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How Security Features Prevent Vote-by-Mail Misconduct

Voter fraud related to mail ballots is virtually nonexistent thanks to numerous safeguards.

  • Lisa Danetz
Published: October 21, 2020

Pres­id­ent Trump and his allies have been making false charges that voting by mail leads to fraud. The truth is that mail ballots are a safe and effect­ive way to help every voter to make their voice heard, and there are many protec­tions in place to ensure the system’s integ­rity.

How do states keep people from fraud­u­lently voting with a mail ballot meant for someone else?

First of all, it’s illegal, so anyone fraud­u­lently cast­ing a mail ballot is risk­ing prison and fines. The same goes for steal­ing ballots, which are only sent directly to iden­ti­fied voters.

In addi­tion, in most states, if a voter contacts an elec­tion offi­cial to report that a reques­ted mail ballot has not been received, it can be tracked through an indi­vidu­al­ized bar code that allows offi­cials to identify and cancel a stolen or lost ballot and send a new one.

How can states be sure that people who are collect­ing ballots for deliv­ery do not modify ballots or throw them away?

State laws vary on who may assist voters in deliv­er­ing their ballots, but regard­less of the rules, most voters will rely on someone they deem trust­worthy to deliver a ballot for them. Further, the voter must seal the ballot in a provided ballot return envel­ope, which is specific­ally inten­ded to prevent tamper­ing.

Many states require the voter to identify in writ­ing his or her desig­nated agent for return of the ballot or require the indi­vidual who deliv­ers the ballot to sign the outer return envel­ope. For example, Cali­for­nia requires the voter to fill out an “author­iz­a­tion section” on the outside of the ballot envel­ope, and New Jersey requires the assister to sign the outer mail ballot return envel­ope. If a voter’s ballot has been modi­fied, visual inspec­tion will likely show it. Finally, voters can track their mail ballot to confirm it has been returned.

In many states, iden­ti­fic­a­tion of the person provid­ing a voter with assist­ance allows invest­ig­a­tion of suspi­cions, and harsh penal­ties will be imposed if the assister engages in miscon­duct.

How can we be sure that foreign nations are not creat­ing and voting with coun­ter­feit ballots, as sugges­ted by Attor­ney General William Barr?

Coun­tries like Russia are trying to inter­fere with the elec­tion by spread­ing disin­form­a­tion online, but there is no evid­ence that it or any other coun­try is trying to commit direct voter fraud, espe­cially on a mass scale. Indeed, it would be nearly impossible for a foreign adversary — or anyone — to impact the elec­tion outcome in the way sugges­ted by Barr. The list of things that a nation attempt­ing to commit such a crime would have to do is long, but here are just a few.

It first would need access to the names and personal identi­fy­ing inform­a­tion of voters, includ­ing nonpub­lic inform­a­tion like a digital image of a signa­ture or a driver’s license number. In states where voters request mail ballots, it would need to know which specific voters already made such requests. And it would need to be assured that voters it chose to imper­son­ate would not request a mail ballot after the foreign nation did so, requir­ing the abil­ity to see into the future.

Then the nation would need to redir­ect the mail ballots, request­ing that they be sent to loca­tions other than the voters’ homes. These altern­ate addresses would all have to be unique to avoid rais­ing red flags about thou­sands of mail ballots going to the same address.

Altern­at­ively, it would need to accur­ately repro­duce mail ballots, along with internal bar codes for both the U.S. Postal Service and elec­tion offices. Coun­ter­feit­ing ballots would be espe­cially hard, because doing so would require know­ing each voter’s specific ballot style as well as nonpub­lic printer specific­a­tions for design features such as machine-read­able lines down the side of the ballots.

In short, the idea that a foreign power could change elec­tion results by submit­ting fake mail ballots that are coun­ted is a fantasy.

Pres­id­ent Trump said that mail ballots with his name were found in an elec­tion office wastepa­per basket. How can we be sure mail ballots are not being disposed of prior to tabu­la­tion?

In Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, offi­cials discovered nine discarded over­seas mail ballots, which look differ­ent than regu­lar mail ballots and are sent in envel­opes that are not clearly marked as contain­ing ballots. A confused tempor­ary elec­tion worker had improp­erly disposed of the ballots and was fired. The incid­ent was likely the result of insuf­fi­cient train­ing and is under invest­ig­a­tion by author­it­ies.

States draw from among a host of ballot hand­ling proced­ures to prevent and identify improper disposal of ballots. For example, regu­lar mail ballots are submit­ted in clearly marked envel­opes. In addi­tion, two-person or bipar­tisan teams are likely to be present any time an indi­vidual is in the pres­ence of ballots, and there are limit­a­tions on who can handle ballots. Video monit­or­ing of unat­ten­ded ballots allows iden­ti­fic­a­tion of anyone who improp­erly destroys or discards ballots. And logs that record import­ant data — includ­ing staff involved in ballot recep­tion, the time at which staff handle ballots, and the number of returned ballots — allow the number of ballots coun­ted to be balanced against the number of ballots received on a partic­u­lar day, and any anom­alies can be attrib­uted to partic­u­lar staff present.

These are just some of the reas­ons why tens of millions of Amer­ic­ans have voted by mail in past elec­tions with reli­able results, and we can continue to do so in 2020.