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The False Narrative of Vote-by-Mail Fraud

Mail ballots are essential for holding a safe election amid Covid-19, and security concerns can be easily addressed.

April 10, 2020

If we are to have safe, healthy, and fair elec­tions this year in the face one of the worst pandem­ics in a century, Amer­ic­ans must make wide­spread use of mail ballots. Elec­tion admin­is­trat­ors and other lead­ers from across the polit­ical spec­trum have urged support to make the neces­sary adjust­ments to their elec­tion infra­struc­ture. They recog­nize we have no choice. Most Amer­ic­ans, includ­ing a major­ity of Repub­lic­ans, agree.

Pres­id­ent Trump and his allies, however, are push­ing back against this option, rais­ing spuri­ous claims that fraud­u­lent mail ballots will contam­in­ate the elec­tion. “I think a lot of people cheat with mail-in voting,” Trump said earlier this week. “Mail in voting is a terrible thing. . . . I think if you vote, you should go,” he later added, not long after he reques­ted a vote-by-mail ballot for the Flor­ida primary. Shortly after­ward, Repub­lican National Commit­tee Chair­wo­man Ronna McDaniel echoed the pres­id­ent in a Fox News op-ed. (This is in sharp contrast to former chair­man Michael Steele, who coau­thored an op-ed arguing that “the current emer­gency demands expan­ded use of vote-by-mail,” and that “demo­cracy depends on it.”)

Trump’s claims are wrong, and if used to prevent states from taking the steps needed to ensure public safety during Novem­ber’s elec­tion, they will be deadly wrong. Mail ballot fraud is incred­ibly rare, and legit­im­ate secur­ity concerns can be easily addressed.

Mail ballot­ing is not a newfangled idea; it was already deeply embed­ded in the Amer­ican elect­oral system before the coronavirus hit. In the last two federal elec­tions, roughly one out of every four Amer­ic­ans cast a mail ballot. In five states — Color­ado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Wash­ing­ton — mail ballot­ing has been the primary method of voting. In 28 addi­tional states, all voters have had the right to vote by mail ballot if they choose, without having to provide any reason or excuse. Over time, a grow­ing number of voters have chosen that option. Since 2000 more than 250 million votes have been cast via mailed-out ballots, in all 50 states, accord­ing to the Vote at Home Insti­tute. In 2018, more than 31 million Amer­ic­ans cast their ballots by mail, about 25.8 percent of elec­tion parti­cipants.

Despite this dramatic increase in mail voting over time, fraud rates remain infin­ites­im­ally small. None of the five states that hold their elec­tions primar­ily by mail has had any voter fraud scan­dals since making that change. As the New York Times edit­or­ial board notes, “states that use vote-by-mail have encountered essen­tially zero fraud: Oregon, the pion­eer in this area, has sent out more than 100 million mail-in ballots since 2000, and has docu­mented only about a dozen cases of proven fraud.” That’s 0.00001 percent of all votes cast.*** An exhaust­ive invest­ig­at­ive journ­al­ism analysis of all known voter fraud cases iden­ti­fied only 491 cases of absentee ballot fraud from 2000 to 2012. As elec­tion law professor Richard L. Hasen notes, during that period “liter­ally billions of votes were cast.” While mail ballots are more suscept­ible to fraud than in-person voting, it is still more likely for an Amer­ican to be struck by light­ning than to commit mail voting fraud.

States have multiple tools to address valid secur­ity concerns and protect elec­tion integ­rity when it comes to mail ballots. And recent tech­no­lo­gies and strategies have signi­fic­antly enhanced the secur­ity of mail ballot­ing.

  • Iden­tity veri­fic­a­tion: The prin­cipal method used to detect and prevent fraud is the mail ballot envel­ope itself, where each voter must include personal identi­fy­ing inform­a­tion (such as address, birth­day, and driver’s license number or last four digits of a Social Secur­ity number). In most states, that inform­a­tion includes a signa­ture that can be used to match against the voter rolls. The voter’s remain­ing personal inform­a­tion is also matched against the inform­a­tion stored on the voter rolls. As Kim Wyman, Wash­ing­ton’s Repub­lican secret­ary of state, explained, “we actu­ally compare every single signa­ture of every single ballot that comes in and we compare it and make sure that it matches the one on their voter regis­tra­tion record.” This is a long-stand­ing and well-estab­lished prac­tice to ensure that the ballot received was indeed cast by the correct voter. It’s import­ant to note though that there are best and worst prac­tices with signa­ture match­ing. When done incor­rectly, it can disen­fran­chise eligible voters. Done correctly — with signa­ture match­ing soft­ware, bipar­tisan review by offi­cials trained in signa­ture veri­fic­a­tion, and outreach to flagged voters — it is an effect­ive deterrent for fraud.

