracy.”

Dr. Atkeson says the biggest victim could be voters’ confidence in the electoral process.
 
“We have a good election system. But in the context of the coronavirus, we are changing system processes, and that creates confusion and doubt. Historically, these changes always lead to administrative problems. States’ inexperience can affect people’s perceptions on both sides of the legitimacy of the elections.

From my perspective, there is a narrative on both the left and the right that is harmful to the election. The narrative on the left is about access and voter suppression. The narrative on the right is about fraud. I think that both of them are probably wrong. My worry is that both these narratives will undermine the electoral system in general. If we don’t feel like our leaders are elected honestly, we lose the fundamental promise of democracy.”