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Mail Ballot Security Features: A Primer

Jurisdictions across the country have a range of security features to protect mail ballots from misconduct.

  • Lisa Danetz
Published: October 16, 2020

Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, Amer­ic­ans are using mail ballots in record numbers this year. Fortu­nately, the use of mail ballots is not a newfangled idea; it was already deeply embed­ded in the Amer­ican elect­oral system before the coronavirus hit.

Mail ballot­ing origin­ated as a mech­an­ism to allow milit­ary voters to parti­cip­ate in our elec­tions. foot­note1_plm7b2x 1 In this report, “mail ballot­ing” refers to any system that uses a “mail ballot” for voting, regard­less of the need for a request to use a mail ballot, the pool of eligible voters, or how the mail ballot may be returned.  During the Civil War, its adop­tion allowed 150,000 Union soldiers to vote “absentee” from the battle­field. foot­note2_qcuk­p83 2 Alex Seitz-Wald, “How Do You Know Voting by Mail Works? The U.S. Milit­ary’s Done It Since the Civil War.,” NBC News, April 19, 2020,­ics/2020-elec­tion/how-do-you-know-voting-mail-works-u-s-milit­ary-n1186926  By World War II, all states allowed soldiers to use mail ballots. foot­note3_386hadb 3 Alex Seitz-Wald, “How Do You Know Voting by Mail Works?” NBC News, April 19, 2020. Today, all over­seas voters can request mail ballots on a perman­ent basis, without having to make addi­tional requests for each elec­tion. Milit­ary and over­seas voters can even cast a backup mail ballot — the federal write-in absentee ballot — if the original ballot does not arrive in time. foot­note4_nqtgq9g 4 “Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot Instruc­tions and Inform­a­tion,” Federal Voting Assist­ance Program, last accessed Octo­ber 8, 2020,; “Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot,” Over­seas Vote Found­a­tion, last accessed Octo­ber 8, 2020, https://www.over­seasvote­found­a­­Start.htm.

In the 21st century, mail ballots have become increas­ingly prom­in­ent in Amer­ican elec­tions. Since the 2010 federal elec­tions, roughly one out of every four ballots cast have been mail ballots, and a grow­ing number of voters have chosen to vote by mail. foot­note5_1eoqnzj 5 U.S. Elec­tion Assist­ance Commis­sion, Elec­tion Admin­is­tra­tion and Voting Survey: 2018 Compre­hens­ive Report, June 2019,; For elec­tions from 2010 through 2016, percent was calcu­lated by adding the percent of absentee ballots and the percent of vote by mail ballots. “More People Voting Early, Using Mail and Absentee Ballots, Percent Voting Absentee, By Mail, or Early, 2004–16,” Chart, U.S. Elec­tion Assist­ance Commis­sion, Octo­ber 17, 2017,­ments/2017/10/17/eavs-deep-dive-early-absentee-and-mail-voting-data-stat­utory-over­view.  Since 2000, more than 250 million votes have been cast via mailed-out ballots in all 50 states. foot­note6_rn1i7o0 6 David Roberts, “The Simple Voting Reform that Works Wherever It’s Tried,” Vox, last updated May 24, 2018,­ics/2018/5/23/17383400/vote-by-mail-home-cali­for­nia-alaska-nebraska.

Mail ballot­ing prac­tices vary by state with regard to voter eligib­il­ity, ballot return processes, and whether a mail ballot must be reques­ted or is auto­mat­ic­ally sent to voters. For the 2020 elec­tion, nine states and the District of Columbia, will use the prac­tice often called “vote at home,” in which active registered voters are auto­mat­ic­ally sent mail ballots and can choose from a vari­ety of ballot return meth­ods. foot­note7_2q5d­c17 7 “About Us,” National Vote at Home Insti­tute, last accessed August 5, 2020,; The nine states are Cali­for­nia, Color­ado, Hawaii, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, Utah, Vermont, and Wash­ing­ton. In addi­tion, counties in Montana have the option to use a “vote at home” system. “Absentee and Mail Voting Policies in Effect for the 2020 Elec­tion,” National Confer­ence of State Legis­latures, last updated Octo­ber 9, 2020,­tions-and-campaigns/absentee-and-mail-voting-policies-in-effect-for-the-2020-elec­tion.aspx; Quinn Scan­lan, “Here’s How State Have Changed the Rules Around Voting amid the Coronavirus Pandemic,” ABC News, Septem­ber 22, 2020,­ics/states-changed-rules-voting-amid-coronavirus-pandemic/story?id=72309089.  Twenty-seven states allow “no excuse absentee voting,” enabling any voter to request a mail ballot for the elec­tion. foot­note8_5i2nnsa 8 Alaska, Arizona, Delaware, Flor­ida, Geor­gia, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Mary­land, Massachu­setts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Caro­lina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Virginia, Wiscon­sin, and Wyom­ing. “Absentee and Mail Voting Policies in Effect for the 2020 Elec­tion,” National Confer­ence of State Legis­latures, last updated Octo­ber 9, 2020.   In addi­tion, 11 states that gener­ally require voters to have specific excuses to cast a mail ballot will allow voters with Covid-related excuses to vote by mail. foot­note9_ytsso77 9 Alabama, Arkan­sas, Connecti­cut, Kentucky, Missis­sippi, Missouri, New Hamp­shire, New York, South Caro­lina, Tennessee, and West Virginia. “Absentee and Mail Voting Policies in Effect for the 2020 Elec­tion,” National Confer­ence of State Legis­latures, last updated Octo­ber 9, 2020; ”COVID-19 Elec­tion Inform­a­tion,” Tennessee Secret­ary of State and Divi­sion of Elec­tions, last accessed Octo­ber 12, 2020,­tion%20In­form­a­tion.pdf; See also “Absentee By-Mail Ballot Applic­a­tion for the Novem­ber 3, 2020 Elec­tion,” Tennessee Secret­ary of State, last accessed Octo­ber 12, 2020,­lot%20Re­quest%20Form.pdf.  Finally, three states require voters to assert one of several delin­eated “excuses” in order to receive and cast a mail ballot, and those excuses have not been expan­ded to take into account the coronavirus pandemic. foot­note10_nqayrtb 10 Indi­ana, Louisi­ana, and Texas. “Absentee and Mail Voting Policies in Effect for the 2020 Elec­tion,” National Confer­ence of State Legis­latures, last updated Octo­ber 9, 2020.

End Notes

I. Is It Safe to Trust Mail Balloting Systems?

Some crit­ics, most notably Pres­id­ent Trump, have claimed that mail ballot systems are unusu­ally vulner­able to “voter fraud.” But years of mail voting around the coun­try show this is false and that there is little malfeas­ance.