  • Bar codes: Most elec­tion juris­dic­tions now use some form of bar code on their ballot envel­opes. These bar codes allow elec­tion offi­cials to keep track of ballot processing and help voters know whether their ballot has been received. Bar codes also allow states to identify and elim­in­ate duplic­ate ballots if a voter casts more than one, whether mistakenly or corruptly.

  • Ballot track­ing through the U.S. Postal Service: In many juris­dic­tions, includ­ing Cali­for­nia, Color­ado and Flor­ida, ballot envel­opes are equipped with intel­li­gent mail bar codes linked to the postal service that enable voters and elec­tion offi­cials alike to track an envel­ope from drop-off to deliv­ery and processing at the local admin­is­trat­or’s office. Denver’s elec­tions divi­sion repor­ted that 17,931 people used its system to track the status of their ballots during the Novem­ber 2013 elec­tion. While relat­ively new, these ballot track­ing systems are now read­ily avail­able and are easily oper­able at scale. This way, if a voter says they never received their ballot, states can better determ­ine whether the ballot was delivered, replace the ballot as appro­pri­ate, and ensure the original is flagged as comprom­ised and not coun­ted.

  • Secure drop-off loca­tions and drop boxes: Multiple ballot return options limit the oppor­tun­ity for ballot tamper­ing by foster­ing voter inde­pend­ence in return­ing a ballot. A common layer of secur­ity to ensure that ballots are not stolen or tampered with — at least for voters who can leave their homes — is secure drop-off loca­tions. In places where all or most voters receive ballots by mail, many voters do not mail completed ballots; rather, they opt to drop their ballots off at secure polling sites. Accord­ing to the Survey of the Perform­ance of Amer­ican Elec­tions at Harvard Univer­sity in 2016, 73 percent of voters in Color­ado, 59 percent in Oregon, and 65 percent in Wash­ing­ton returned their ballots to some phys­ical loca­tion, such as a drop box or local elec­tion office.

    Ballot drop-off loca­tions help main­tain a secure chain of custody as the ballot goes from the voter to the local elec­tion office. And when drop boxes are put outside of govern­ment offices, one secur­ity meas­ure is to equip them with secur­ity cameras to monitor ballot traffic and ensure that the boxes are not breached. (Drop boxes in govern­ment build­ings bene­fit from exist­ing video secur­ity systems.) In addi­tion to prevent­ing fraud, secure drop-off loca­tions enable voters to be confid­ent that their ballots will be received on time.

  • Harsh penal­ties: Anyone who commits voter fraud using a mail ballot risks severe crim­inal and civil penal­ties: up to five years in prison and $10,000 in fines for each act of fraud under federal law, in addi­tion to any state penal­ties. In Oregon, for example, voting with or sign­ing another person’s ballot is a Class C felony punish­able by up to five years in prison. These penal­ties provide a strong deterrent to voter fraud; it makes no sense to risk such signi­fic­ant punish­ment for one addi­tional vote.

  • Postelec­tion audits: In 2018, a review of returned absentee ballot records helped identify anom­alies in the elec­tion results of Bladen County, North Caro­lina, enabling elec­tion offi­cials to uncover elec­tion inter­fer­ence by a polit­ical oper­at­ive who stole and tampered with mail ballots. Postelec­tion audits, which many juris­dic­tions are start­ing to adopt, would more system­at­ic­ally enable elec­tion offi­cials to identify any irreg­u­lar­it­ies or miscon­duct in the vote. Audits typic­ally use stat­ist­ical tech­niques to review a sample of ballots cast in an elec­tion to ensure that votes were recor­ded and tallied accur­ately. Since audits can only be mean­ing­fully carried out when there is a voter-veri­fied paper record of each vote, mail ballots (which are paper-based), are condu­cive to effect­ive audits. Postelec­tion audits are already widely used in states that use mail voting and are a best secur­ity prac­tice for all elec­tions regard­less.

  • Polling sites as a fail-safe: Finally, if there are concerns that an eligible voter’s mail ballots could be lost or uncoun­ted, in-person polling sites provide a mech­an­ism to correct prob­lems, provide essen­tial services, and ensure that every eligible voter can cast a valid ballot. No system that relies on mail ballot­ing can oper­ate without access­ible in-person voting sites, both for those who cannot or will not vote by mail and as a fail-safe to the inev­it­able prob­lems that may arise. Elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion glitches, mail deliv­ery prob­lems, and data errors can prevent voters from receiv­ing or submit­ting their ballots. Other voters, includ­ing many on Native Amer­ican reser­va­tions, simply lack reas­on­able access to mail. And incon­sist­ent ballot count­ing prac­tices cause mail ballots in some communit­ies to be rejec­ted unfairly, or at higher rates. These are prob­lems of access and admin­is­tra­tion, not fraud. And they can be read­ily solved at polling sites.

***Correc­tion: An earlier version misstated the percent­age of vote-by-mail fraud in Oregon since 2000. It is 0.00001 percent of all votes cast not 0.0000001 percent.