Voting is a fundamental right in the United States. However, it is not just the act of casting a ballot that’s important it’s the integrity of the entire election process. This means making sure only qualified electors are registered to vote, that the identity of the person casting the ballot is, in fact, the person registered, the accurate counting of each valid ballot, and the accurate reporting of results. In researching the outcomes of prior elections Dr. Alec Yasinsac, a dean at the University of South Alabama, analyzed and observed some of the most common problems with Vote By Mail (VBM) or absentee ballot (AB) processes. Most of the concerns Yasinsac identified aren’t specific to any one place but are universal to VBM or AB practices around the nation.
Dr. Yasinsac’s 2012 research paper, “Did Your Mailed Ballot Count: The Unrecognized Unreliability of Voting By Mail,” is incredibly relevant today as the topic has gained national attention as states look at options to protect the health of voters during the COVID-19 outbreak. States are looking for options, outside of in-person voting as the virus is spread by person-to-person contact, and thus many pundits and elected officials have suggested expanding vote by mail is the safest option for the health of voters moving forward.
The research by Yasinsac urges caution for lawmakers as it shows a concerning trend in the integrity of the vote by mail system.
While voting fraud is the most commonly cited problem with vote by mail it is only one aspect of the issues plaguing the integrity of elections nationwide. Yasinsac’s research breaks down some of the most frequent problems. Among them, common procedural errors such as those that contributed to an estimated 4.2% percent of invalid ballots in the Minnesota 2008 elections. Yasinsac describes these as, “Common errors include failure to sign, signing in the wrong place, and improper packaging (e.g. husband and wife bundling two absentee ballots in the same envelope).
He goes on to say, “This 4.2% vote loss percentage does not include ballot marking errors that may be prevented or corrected at the polling place, so the overall vote loss/error is likely more than 5% greater for VBM voters than in polling place voting.”
Those aren’t the only issues Yasinsac’s research described. Among the consistent problems seen with vote by mail programs are ballots arriving late to elections offices due to postal service delays, ballots under or overcounted due to mishandling by election offices, lost ballots, and finally, yes as frequently cited election fraud remains a valid concern.
President Donald Trump tweeted about vote by mail specifically targeting fraud it saying,
Republicans should fight very hard when it comes to state wide mail-in voting. Democrats are clamoring for it. Tremendous potential for voter fraud, and for whatever reason, doesn’t work out well for Republicans. @foxandfriends— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 8, 2020
Real-life examples of these common problems can be found nationwide. In 2017 in Virginia, democrats sued over 55 absentee ballots that were delivered to elections offices the day after a close election where the margin was fewer than 100 vote difference in several races with one determined by just 12 votes. Courts, in that case, ruled that Virginia law was clear that the ballots could not be counted.
In Gordon, Alabama, Mayor Elbert Melton was removed from office in January of 2019 after being convicted of falsifying ballots. Melton won his seat with a 16 vote margin over his opponent. His wasn’t the most egregious recent case of vote by mail fraud in the state though. That distinction goes to Olivia Reynolds the girlfriend and campaign staff of former Dothan city commissioner Amos Newsome. Reynolds who was found guilty of 24 felony counts of fraud had her conviction upheld in 2016. Newsome won by fewer counts than that the fraud provided yet his opponent decided not to challenge the results and Newsome continued to serve until being handily defeated in 2016.
One of the most controversial aspects of voting by mail is the collection of ballots known as “ballot harvesting.” While legal and embraced by some, in some states like California. It still lends a lot of questions, then-Speaker Paul Ryan had this to say in a Politico interview.
Paul Ryan: “California just defies logic to me… We were only down 26 seats the night of the election & 3 weeks later, we lost basically every contested CA race. This election system they have – I can’t begin to understand what ‘ballot harvesting’ is.” https://t.co/usf6KWIfDb pic.twitter.com/LcnmVqkMaO— The Hill (@thehill) November 30, 2018
It is a commonly cited tool used in election fraud. One of the most notorious cases being the 2018 North Carolina congressional race that was overturned had to be repeated over alligations of severe ballot fraud associated with ballot harvesting by L. McCrae Dowless Jr. a campaign consultant. Dowless who is facing multiple charges of voter fraud stemming from 2016 and 2018 elections. A New York Times article explains the situation saying, “elections regulators and investigators concluded that Mr. Dowless, who had worked for Democratic and Republican politicians alike over the years, had overseen a network of people who collected absentee ballots — a violation of North Carolina law — and sometimes completed them while he was a contractor for Mr. Harris’s campaign.”
The Times quote Lorrin Freeman, the Wake County district attorney who said, “What has been challenging about this case and this investigation is that, as has been widely reported, certain activity has gone on for years.” She explained that “The more interviews you do, the more interviews you have to do.”
Alabama law specifically requires voters to meet certain criteria to obtain a vote by mail ballot. For the 2020 run-off election, Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill announced in March that due to the coronavirus those criteria have been expanded to allow anyone to do so.
Miles Parks of NPR spoke to Merrill, Alabama’s Secretary of State about efforts to expand vote by mail and relax safeguards put in place to protect the integrity of the ballots that are cast by mail. Parks quoted Merrill as saying he, “feels like Democrats are using the outbreak as an excuse to push for voting reforms they’ve wanted for years.”
This appears to be the case in Virginia where just last week, the state was sued by the American Civil Liberties Union for their requirement of a witness for each vote by mail ballot cast. Virginia is one of 11 states that require this safeguard meant to keep ballot harvesters, family members, neighbors, or others from casting ballots in other people’s names. This issue was litigated in Wisconson earlier this month where democrats sought an injunction to prohibit the requirement of witnesses. The 7th Circut Court upheld the law requiring a witness signature.
Democrats in Wisconson also sought to extend the deadline for ballots to be accepted but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that no extension would be valid. Apparently, they just wanted all current election laws to be waived during this time.
Alabama’s Secretary of state, Merrill might have summed up the situation best when he told NPR, “Rahm Emanuel once was quoted as saying that you should never let a good crisis go to waste. And so there are a number of people who are attempting to take advantage of that opportunity today.”