Low Rates of Malfeas­ance

Histor­ic­ally, stud­ies show that the level of malfeas­ance related to mail ballot­ing is infin­ites­im­ally small. Numer­ous analyses show it remains less likely than being struck by light­ning. foot­note1_bw5g531 1 Wendy Weiser and Harold Ekeh, “The False Narrat­ive of Vote-by-Mail Fraud,” Bren­nan Center for Justice, April 10, 2020, https://www.bren­nan­cen­­ion/false-narrat­ive-vote-mail-fraud

Over the last 10 years, there have been multiple large-scale invest­ig­a­tions survey­ing voting- and elec­tion-related prosec­u­tions, prosec­u­tion refer­rals, and/or alleg­a­tions nation­wide. All have found only a tiny incid­ence of suspec­ted miscon­duct. Most recently, for example, the Wash­ing­ton Post analyzed data from three vote-at-home states and iden­ti­fied only “372 possible cases of double voting or voting on behalf of deceased people,” out of about 14.6 million voters — or 0.0025 percent. foot­note2_z6tz­swq 2 Elise Viebeck, “Minus­cule Number of Poten­tially Fraud­u­lent Ballots in States with Univer­sal Mail Voting Under­cuts Trump Claims about Elec­tion Risks,” The Wash­ing­ton Post, June 8, 2020, https://www.wash­ing­ton­­ics/minus­cule-number-of-poten­tially-fraud­u­lent-ballots-in-states-with-univer­sal-mail-voting-under­cuts-trump-claims-about-elec­tion-risks/2020/06/08/1e78aa26-a5c5–11ea-bb20-ebf0921f3bbd_story.html.  The conser­vat­ive Herit­age Found­a­tion, which main­tains an online data­base cata­loging alleged elec­tion fraud cases from the last 20 years, contains 1200 incid­ents within its data­base and has iden­ti­fied 204 involving mail ballots, only 143 of which resul­ted in a crim­inal convic­tion. foot­note3_z93d73q 3 Amber McReyn­olds and Charles Stew­art III, “Let’s Put the Vote-by-Mail ‘Fraud’ Myth to Rest,” The Hill, April 28, 2020,­ion/campaign/494189-lets-put-the-vote-by-mail-fraud-myth-to-rest; Signi­fic­antly, the Bren­nan Center analyzed the Herit­age Found­a­tion data­base and found that even these small numbers are exag­ger­ated. Rudy Mehrb­ani, “Herit­age Fraud Data­base: An Assess­ment,” Bren­nan Center for Justice, Septem­ber 8, 2017, https://www.bren­nan­cen­­age-fraud-data­base-assess­ment.  In the same time period, roughly 250 million mail ballots were cast in the United States. foot­note4_dlztjmz 4 Amber McReyn­olds and Charles Stew­art III, “Let’s Put the Vote-by-Mail ‘Fraud’ Myth to Rest,” The Hill, April 28, 2020. This “trans­lates to about 0.00006 percent of total votes cast” or, viewed another way, “one case per state every six or seven years.” foot­note5_5gkeiuq 5 Amber McReyn­olds and Charles Stew­art III, “Let’s Put the Vote-by-Mail ‘Fraud’ Myth to Rest,” The Hill, April 28, 2020.

Similar results come from a 2012 News21 analysis, in which journ­al­ists and research­ers created a data­base of every alleged case of elec­tion fraud across the coun­try they could find, from 2000 through 2012. In that twelve-year period, when “billions of votes were cast,” they discovered 2068 alleged cases, 491 (or 24 percent) of which were related to mail ballots — a larger incid­ence than the Herit­age Found­a­tion data­base indic­ates, but still less than one alleg­a­tion per state each year. foot­note6_5dmg­dak 6 Richard L. Hasen, “Trump is Wrong about the Dangers of Absentee Ballots,” The Wash­ing­ton Post, April 9, 2020, https://www.wash­ing­ton­­ions/2020/04/09/trump-is-wrong-about-dangers-absentee-ballots/.  In an even more partic­u­lar­ized analysis, a super­ior court assess­ing the contested 2004 Wash­ing­ton State gubernat­orial elec­tion ruled 25 ballots (many absentee) invalid, consti­tut­ing 0.0009 percent of the 2,812,675 ballots cast. foot­note7_r2ta55f 7 Lorraine Minnite, “The Mislead­ing Myth Of Voter Fraud In Amer­ican Elec­tions,” Schol­ars Strategy Network, Janu­ary 27, 2014, https://schol­­bu­tion/mislead­ing-myth-voter-fraud-amer­ican-elec­tions.   In short, the multiple analyses consist­ently show that the incid­ence of mail ballot miscon­duct is excep­tion­ally low.

Signi­fic­antly, despite the dramatic increase in mail ballot use over time, fraud rates have remained infin­ites­im­ally small. None of the five states that, prior to 2020, have held their elec­tions primar­ily by mail has had any scan­dals since making that change. foot­note8_fzme8s3 8 The five states that used a “vote-at-home” system prior to 2020 are Color­ado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Wash­ing­ton. “States with All-Mail Elec­tions,” National Confer­ence of State Legis­latures, last updated April 21, 2020,­tions-and-campaigns/vopp-table-18-states-with-all-mail-elec­tions.aspx   As the New York Times edit­or­ial board noted, “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.” foot­note9_l5zl0ud 9 The Edit­or­ial Board, “The 2020 Elec­tion Won’t Look like Any We’ve Seen Before,” The New York Times, March 21, 2020,­ion/sunday/coronavirus-vote-mail.html.  Roun­ded to the fifth decimal point, that’s 0.00001 percent of all votes cast. As the National Vote at Home Coali­tion notes, “[i]n the 2016 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion, more than 33 million voters, roughly 1 in 4, cast their votes via mailed-out ballots. This was one of the most conten­tious elec­tions in recent Amer­ican history, and even alleged instances of mailed-out ballot fraud, much less proven examples, were virtu­ally nil.” foot­note10_qjcxlrw 10 “Debunk­ing the Absentee / Vote by Mail Fraud and Abuse Argu­ment,” National Vote at Home Coali­tion, last accessed Octo­ber 8, 2020,­d554e4b5b9b5852f8f­b3c10fd.pdf.

Bipar­tisan Trust in the System

Before the 2020 elec­tion campaign season, there was long­stand­ing bipar­tisan support for mail ballot systems — a fact show­ing the broad trust in the reli­ab­il­ity of mail ballot­ing. foot­note11_jq7w­bqg 11 Domi­n­ique Erney and Wendy Weiser, “Bipar­tisan Support for Expan­ded Mail Voting for 2020 Elec­tions,” Bren­nan Center for Justice, April 15, 2020, https://www.bren­nan­cen­­tisan-support-expan­ded-mail-voting-2020-elec­tions.   The five states that, prior to 2020, used “vote at home” mail­ing — Color­ado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Wash­ing­ton — are a mix of purple, blue and red states. Jena Gris­wold, Color­ado’s Demo­cratic secret­ary of state, has explained, “[V]ote-by-mail for all . . . makes us more secure. Russia can’t hack a piece of paper [and i]t increases access­ib­il­ity.” foot­note12_sz1ompf 12 Barbara Rodrig­uez, “Jena Gris­wold, the 'Dr. Fauci of Vote-by-Mail’? Color­ado’s Top Elec­tions Offi­cial on the Key to Safe Voting,” Color­ado Polit­ics, last updated Septem­ber 30, 2020, https://www.color­ado­pol­it­­tion/jena-gris­wold-the-dr-fauci-of-vote-by-mail-color­a­dos-top-elec­tions-offi­cial-on-the/article_1a3241b0-df28–11ea-bb8b-b707d­b­d2344c.html.  Simil­arly, Utah director of elec­tions Justin Lee has stated, “Being a very red state, we haven’t seen anything that helps one party over another at all. We’ve heard less concern about voter fraud than about whether every ballot that should get coun­ted does get coun­ted.” foot­note13_0z0m­he2 13 David Weigel, “The Trailer: The Fear and Polit­ics around Expand­ing Voting by Mail,” The Wash­ing­ton Post, April 2, 2020, https://www.wash­ing­ton­­ics/paloma/the-trailer/2020/04/02/the-trailer-the-fear-and-polit­ics-around-expand­ing-voting-by-mail/5e84980e602ff10d49ada414/.  

