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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: The case for mail voting – unlike the one claiming widespread fraud – is deep and strong

A voter drops a ballot into a ballot drop box Monday, Nov. 4, 2019, in Seattle. (Elaine Thompson / AP)
A voter drops a ballot into a ballot drop box Monday, Nov. 4, 2019, in Seattle. (Elaine Thompson / AP)

In the small Utah city of Draper, about 15 minutes south of Salt Lake City, sits the mountaintop community of Suncrest.

The views are said to be spectacular. Outdoor recreation is abundant. A homeowners association runs a pool, gym, parks and trails. There is one church, Mormon, and one restaurant, Italian. The vast majority of residents are white, and home prices cover the gamut from, in the words of one research team, “the moderately expensive to the highly expensive.”

The community also straddles the line between Salt Lake County and Utah County. All of that made it the perfect place for researchers to pay attention in 2016, as Utah moved to adopt vote-by-mail. Salt Lake County had gone to mail, Utah County had not, and Suncrest offered a control group and treatment group all rolled up in one.

Guess what they found? It’s no surprise: More Suncrestians voted by mail than in person. The analysis of Pantheon Analytics concluded that mail voting was responsible for a 12% increase in turnout.

Mail balloting improved voter participation.

Pantheon found that all across Utah, the vote-by-mail counties had 5% to 7% higher turnout than the vote-in-person counties. This is what researchers find everywhere they look.

In Washington state, research Cambridge University Press published in 2013 calculated an increase of 2 to 4% in voter participation from the implementation of vote-by-mail. In Colorado, Pantheon found mail voting increased voter participation by 3.3%.

It’s what researchers find when they compare vote-by-mail with in-person voting by demographic, by political party, by geography.

Mail voting improves voter turnout. It does among both parties, too.

A team of researchers at Stanford University studied voting in three states that rolled out vote-by-mail gradually, county by county: Washington, Utah and Colorado. It compared county-level data to see if there was evidence of a leftward – or rightward – tilt to the increased participation in mail voting.

In a working paper published last month titled “The Neutral Partisan Effects of Vote by Mail,” they concluded there was not, writing “our paper has a clear takeaway: Claims that vote-by-mail fundamentally advantages one party over the other appear overblown. In normal times, based on our data at least, vote-by-mail modestly increases participation while not advantaging either party.”

But what about the red herring in the room? What about the specter of widespread fraud in mail balloting that would make it, as the president has claimed, impossible for any Republican to ever win an election again?

There is ample evidence out there that this has not been true, and it’s not just our continual reelection of Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers. A lot of the country’s fact-checking apparatus has been busy sorting this out, and trying to let people know it’s false.

Instead of citing any of that, which is so ample and well-reported that it strikes me as redundant, let me turn to a report from the Heritage Foundation that has been offered in support of the idea of widespread fraud in mail voting.

The report says America has a “long and unfortunate history of election fraud,” and proceeds to roll out more than 1,000 “proven instances of voter fraud” that might convince you the problem is actually pretty small, compared with the size of the electorate. The Heritage Foundation keeps the cases on a database, which it updates regularly, and is a regular source of fuel for this conspiracy theory. The number of cases listed is now over 1,200.

The project seems mostly intended to insist that this molehill is a mountain. It offers a particularly bad set of facts to argue against mail voting. It trots out example after example of individual bad actors, caught and punished in cases that virtually always amounted to one fraudulent vote. Several involve absentee ballots. Almost none, so far as I can count, involves statewide vote by mail.

In Washington, for example, it lists 12 instances where someone was caught and punished for election fraud, most of which occurred before we began adopting mail voting in 2008.

In one case, a mother forged her son’s signature on an absentee ballot. In another, a felon voted despite being ineligible. In another, a felon who’d lost his voting rights cast a ballot in his wife’s name. Many cases involved absentee ballots; only one involved a statewide mail ballot.

In Utah and Colorado and Oregon and the other all-mail states, the story is the same: a handful of cases over years and years, almost every one of which involves improper voting by a felon or double voting on an absentee ballot.

The largest election fraud case in Washington history occurred in 2007, in which organizers for ACORN turned in more than 1,700 fraudulent voter registrations. People were sentenced to prison for that.

It happens. Just not very much.

And certainly not enough to dismiss all the reasons that mail voting – pandemic or not – seems to be good for democracy.

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