Two opposing positions on all-mail voting are being pushed these days by different politicians: Critics say it’s more more subject to voter fraud. Fans say the whole country could switch to that system for the November presidential election in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
They’re probably both wrong, say officials who operate Washington’s vote-by-mail system.
A recent report by the UCLA Voting Rights Project says mail-in ballots are no more, and probably less, subject to fraud than other forms of balloting, although the total number of voter fraud cases nationwide is miniscule. A study by the Heritage Foundation discovered 1,277 cases of credible voter fraud between 1982 and 2020, with 207, or just 16%, connected to absentee or mail-in votes.
“Vote-by-mail fraud is indeed rare, but it has happened and when it does it usually generates a lot of headlines,” project researchers concluded.
They pointed to a 2018 North Carolina congressional race in which a GOP operative improperly collected and possibly tampered with absentee ballots, resulting in an overturned election. “Thus, existing laws allowed voter fraud to be detected and penalized.”
Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman, a Republican who oversees the state’s all-mail voting system that sends ballots to some 4.5 million registered voters, agrees fraud is rare.
Washington had 3.2 million votes cast in 2019, Wyman said. A search for possible instances of fraud with the same voter casting a ballot in two different locations turned up 100 cases that suggest a person with the same name and other identifying information may have voted more than once.
State and local officials are currently checking each instance further to see whether the same name means it was the same person, she said. Cases where that proves true will be turned over to local prosecutors, who can pursue felony charges.
“We take it very seriously,” said Wyman, who was involved in the Thurston County election system’s transition from poll-site to all-mail voting.
Even if all 100 cases prove to involve people deliberately voting twice, that would be a rate of 0.003 of 1% for all ballots cast.
To address public concerns about fraud, Washington developed a system where a voter can track online when a ballot was sent, when it was received and what happened to it in the processing, Wyman said.
The UCLA study concludes the risk of spreading COVID-19 through poll-site voting outweighs concerns about voter fraud.
“In the time of this pandemic, election officials, state governments, and the federal government cannot force voters to choose between their health and the health of the public and their fundamental right to vote,” the researchers said. “Vote-by-mail is a necessary alternative to in-person voting and must be implemented for the November 2020 General Election.”
That may not be a practical alternative in all states, said Wyman and Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton, who oversaw Spokane’s transition from voting at the polls to voting by mail.
“It would be a very heavy lift in some states,” Wyman said.
She recently talked for an hour with her Louisiana counterpart, where only 5% of the electorate votes by mail. That’s less than the percentage of permanent absentee voters in Washington in the early 1990s, when this state began moving toward all-mail voting. One factor would be how fast Louisiana could process ballots and check signatures when they came back, she said.
Some states allow voters to request a permanent absentee ballot, while others require a reason for seeking an absentee ballot for a particular election. The smaller the percentage of absentee voters, the bigger the challenge for switching to an all-mail system, she said.
Even though significant numbers of residents signed up for permanent absentee voting in the 1990s when the Legislature allowed counties to switch to all-mail voting, Washington did not change in a matter of months. The process took more than a decade as counties made individual decisions on when to drop poll sites, sometimes initially for small special elections before opting for all elections. Spokane made the switch in 2006, King County in 2009 and Pierce County was the last to give up poll-site voting in 2011.
Nor is it a simple change, said Dalton, a strong supporter of Washington’s system who believes mail voting would have more benefits to voters “in this time of COVID-19.” But she doubts all states can do it by November.
First there’s the cost. Spokane and some other Washington counties used money from the federal Help America Vote Act to purchase the equipment to scan the ballots that come into their elections office by mail or through drop boxes. Other states, however, used that money to update their poll-site voting machines, and they’d have to find millions to change systems.
One piece of equipment Spokane County bought was a mail sorter, similar to what the post office uses. It cost $350,000 in 2007, Dalton said. “I wouldn’t even hazard a guess what it would cost now – if you could find one.”
Printing the ballots and envelopes is also a challenge, she said. Only a few vendors on the West Coast print ballots, so counties need to reserve a spot in the production line. Printing envelopes is even harder, because mail-in voting requires three – the largest one for mailing out the ballot, which must be printed with each voter’s name; a slightly smaller one for returning the ballot back, either by mail or a drop box; and the smallest security envelope, which shields the voter’s choices from election workers who open the return envelope after verifying the signature. The security envelopes are opened at a separate station.
“Timing is everything, just to get the ballots out the door,” Dalton said. “There’s a lot of work.”
Washington counties also learned to redeploy their employees and volunteers. They don’t need poll-site workers on Election Day any more, but they do need people to process ballots for more than a month, from the time ballots are sent out about three weeks before Election Day, to the time when they stop coming in, about two weeks after.
Poll-site workers used to check signatures when voters showed up; large counties in Washington now have signatures digitized and software to check them.
Not only does vote-by-mail require new equipment, it requires more space, including a secure place to sort and open the envelopes, verify signatures and operate the machines that process them.
If a poll-site state has Election Day voter registration, that might have to be relocated to the county elections office, which might need to allow extra space this year to comply with social distancing rules, Dalton said.
Wyman believes Washington’s system is better, safer and boosts participation, but “I’ve never tried to sell vote-by-mail as less expensive.”
Nor is it universally loved. Some voters still pine for the experience of going to the polls to cast their ballot and some lawmakers regularly propose bills to return to that system.
Those feelings may be put on the back burner this fall if, as some medical experts have suggested, COVID-19 is once again limiting Americans’ movement and contacts, and urging seniors, who are often poll-site volunteers, to stay home.
During the April 7 Wisconsin primary, the National Guard was called in to help with poll-site voting. The most recent estimates say 52 people who either voted or acted as poll workers in that election have tested positive for COVID-19.
But all-mail voting isn’t immune to an outbreak, Dalton said.
“What happens if our office gets hit by coronavirus three weeks or a week before Election Day? Do we barricade inside the processing plant and just keep working? There’s a lot of questions, and not a lot of answers.”
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