Elec­tion offi­cials from both parties expressed trust in mail ballots during the 2020 primary elec­tions. In spring 2020, for example, Repub­lican offi­cials in at least three states planned or publicly considered running all-mail elec­tions in light of the pandemic. foot­note14_deo9edg 14 In the spring of 2020 in Ohio, Repub­lican Governor Mike DeWine and Repub­lican Secret­ary of State Frank LaRose planned and promoted the state’s first all-mail elec­tions. During a similar time­frame, both Iowa’s Repub­lican Secret­ary of State Paul Pate and New Hamp­shire’s Repub­lican governor Chris Sununu publicly stated that, due to the coronavirus, they were consid­er­ing all-mail elec­tions for Novem­ber 2020. Erin Murphy, “Iowa Elec­tion Offi­cials Push­ing Vote by Mail for June Primary,” Sioux City Journal, April 5, 2020, https://sioux­city­­tion-offi­cials-push­ing-vote-by-mail-for-june-primary/article_0a02ee­b1–1ff1–5977–980f-8bc5b5c46dc1.html; Michael Wines, “Voting by Mail Could be What States Need. But Can They Pull It Off?” The New York Times, April 11, 2020,­tions.html?sear­chResult­Pos­i­tion=3.  Repub­lican offi­cials in Geor­gia, Idaho, Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, and West Virginia proact­ively mailed absentee ballot request forms to registered voters. foot­note15_g1w6x1y 15 Amy Gard­ner and Elise Viebeck, “GOP Pushes Voting by Mail – with Restric­tions – While Trump Attacks It as ‘Cor­rupt,’” The Wash­ing­ton Post, April 13, 2020, https://www.wash­ing­ton­­ics/gop-pushes-voting-by-mail—with-restric­tion­s—as-trump-attacks-it-as-corrupt/2020/04/12/526057a4–7b­f8–11ea-a130-df573469f094_story.html?utm_campaign=wp_polit­ics&utm_medium=refer­ral&utm_source=rss; Erin Murphy, “Iowa Elec­tion Offi­cials Push­ing Vote by Mail for June Primary,” Sioux City Journal, April 5, 2020; “Raffen­sper­ger Takes Unpre­ced­en­ted Steps to Protect Safety and Voter Integ­rity in Geor­gia,” Geor­gia Secret­ary of State, last accessed Octo­ber 8, 2020,­tions/raffen­sper­ger_takes_unpre­ced­en­ted_steps_to_protect_safety_and_voter_integ­rity_in_geor­gia. Among states that that held a pres­id­en­tial primary after the pandem­ic’s onset and that normally require an excuse for absentee voting, all except Texas expan­ded eligib­il­ity to allow broader use of absentee ballots — even though in some cases, such as Alabama, Louisi­ana, and others, this was led by Repub­lican offi­cials and governors. foot­note16_u90c3cp 16 Mike Cason, “Merrill Extends COVID-19 Emer­gency Absentee Voting Rule to General Elec­tion,”, July 21, 2020,­gency-absentee-voting-rule-to-general-elec­tion.html; Kelly Mena, “Louisi­ana Voters Can Now Request Absentee Ballots by Citing Coronavirus Concerns,” CNN, May 8, 2020,­ics/louisi­ana-coronavirus-absentee-ballots/index.html.

Unfor­tu­nately, the bipar­tisan support for mail ballots has frayed in some places under relent­less pres­sure from Pres­id­ent Trump, who regu­larly tweets unsub­stan­ti­ated claims connect­ing mail ballot use with “voter fraud.” For example, 3 of the 16 states that require excuses for absentee ballots have refused to expand their avail­ab­il­ity to voters. Ohio and Texas are limit­ing the avail­ab­il­ity of drop boxes and drop-off loca­tions, altern­at­ives to the Postal Service for return of mail ballots. At least seven states that sent absentee ballot request applic­a­tions to registered voters for the pres­id­en­tial primary are declin­ing to do so for the general elec­tion. foot­note17_78i2qna 17 This includes Alaska, Geor­gia, Kansas, North Dakota, New Mexico, South Dakota, and West Virginia. Wendy Weiser, Eliza Sweren-Becker, Domi­n­ique Erney, and Anne Glatz, “Mail Voting: What Has Changed in 2020,” Bren­nan Center for Justice, Septem­ber 17, 2020, https://www.bren­nan­cen­  Atti­tudes around mail voting appear to have shif­ted in recent months, with fewer states proact­ively encour­aging the prac­tice.

End Notes

II. How Do Mail Ballot Systems Protect Against Vulnerabilities?

Any system — whether soft­ware, infra­struc­ture, or elec­tions — will have vulner­ab­il­it­ies that it must take into consid­er­a­tion when design­ing the over­all oper­a­tion. With respect to elec­tions, for example, this played out on a national scale in 2016 with foreign actors exploit­ing state cyber­se­cur­ity weak­nesses, and that vulner­ab­il­ity remains. foot­note1_js3d­cai 1 The Bren­nan Center high­lights several secur­ity features and resi­li­ency meas­ures that can help protect against many such threats. Edgardo Cortés et al., Prepar­ing for Cyber­at­tack and Tech­nical Prob­lems During the Pandemic: A Guide for Elec­tion Offi­cials, Bren­nan Center for Justice, June 5, 2020, https://www.bren­nan­cen­–06/Resi­li­ency_Final_0.pdf. To address vulner­ab­il­it­ies specific to mail ballots, states incor­por­ate layers of secur­ity features embed­ded into every mail ballot’s jour­ney.

The features iden­ti­fied below consti­tute a menu of the most common protect­ive meas­ures that states have adop­ted to guard against malfeas­ance. Among other things, mail ballot secur­ity meas­ures protect against tamper­ing as well as imper­miss­ible voting through imper­son­a­tion and ballot stuff­ing. Each state’s processes to address these vulner­ab­il­it­ies are slightly differ­ent, as processes have developed over time and elec­tion offi­cials and legis­latures have figured out which of the meas­ures work best in their respect­ive states.

