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Is It Safe To Vote By Mail? Here's What To Know About Ballot Fraud

As the 2020 U.S. presidential election looms in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the question of voting safety and mail-in ballots has become a source of debate. Many Americans may not feel comfortable voting in-person with the rise in cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, which could lead to far more mail-in ballots than usual. But is it safe to vote by mail? Here's what to know about putting your vote in the hands of the United States Postal Service (USPS).

The U.S. presidential election is on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, and many voters may decide to vote by mail in order to avoid crowded polling places during the pandemic. However, recent comments from President Donald Trump calling into question the security of mail-in ballots have caused some confusion. Trump disregarded the idea of all-mail voting options with a tweet on Thursday, July 30, in which he suggested postponing the presidential election, claiming voting by mail will lead to increased fraud and delayed results. In his tweet, Trump called absentee voting “good,” but simultaneously decried mail-in voting as something that could allegedly contribute to the 2020 election being “the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history.” (Notably, absentee voting and mail-in voting are essentially the same process, although guidelines can vary by state.)

Despite Trump’s claims, the president himself has voted by mail a minimum of three times, according to a Snopes fact-check: He reportedly voted by mail in 2017, the 2018 midterms, and the 2020 primaries. Elite Daily reached out to the White House for comment on President Trump’s voting history and claims of vote-by-mail fraud, but did not hear back at the time of publication.

Voting by mail isn’t new, and you can look to the guidelines to see exactly how your ballot is protected. In a May 2020 document compiled by Ellen L. Weintraub, commissioner of the Federal Election Commission (FEC), she reassured voters mail-in ballots are rarely subjected to fraud. In the document, which is a thread of tweets from Weintraub on mail-in voting, she shared how election officials are responding to the global health emergency and working to ensure voting by mail remains an accurate and safe choice. “There's simply no basis for the conspiracy theory that voting by mail causes fraud. None,” Weintraub said, citing fact checks from CNN and The Washington Post.

Weintraub also spoke to how common mail-in ballots are. According to the United States Election Assistance Commission, about two in five ballots cast in the 2016 presidential election were mail-in ballots. Some states are even using mail-in voting at the outset, automatically mailing out ballots to those who are registered to vote as a Democrat or Republican. Some states, like Oregon, Washington, or Utah, have already switched to all-mail voting (which means most of its votes are mail-in, with some exceptions).

Edie Goldberg, a Senior Fellow of nonpartisan think tank the National Academy of Public Administration (the Academy) and professor of public policy and political science at the University of Michigan, also weighed in on the issue in an article for The Conversation, a scholarly news publication. "The evidence we reviewed finds that voting by mail is rarely subject to fraud, does not give an advantage to one political party over another, and can in fact inspire public confidence in the voting process, if done properly," said Goldberg.

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Despite all the claims, voting fraud is extremely rare. From 2000 to 2020, conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation, which keeps a database of election fraud reports, found only 1,200 allegations of voter fraud and 1,100 criminal convictions. Of those, only 204 allegations, and 143 convictions, involved mail-in ballots, per The Hill, the total number of mail-in ballots was almost 250 million in that 20-year span — meaning only about 0.00006% of mail-in votes were judged to be fraudulent.

Meanwhile, voting by mail is likely to be increasingly necessary in 2020, given the risks involved in in-person voting. The Academy released a plan with 2020 voting recommendations on Tuesday, June 23, which emphasized the importance of voting by mail in this year’s election. “States that have not already done so must act quickly to ensure safe election options, and ones that are sensitive to the needs of a diverse voting public,” their first recommendation read. “States should … [m]ove toward all-mail voting when and where feasible.”

According to a 2019 Gallup poll, 59% of Americans are distrustful of the voting system and cited worries about foreign interference and security issues as some of the top reasons why. In a June 1 interview with The New York Times, U.S. Attorney General William Barr claimed foreign countries could "easily make counterfeit ballots, put names on them, send them in." Elite Daily reached out to the Department of Justice for comment, but did not hear back at the time of publication. However, election administrators have disagreed with this claim, telling The Washington Post on June 2, it would be nearly impossible for fake absentee ballots from other countries to get through the system undetected.

Fraudulent ballots from any source would likely be detected, as pointed out by New York University's Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and public policy institute. Various safeguards on mail-in ballots include verification of registered voters, a voter signature requirement, as well as a voter address verification. Some states use a signature-matching technique to verify the signature of the voter if it looks questionable. Ballots also come with a barcode which allows voters, as well as election officials, to track the ballot during transit.

If and when there is an instance of voting fraud, post-election audits can help identify irregularities, using "statistical techniques" on a sample of physical mailed-in ballots to ensure the votes were tallied properly, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. The public policy institute also points out physical paper ballots are especially useful in the case of an audit, to ensure there is a paper record of each vote.

The United States Postal Service (USPS) also weighed in on the security concerns of mail-in ballots in a May 2020 press release, recommending election officials use an Intelligent Mail barcode for any election mail for security purposes. “The Postal Service has designed an Intelligent Mail barcode identifier specifically for ballots, to increase mailpiece visibility within the processing system. The identifier can be used by both the Postal Service and the mailer to track ballot deliveries and returns,” USPS explained in release. As far as how the election mail is handled, USPS noted, “We employ a robust and proven process to ensure proper handling of all Election Mail, including ballots. This includes close coordination and partnerships with election officials at the local and state levels.”

While local requirements may differ, USPS says voters should use First-Class Mail or an expedited shipping option and request mail-in ballots “at the earliest point allowable but no later than 15 days prior to the election date,” in order to make sure their ballot arrives in time to be counted. USPS also recommends "domestic, non-military voters mail their ballots at least one week prior to their state’s due date to allow for timely receipt by election officials." While there will likely be an increase in mail-in ballots, USPS says it has the capacity to process and deliver official election mail on time.

If you do choose to go to the election polls to vote in-person, you should follow the safety guidelines outlined by the CDC as of June 22. Voters should wash or sanitize their hands before entering and upon leaving the polling location, wear a cloth face covering, practice social distancing, and avoid going to vote during peak times to lessen crowds.

If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and cough, call your doctor before going to get tested. If you’re anxious about the virus’s spread in your community, visit the CDC for up-to-date information and resources, or seek out mental health support. You can find all Elite Daily's coverage of coronavirus here.