Protec­tions Against Tamper­ing

  • Paper Ballots: All mail ballots are paper and marked by hand, and thus are considered to be the most secure ballot type. foot­note2_nnps11a 2 “Secur­ity Features of Voting by Absentee/Mailed Ballots,” in “Voting Outside the Polling Place: Absentee, All-Mail, and Other Voting at Home Options,” National Confer­ence of State Legis­latures, last updated Septem­ber 24, 2020,­tions-and-campaigns/absentee-and-early-voting.aspx. Because they are hand-marked, any changes to how they have been filled out are more appar­ent from the face of the ballot. foot­note3_8ktm13c 3 “Secur­ity Features of Voting by Absentee/Mailed Ballots,” in “Voting Outside the Polling Place,” National Confer­ence of State Legis­latures, last updated Septem­ber 24, 2020.   Because there is a paper trail to review, voters’ marks can be examined if there is suspi­cion of tamper­ing, and most states conduct some kind of post-elec­tion audit of their paper ballots. foot­note4_i6mo8oe 4 “Secur­ity Features of Voting by Absentee/Mailed Ballots,” in “Voting Outside the Polling Place,” National Confer­ence of State Legis­latures, last updated Septem­ber 24, 2020; “Post-Elec­tion Audits,” National Confer­ence of State Legis­latures, last updated Octo­ber 25, 2019,­tions-and-campaigns/post-elec­tion-audit­s635926066.aspx.
  • Sealed Envel­opes: Mail ballots are returned in sealed envel­opes. Some states also provide voters with inner secrecy envel­opes, which obscure the details of their ballots. Because envel­opes must be sealed, attempts to tamper with a ballot after its submis­sion will be appar­ent from the state of the envel­ope. foot­note5_t4y5xbg 5 “If the outer envel­ope is not signed on the signa­ture line located in the upper left hand corner and sealed, the ballot will not be coun­ted.” “Instruc­tions to Voters Voting A Mail-In Absentee Ballot,” Common­wealth of Kentucky, State Board of Elec­tions, last accessed Octo­ber 8, 2020,­Col­lec­tion­Doc­u­ments/Voter%20In­form­a­tion/milit­ary/SBE%2048A%20In­struc­tions%20to%20Voters%20Vot­ing%20a%20Mail-in%20Ab­sentee%20Bal­lot.pdf; “(1) The team shall verify that…The return envel­ope is sealed. (2) If the oath is not signed or the return envel­ope is unsealed, the team shall refer the envel­ope to the local board.” Md. Code Regs. and,; “Return­ing Your Absentee Ballot By Mail,” West Virginia Secret­ary of State, last accessed Octo­ber 8, 2020,­Search/Elec­tions/Admin­is­trat­ors/Mail%20re­turn%20in­struc­tions%20-%20blank.pdf  Any rip or break in the envel­ope seal can be examined for suspi­cion of tamper­ing.
  • Secure drop-off loca­tions and drop boxes: 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 to which no one but desig­nated elec­tion staff has access. In places where all or most voters receive ballots by mail, many voters do not use the Postal Service to return completed ballots; rather, they opt to drop their ballots off at secure polling sites that have drop boxes. Provi­sion of secure drop boxes in conveni­ent loca­tions also reduces the risk of voter coer­cion by allow­ing indi­vidual voters to main­tain autonomy in their abil­ity to return their own ballots. Drop boxes are perhaps one of the most import­ant features in a system that relies heav­ily on mail ballots. 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. foot­note6_b9wnt31 6 Charles Stew­art III, “2016 Survey of the Perform­ance of Amer­ican Elec­tions,” Harvard Data­verse, 2017, https://data­­verse/SPAE. Phys­ical secur­ity of drop boxes include a lock or tamper-evid­ent seal, secure fasten­ing to an immov­able object if at an unstaffed loca­tion, place­ment behind a counter or other­wise safe­guarded if in a staffed loca­tion, and/or video surveil­lance if possible. foot­note7_nt4h­pgj 7 Matt Barreto et al., Protect­ing Demo­cracy: Imple­ment­ing Equal and Safe Access to the Ballot Box During a Global Pandemic, UCLA Voting Rights Project, March 23, 2020, 9,  
  • Ballot Hand­ling and Ballot Secur­ity: States ensure the integ­rity and phys­ical secur­ity of mail ballots by limit­ing the oppor­tun­ity for malfeas­ance in ballot hand­ling. This is espe­cially import­ant to deter miscon­duct by polit­ical insiders. Video camera surveil­lance of ballots — either while in stor­age (in drop boxes or elec­tion offices, wait­ing for tabu­la­tion) or during ballot processing and tabu­la­tion — play a part in the detec­tion of ballot tamper­ing. foot­note8_3x6deyz 8 “Quick Start Guide: Absentee Voting and Vote By Mail,” U.S. Elec­tion Assist­ance Commis­sion, Novem­ber 27, 2017,­ments/2017/11/27/absentee-voting-and-vote-by-mail; “Secur­ity Features of Voting By Absentee/Mailed Ballots,” in “Voting Outside the Polling Place: Absentee, All-Mail and other Voting at Home Options,” National Confer­ence of State Legis­latures, last updated Septem­ber 24, 2020,­tions-and-campaigns/absentee-and-early-voting.aspx.   Other import­ant features include require­ments for two-person and/or bipar­tisan teams any time an indi­vidual is hand­ling or in the pres­ence of any ballots, whether to retrieve ballots from the post office or drop boxes, to verify signa­tures, to open mail ballot envel­opes, to separ­ate mail ballots from their envel­opes, to prepare ballots for scan­ning, or to parti­cip­ate in the vote count­ing process. foot­note9_arml­bgc 9 “Secur­ity Features of Voting by Absentee/Mailed Ballots,” in “Voting Outside the Polling Place,” National Confer­ence of State Legis­latures, last updated Septem­ber 24, 2020.   NCSL recom­mends bipar­tisan teams, while the U.S. Elec­tion Assist­ance Commis­sion (EAC) recom­mends having two people with ballots at all times, requir­ing elec­tion offi­cials to take a lunch break at the same time while lock­ing down the ballot recep­tion area, installing secur­ity where ballots are stored, and stor­ing empty return envel­opes and voted ballots in separ­ate tamper-evid­ent sealed contain­ers. foot­note10_t1n3aa8 10 “Quick Start Guide: Absentee Voting and Vote by Mail,” U.S. Elec­tion Assist­ance Commis­sion, Novem­ber 27, 2017.  Other proced­ures include limit­a­tions on who can handle ballots and requir­ing elec­tion staff to be on site with vendors at all times. foot­note11_drr729w 11 “Quick Start Guide: Absentee Voting and Vote by Mail,” U.S. Elec­tion Assist­ance Commis­sion, Novem­ber 27, 2017.
  • Logs/Records: Main­ten­ance of records and review of logs of import­ant mail ballot related inform­a­tion — as well as trans­par­ency that such inform­a­tion will be reviewed — deters ballot tamper­ing as well as ballot stuff­ing. Records are kept of every­one who mailed a ballot, the number of ballots issued, staff involved in ballot recep­tion, the time at which staff handle ballots, the number of returned ballots (that should be balanced at the end of each day), and the names and addresses of those whose ballot has been received. foot­note12_gpd09lu 12 “Quick Start Guide: Absentee Voting and Vote by Mail,” U.S. Elec­tion Assist­ance Commis­sion, Novem­ber 27, 2017; “Secur­ity Features of Voting By Absentee/Mailed Ballots,” in “Voting Outside the Polling Place,” National Confer­ence of State Legis­latures, last updated Septem­ber 24, 2020.  By review­ing this data, anom­alies — like a larger than expec­ted number of mail ballot requests or a lower than expec­ted return rate — can be detec­ted and invest­ig­a­tions initi­ated to identify wrong­do­ing. foot­note13_y2c3pn0 13 It appears that main­ten­ance and review of logs and records led to the detec­tion of the 2018 wrong­do­ing in North Caro­lina. Michael Bitzer, ”Three Lessons from North Caro­lin­a’s Tain­ted Elec­tion – and What Comes Next,” The Wash­ing­ton Post, Febru­ary 25, 2019, https://www.wash­ing­ton­­ics/2019/02/25/three-lessons-north-caro­li­nas-tain­ted-elec­tion-what-comes-next/.

Protec­tions Against Imper­son­a­tion

  • Authen­tic­a­tion of request for mail ballot: When mail ballot requests have been received for the 2020 elec­tions, states have used a range of proced­ures to make sure the requests have been coming from currently registered voters by check­ing the voter regis­tra­tion data­base. Thirty-three states compare inform­a­tion submit­ted by an applic­ant with the indi­vidu­al’s voter regis­tra­tion record. foot­note14_pd1g­z9s 14 Cali­for­nia, Nevada, and New Jersey also compare inform­a­tion submit­ted by an applic­ant with the indi­vidu­al’s voter regis­tra­tion record. However, because they will prac­tice “vote-at-home” for the 2020 Novem­ber Elec­tion, we have excluded them from this figure. Of those 33, 16 also conduct a signa­ture veri­fic­a­tion compar­ing the applic­a­tion signa­ture with that in the voter regis­tra­tion record. foot­note15_18c20ux 15 Flor­ida, Kentucky, Maine, Mary­land, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, North Caro­lina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyom­ing “compare an applic­ant’s inform­a­tion and eligib­il­ity against the voter regis­tra­tion record.” Arkan­sas, Arizona, Connecti­cut, Delaware, Geor­gia, Idaho, Iowa, Illinois, Indi­ana, Kansas, Massachu­setts, Michigan, Montana, New Hamp­shire, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Tennessee “conduct signa­ture veri­fic­a­tion in addi­tion to check­ing inform­a­tion and eligib­il­ity against the voter regis­tra­tion record.” “Request­ing an Absentee Ballot: How Do Elec­tion Offi­cials Verify Applic­a­tions for Absentee Ballots?,” in “Voting Outside the Polling Place,” National Confer­ence of State Legis­latures, last updated Septem­ber 24, 2020. An addi­tional state requires an oath on the mail ballot request. foot­note16_30nbz4s 16 Describ­ing proced­ure in South Caro­lina. In addi­tion, D.C. gener­ally considers a voter’s signa­ture to be an affirm­a­tion; however, D.C. will prac­tice “vote-at-home” for the 2020 elec­tion and there­fore will not receive absentee ballot applic­a­tions. “Request­ing an Absentee Ballot: How Do Elec­tion Offi­cials Verify Applic­a­tions for Absentee Ballots?,” in “Voting Outside the Polling Places,” National Confer­ence of State Legis­latures, last updated Septem­ber 24, 2020. Five states require voters to provide addi­tional docu­ment­a­tion or take addi­tional steps for veri­fic­a­tion, and two states issue the mail ballot upon applic­a­tion. foot­note17_34u96j5 17 Voters must provide addi­tional docu­ment­a­tion or take addi­tional steps for veri­fic­a­tion in Alabama, Louisi­ana, Missis­sippi, South Dakota, and Wiscon­sin. Alaska and North Dakota issue a mail ballot upon applic­a­tion. “Request­ing an Absentee Ballot: How Do Elec­tion Offi­cials Verify Applic­a­tions for Absentee Ballots?,” in “Voting Outside the Polling Place,” National Confer­ence of State Legis­latures, last updated Septem­ber 24, 2020; “VOPP: Table 8: How States Verify Absentee Ballot Applic­a­tions,” National Confer­ence of State Legis­latures, last updated April 29, 2020,­tions-and-campaigns/vopp-table-8-how-states-verify-absentee-ballot-applic­a­tions.aspx; Vermont will prac­tice “vote-at-home” for the 2020 elec­tion but, in other elec­tions, reviews the applic­a­tion for complete­ness before issu­ing an absentee ballot. Vt. Stat. Ann. Tit. 17, §2533. Depend­ing on the state and other prac­tices, the veri­fied absentee voter may be removed from the poll­book (used to check in voters at the polling place) after a clerk sends the mail ballot packet. foot­note18_ht2d­w0u 18 Matt Blaze, “Rapidly Scal­ing Up Absentee Voting In An Emer­gency,” March 10, 2020, 5,­gency­vot­ing.pdf. In other states, voters are not removed from the poll­book, but only one ballot will be recor­ded and any addi­tional ballots will be auto­mat­ic­ally canceled (as a result of bar code features). foot­note19_ms6c1zy 19 Matt Blaze, “Rapidly Scal­ing Up Absentee Voting in An Emer­gency,” March 10, 2020, 5.  
  • Indi­vidu­al­ized ballot envel­opes: Mail ballot pack­ets sent to voters are indi­vidu­al­ized for each voter and include indi­vidu­al­ized return envel­opes. The ballot envel­opes gener­ally include an indi­vidu­al­ized serial number or bar code as a mech­an­ism to ensure there is only one vote per indi­vidual voter. Indeed, 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 more than one ballot has been cast in a voter’s name, whether mistakenly or corruptly.
  • Ballot Track­ing: Know­ing where a mail ballot is during all steps of its round-trip jour­ney — from an elec­tion office to a voter and back to an elec­tion office for processing and tabu­la­tion — limits the oppor­tun­ity for a ballot to be diver­ted from where it should be and to whom it should be sent.

There are multiple types of ballot track­ing, as well as systems that integ­rate these under­ly­ing track­ing devices to provide elec­tions offi­cials and voters with easier access to inform­a­tion about mail ballots. The first mail ballot track­ing device is the U.S. Postal Service’s Intel­li­gent Mail Barcode (IMB). Many juris­dic­tions, includ­ing Cali­for­nia, Color­ado, and Flor­ida, equip their ballot envel­opes with intel­li­gent mail bar codes to enable track­ing of ballot envel­opes through the U.S. mail. foot­note20_c66ozw7 20 “Steps to Creat­ing Your Intel­li­gent Mail Barcode,” United States Postal Service, 2018,­tion-mail/steps-to-creat­ing-intel­li­gent-mail-barcode.pdf; See also “Vote-by-Mail Envel­ope Design for Cali­for­nia,” Center for Civic Design and Cali­for­nia Secret­ary of State’s Office, Decem­ber 15, 2017, https://elec­­ance.pdf; Jenny Bless­ing et al., “Secur­ity Survey and Analysis of Vote-by-Mail Systems,” submit­ted May 18, 2020, last updated Septem­ber 5, 2020, 2,; “Flor­ida State Asso­ci­ation of Super­visors of Elec­tions Meet­ing,” United States Postal Service, Decem­ber 2015, https://www.myflor­id­aelec­­ments/Confer­ence%20Present­a­tions/2015/Mid-Winter/USPS_SOEP­res­ent­a­tion.pdf. IMBs are primar­ily used to track mail ballots on their way from elec­tions offices to voters, though some juris­dic­tions also use them to track return of completed mail ballots. foot­note21_xza87ze 21 Inter­view with Jessenia Eliza, Director of Govern­ment Initi­at­ives, Demo­cracy Works, June 4, 2020. More often, a differ­ent type of postal code, which slightly modi­fies the original IMB, is used for return of mail ballots from voters to elec­tions offices. The final ballot track­ing device — called “internal bar codes” in this report and refer­enced above in the entry regard­ing indi­vidu­al­ized ballot envel­opes — is not a postal bar code but rather allows elec­tions offi­cials to track mail ballots as they make their way through the voting process, from issu­ance to a voter, to receipt by the elec­tions office, to rejec­tion or accept­ance, to tabu­la­tion and count­ing. foot­note22_e5dsstw 22 “Quick Start Guide: Absentee Voting and Vote By Mail,” U.S. Elec­tion Assist­ance Commis­sion, Novem­ber 27, 2017; “Secur­ity Features of Voting By Absentee/Mailed Ballots” in “Voting Outside the Polling Place,” National Confer­ence of State Legis­latures, last updated Septem­ber 24, 2020.  Most juris­dic­tions across the coun­try use these internal bar codes as part of elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion.  

Two soft­ware systems (run by Ballot Scout and Ballot­Trax), as well as some in-house juris­dic­tion-specific systems, provide compre­hens­ive track­ing services, lever­aging the under­ly­ing track­ing systems described above and provid­ing access to voters. The compre­hens­ive commer­cial systems track mail ballots from the time they are placed into the mail, to even­tual receipt by voters, to return receipt at elec­tion offices, until accept­ance for count­ing, even proact­ively alert­ing voters of import­ant steps in the process. foot­note23_9646wxz 23 Talib Visram, “’Track Your Ballot like a Pack­age’: How Tech­no­logy Will Smooth the Way for Novem­ber’s Mail-In Ballot Surge,” Fast Company, May 7, 2020,­com­­age-how-tech­no­logy-will-smooth-the-way-for-novem­bers-mail-in-ballot-surge.  Forty-three states plus the District of Columbia allow voters to track their mail ballots, while another four provide mail ballot track­ing for a subset of voters. foot­note24_08zwjsw 24 Ballot track­ing is offered may be offered by counties in Color­ado, Illinois, and Wyom­ing. Texas provides ballot track­ing only to over­seas and milit­ary voters. “Where’s My Ballot?” U.S. Vote Found­a­tion, last accessed Octo­ber 6, 2020, https://www.usvote­found­a­ Using ballot track­ing, if a voter says she or he never received a ballot, an elec­tion offi­cial can better determ­ine whether the ballot was delivered, replace the ballot as appro­pri­ate, and ensure the original is flagged as comprom­ised and not coun­ted. The systems can also let a voter know if, upon receipt of the ballot, there are prob­lems or defi­cien­cies that need correc­tion — also an import­ant trig­ger to determ­ine if the correct person is return­ing the ballot.

  • Iden­tity Veri­fic­a­tion: The prin­cipal method used to detect and prevent indi­vidual fraud is the mail ballot envel­ope itself, which includes personal identi­fy­ing inform­a­tion. In most states, that inform­a­tion includes a signa­ture that can be used to compare against the voter rolls. In other states, there may be an affi­davit, witness, or notary required. foot­note25_ygrhidd 25 “VOPP: Table 14: How States Verify Voted Absentee Ballots,” National Confer­ence of State Legis­latures, April 17, 2020,­tions-and-campaigns/vopp-table-14-how-states-verify-voted-absentee.aspx.  Laws requir­ing an affi­davit or signa­ture compar­ison to verify a voter’s iden­tity — rather than a witness signa­ture or a notar­ized signa­ture on the mail ballot envel­ope — are prefer­able because they reduce oppor­tun­it­ies for coer­cion by neces­sary third parties. foot­note26_0gb41rw 26 A state’s require­ment for a witness or notary, the choices of whom may be quite limited during the pandemic, increases the risk of voter coer­cion by requir­ing the involve­ment of an indi­vidual other than the voter.  Three-quar­ters of states plus the District of Columbia protect voters in this way. foot­note27_8ismai4 27 “VOPP: Table 14: How States Verify Voted Absentee Ballots,” National Confer­ence of State Legis­latures, last updated April 17, 2020. When a mail ballot is returned, the signa­ture or personal identi­fy­ing inform­a­tion is compared 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.” foot­note28_u8gsk4h 28 Kristine Frazao, “New Calls Rising to Change the Way Amer­ic­ans Vote in the Midst of a Pandemic,” CBS Austin, April 7, 2020,  This is a long-stand­ing and well-estab­lished prac­tice to ensure that the ballot received was indeed cast by the correct voter.
  • Tabu­lator system design: Ballot scan­ning (also called tabu­lat­ing) systems, through which mail ballots are processed upon their return, incor­por­ate features that will detect and/or reject coun­ter­feit ballot forms. foot­note29_iurzzam 29 Matt Blaze, “Rapidly Scal­ing Up Absentee Voting In An Emer­gency,” March 10, 2020, 7.

Tabu­lator vendors issue printer specific­a­tions for the paper that must be used for ballots in order for the ballot to be scanned and read correctly by the vendor’s tabu­lator. Qual­it­ies like the paper’s weight, bright­ness, and opacity, as well as the color and type of ink, are specified. For example, mail ballots are typic­ally pre-prin­ted with a combin­a­tion of infrared absorb­ing and infrared reflect­ing inks that must appear in specific places on a ballot. foot­note30_6ke07bo 30 Matt Blaze, “Rapidly Scal­ing Up Absentee Voting In An Emer­gency,” March 10, 2020.  Tabu­lator vendors certify differ­ent print shops, which have the printer specific­a­tions and can produce ballots correctly, and there­fore tabu­lat­ors only guar­an­tee that ballots produced by those shops will scan correctly. Ballots that do not meet the printer specific­a­tions are not guar­an­teed to scan in the tabu­lator, and a suffi­cient number of ballots rejec­ted by the tabu­lator will raise suspi­cion. Some tabu­lator vendors jeal­ously guard printer specific­a­tions and there­fore only certi­fied print shops have the relev­ant inform­a­tion to print ballots at all, making ballots even harder to produce fraud­u­lently.

In addi­tion, ballots have “timing” marks, which are hard to repro­duce. The specific loca­tion of timing marks — down the side of the ballot — allow tabu­lat­ors to under­stand how to “read” the ballot. Timing marks are differ­ent for each ballot style, and also for each elec­tion. The need to repro­duce timing marks for a ballot to be coun­ted correctly is another feature that makes fraud­u­lent produc­tion of ballots, and the subsequent success­ful count­ing of such ballots if cast, diffi­cult.

  • Signa­ture cure process: When a signa­ture is miss­ing from a returned mail ballot envel­ope and/or the signa­ture on the envel­ope is not compar­able to the signa­ture in the voter regis­tra­tion data­base, a state’s cure process — contact­ing the registered voter to fix the prob­lem — is an import­ant process to determ­ine whether the ballot was stolen and fraud­u­lently cast or, more likely, whether the voter’s hand­writ­ing was poor because of, for example, a broken arm or a changed signa­ture over time. Eight­een states have a stat­utory process that seeks a voter’s “cure” of perceived signa­ture prob­lems. foot­note31_ubl319w 31 This includes Arizona, Cali­for­nia, Color­ado, Flor­ida, Geor­gia, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Massachu­setts, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, Utah, and Wash­ing­ton. “Processing, Veri­fy­ing, and Count­ing Absentee Ballots: What happens if there is a miss­ing signa­ture or a signa­ture discrep­ancy?,” in “Voting Outside the Polling Place,” National Confer­ence of State Legis­latures, last updated Septem­ber 24, 2020.­tions-and-campaigns/absentee-and-early-voting.aspx.
  • Provi­sional Mail Ballots: If a voter requests a mail ballot to be sent to a differ­ent address after a mail ballot pack­age is already sent, a provi­sional ballot is sent to the second address and, by rely­ing on a bar code, coun­ted only when it is clear the first ballot has not been returned. Provi­sional ballots are also sent when a voter complains that the original mail ballot packet has not been received.

In addi­tion to these meas­ures, regu­lar voter-protect­ive list main­ten­ance (discussed below in the section describ­ing protec­tions against ballot stuff­ing) also provides protec­tion against imper­son­a­tion.

Protec­tions Against Ballot Stuff­ing

  • Regu­lar voter-protect­ive list main­ten­ance, i.e., making sure there are accur­ate addresses: By conduct­ing a regu­lar program of list main­ten­ance and keep­ing up-to-date address inform­a­tion, states can be confid­ent that mail ballots (or mail ballot requests) are sent to registered voters at their correct addresses. foot­note32_1zupz7s 32 “Secur­ity Features of Voting By Absentee/Mailed Ballots,” in “Voting Outside the Polling Place,” National Confer­ence of State Legis­latures, last updated Septem­ber 24, 2020.  This is partic­u­larly import­ant in states that send ballots to all registered voters. When ballots are sent to addresses that have not been updated regu­larly, they may get delivered to loca­tions where voters no longer live, creat­ing a poten­tial open­ing for a dishon­est indi­vidual to attempt to submit a ballot that belongs to someone else. (Iden­tity veri­fic­a­tion, as described above, is designed to prevent any fraud­u­lently submit­ted ballots from being coun­ted.)

Effect­ive list main­ten­ance is an import­ant secur­ity meas­ure, yet states must be care­ful to include adequate safe­guards to ensure eligible voters remain registered. Over-aggress­ive list main­ten­ance risks disen­fran­chising prop­erly registered voters who should be able to cast a ballot. foot­note33_nbz9f7e 33 Kevin Morris, Myrna Pérez, Jonathan Brater, and Chris­topher Deluzio, “Purges: A Grow­ing Threat to the Right to Vote,” Bren­nan Center for Justice, July 20, 2018, https://www.bren­nan­cen­­ing-threat-right-vote. Many states conduct list main­ten­ance through member­ship in ERIC, the Elec­tronic Regis­tra­tion Inform­a­tion Center, which assists members by compar­ing data­bases and alert­ing them of inac­cur­ate and out-of-date voter regis­tra­tion records. foot­note34_u345fie 34 See Elec­tronic Regis­tra­tion Inform­a­tion Center website, last accessed Octo­ber 14, 2020, https://eric­ Currently, 30 states plus the District of Columbia are ERIC members. Note, however, that ERIC members who are not subject to the National Voter Regis­tra­tion Act — like Minnesota and Wiscon­sin — have differ­ent rules govern­ing removal from the voter regis­tra­tion list than the remain­ing members.

Policies that make it conveni­ent for voters them­selves to update their addresses also help keep voter regis­tra­tion lists up to date. For example, both Section 5 of the National Voter Regis­tra­tion Act and auto­matic voter regis­tra­tion require auto­matic update of voter regis­tra­tion addresses (unless the voter specifies other­wise) when voters update their driver’s license addresses. Moreover, send­ing mail ballots itself aids in the effort to ensure accur­ate voter regis­tra­tion lists. Accord­ing to NCSL, “The act of send­ing out absentee/mailed ballots also allows elec­tion offi­cials to ensure they have up-to-date addresses for voters, and states that send out more absentee/mailed ballots have seen an added bene­fit [that] . . . voter address inform­a­tion is kept up to date.” foot­note35_9ndh­cd7 35 “Secur­ity Features of Voting By Absentee/Mailed Ballots,” in “Voting Outside the Polling Place,” National Confer­ence of State Legis­latures, last updated Septem­ber 24, 2020.

While regu­lar list main­ten­ance limits mis-deliv­ery of mail ballots, fail­ure to use best prac­tices will not create elec­tion-related risks in the (over­whelm­ing) major­ity of states that require voters to request their mail ballots.

  • Ballot tabu­la­tion prac­tices: The EAC recom­mends that states estab­lish writ­ten proced­ures for manual duplic­a­tion of voted ballots to make sure each vote is coun­ted only once and that states, post-ballot tabu­la­tion, balance the number of mail ballot return envel­opes with the tabu­la­tion (minus any excep­tions). foot­note36_yc5gyus 36 “Quick Start Guide: Absentee Voting and Vote by Mail,” U.S. Elec­tion Assist­ance Commis­sion, Novem­ber 27, 2017.  In addi­tion, trans­par­ency in count­ing ballots ensures no malfeas­ance by insiders and gives confid­ence in elec­tion outcomes. foot­note37_hpmh­szb 37 Inter­view with Brian Corley, Pasco County Flor­ida Super­visor of Elec­tions. May 7, 2020.
  • Postelec­tion audits: Postelec­tion audits enable elec­tion offi­cials to identify irreg­u­lar­it­ies or miscon­duct in the count­ing of votes. Such 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 of the vote count 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. Such audits also help ensure the integ­rity of ballot scan­ning (tabu­lat­ing) soft­ware. foot­note38_0zsc­sy6 38 Matt Blaze, “Rapidly Scal­ing Up Absentee Voting In An Emer­gency,” March 10, 2020, 7, Postelec­tion audits are already widely used in states and risk-limit­ing audits, one partic­u­lar type of post-elec­tion audit, are a best secur­ity prac­tice for all elec­tions. foot­note39_dnxeb8f 39 “Post-Elec­tion Audits,” National Confer­ence of State Legis­latures, last updated Octo­ber 25, 2019; Chris­topher Deluzio, “A Smart and Effect­ive Way to Safe­guard Elec­tions,” Bren­nan Center for Justice, July 25, 2018, https://www.bren­nan­cen­­ion/smart-and-effect­ive-way-safe­guard-elec­tions.

In addi­tion to these meas­ures, authen­tic­a­tion of requests for mail ballots, indi­vidu­al­ized ballot envel­opes, tabu­lator system design, and main­ten­ance of logs and records provide protec­tion against ballot stuff­ing.

General Protec­tion Against All Forms of Malfeas­ance

  • Harsh penal­ties: Anyone who commits voter fraud of any kind 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. foot­note40_ro22tfn 40 Citing 52 U.S.C. § 10307 and 52 U.S.C. § 20511. Justin Levitt, “The Truth About Voter Fraud,” Bren­nan Center for Justice, Novem­ber 9, 2007, 7, https://www.bren­nan­cen­ In Oregon, for example, voting with or sign­ing another person’s ballot, request­ing a ballot in another’s name, voting more than once at an elec­tion, will­fully alter­ing or destroy­ing a cast ballot, and placing a fraud­u­lent ballot among genu­ine ballots are all Class C felon­ies punish­able by up to five years in prison. foot­note41_pz23o6u 41 Identi­fy­ing viol­a­tions of Or. Rev. Stat §260.715 as Class C felony. “Elec­tion Law Summary,” March 2016, 46,­tions/Docu­ments/elec_law_summary.pdf. Indeed, in all “vote at home” states, any attempt to commit elec­tion fraud with mail ballots is a felony subject to 5 years of prison time. foot­note42_wdl6tg8 42 “’Vote at Home’ What It Is, Best Prac­tices and Lessons Learned,“ National Vote at Home Insti­tute, Spring 2020, 4,­tices.pdf.  These penal­ties are import­ant secur­ity features that provide a strong deterrent to miscon­duct; it makes no sense for an indi­vidual to risk such signi­fic­ant punish­ment.

End Notes

III. How Do These Security Features Collectively Prevent Mail Balloting Misconduct?

Certain concerns about the mail ballot process have been raised repeatedly in public discus­sion, both by concerned citizens as well as oppor­tun­istic partis­ans. The ques­tion-and-answer below describes how the secur­ity features defined above work collect­ively to minim­ize miscon­duct in mail ballot­ing.

Ques­tion: I’ve heard that mail ballots are being delivered to people who have moved and have even been left in piles on the floor of apart­ment build­ing lobbies. I’ve also heard that mail ballots can be stolen from people’s mail­boxes. How do states prevent indi­vidu­als from fraud­u­lently voting a mail ballot meant for someone else?

Answer: As a threshold matter, the postal deliv­ery carrier should not be leav­ing mail ballots outside of mail­boxes. In addi­tion, steal­ing ballots is a federal crime, punish­able by up to five years in prison and $10,000 in fines.

With respect to send­ing and processing mail ballots, there are many secur­ity features beyond crim­inal penal­ties that deter and prevent the fraud­u­lent cast­ing of a mail ballot sent to someone else. As a threshold matter, ballots are either sent proact­ively to addresses already on file for registered voters or to registered voters who have reques­ted a mail ballot (and whose regis­tra­tion status have been veri­fied as part of the applic­a­tion process). Then, several secur­ity features protect the return and submis­sion of the mail ballot. For example, the voter must put his or her ballot in an envel­ope or sleeve that requires the voter to fill in inform­a­tion that only he or she would know. When the ballot is returned to the elec­tion office, an iden­tity veri­fic­a­tion process takes place. Usually, that means there will be a signa­ture compar­ison. If the ballot is submit­ted fraud­u­lently, the signa­tures and/or other personal identi­fy­ing inform­a­tion writ­ten on the envel­ope or sleeve will not match. Moreover, in states that have a signa­ture cure process, the failed signa­ture match will trig­ger contact with the correct voter, who will be noti­fied that a mail ballot was submit­ted in his or her name. The voter can then report the theft of the ballot, and author­it­ies can invest­ig­ate the matter.

Finally, if a voter contacts an elec­tion offi­cial to report that he or she has not received his or her mail ballot, the elec­tion offi­cials can track the ballot through the indi­vidu­al­ized internal bar code. The bar code will allow offi­cials to identify and cancel a stolen mail ballot and send a new mail ballot to the correct person. It is only after the iden­tity veri­fic­a­tion, signa­ture cure, and attend­ant processes have been completed that a mail ballot proceeds to be coun­ted. If an invest­ig­a­tion iden­ti­fies any fraud­u­lent submis­sion (or attemp­ted fraud­u­lent submis­sion), harsh penal­ties are imposed.

Ques­tion: How can states be sure that indi­vidu­als who are collect­ing ballots for deliv­ery do not coerce the voters to vote a certain way, modify their ballots, or throw their ballots into a river?

Answer: There are legit­im­ate reas­ons, espe­cially during a pandemic, for people to want assist­ance in deliv­er­ing their ballots. People may be immun­o­com­prom­ised and some­what house­bound, they may lack trans­port­a­tion, or they may be chal­lenged by any number of obstacles to submit­ting their mail ballot. Indeed, an indi­vidual who is rely­ing on ballot collec­tion assist­ance has the choice of whether or not to rely on an indi­vidu­al’s assist­ance, and most will rely only on someone he or she deems trust­worthy. Never­the­less, the more options a state can offer for ballot submis­sion — like secure drop boxes in conveni­ent loca­tions, as well as postal deliv­ery — the less likely a voter will need to rely on someone else for assist­ance. When a voter does rely on someone else to deliver his or her ballot, the voter must seal the ballot in the specific­ally provided ballot return envel­ope. The seal­ing of the ballot inside an envel­ope 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 mail ballot return envel­ope. foot­note1_l3z8o9f 1 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. “Return­ing a Voted Absentee Ballot: Who Can Collect and Drop Off an Absentee/Mailed Ballot on Behalf of a Voter?,” in “Voting Outside the Polling Place,” National Confer­ence of State Legis­latures, last updated Septem­ber 24, 2020; “Vote by Mail,” Cali­for­nia Secret­ary of State, last accessed Octo­ber 14, 2020,­tions/voter-regis­tra­tion/vote-mail#vote-by-mail; Katie Sobko, “All of Your Ques­tions About Voting in the Nov. 3 NJ Elec­tion, Answered Here,” NorthJer­, published Septem­ber 29, 2020, last updated Octo­ber 8, 2020, https://www.northjer­­tion-2020-mail-voting-dead­lines-and-more-ques­tions-answered/3531331001/.  If a voter’s ballot has been modi­fied, visual inspec­tion will likely show that the face of the paper ballot has been altered (because, for example, there will be a second mark or it might look like there has been an attempt to remove one mark and add another). Finally, the mail ballot can be tracked 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.

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

Answer: As a threshold matter, this answer assumes the posed ques­tion is concerned with a foreign nation that desires to create and vote with coun­ter­feit mail ballots for the purpose of impact­ing the elec­tion outcome, rather than for purposes of disin­form­a­tion, and would there­fore need to create and vote signi­fic­ant numbers of fraud­u­lent mail ballots. foot­note2_7jkg­dkn 2 A foreign nation seek­ing to create and vote fraud­u­lent ballots for purposes of disin­form­a­tion need only create a hand­ful of mail ballots, specific­ally designed to be caught and iden­ti­fied, for purposes of media ampli­fic­a­tion and fear­mon­ger­ing about the mail-in ballot process.  To do so, the foreign nation would need to have know­ledge of inform­a­tion from many differ­ent sources and that is diffi­cult to access, espe­cially for the numbers of voters from whom the foreign nation would need to attempt to steal votes. The larger the number of fraud­u­lent ballots at issue, the more likely the perpet­rator of the fraud is to be caught.

In order for a foreign nation to engage in the type of conduct posed by the ques­tion, the nation would need to under­take all of the follow­ing — a diffi­cult enter­prise. In sequen­tial order, the nation first would need access to the names and personal identi­fy­ing inform­a­tion of voters (includ­ing, for example, non-public inform­a­tion like a digital image of a signa­ture and/or a driver’s license number or last four digits of a social secur­ity number), and there­fore would need to access statewide voter regis­tra­tion data­bases without detec­tion by state offi­cials. In states where voters request mail ballots, the nation also would need to know which specific voters already made such requests. The nation would need to be assured that voters they chose did not or would not request a mail ballot either before or after the foreign nation did so, thereby alert­ing the elec­tion offi­cial that some type of miscon­duct was occur­ring — partic­u­larly diffi­cult to do in large numbers when so many voters will use a mail ballot in the 2020 general elec­tion. The nation would need to redir­ect the mail ballots, request­ing that they be sent to loca­tions other than the voters’ homes and would need many loca­tions for the redir­ec­tion — if 10,000 mail ballots are all reques­ted to be sent to the same address, that will raise red flags for elec­tion offi­cials. The nation would need to know the printer specific­a­tions for the tabu­lator (which are not gener­ally avail­able), the exact ballot style for each such voter, and how to accur­ately repro­duce the timing marks for each such ballot style (all inform­a­tion held by the tabu­lator and print shop) in order to repro­duce the mail ballot for the voters. The foreign nation would need to know, and be able to replic­ate, both U.S.P.S. IMBs and internal bar codes (inform­a­tion from U.S.P.S. and elec­tion offi­cials’ offices). As stated above, the nation must have access to each voter’s signa­ture and be able to accur­ately forge each signa­ture for a signa­ture compar­ison. Finally, the nation must be able to submit the mail ballots before the actual voters so that the fraud­u­lent ballots are coun­ted rather than the validly cast mail ballots by the specific voters. Consequently, any foreign nation wish­ing to engage in the creation and cast­ing of a large number of fraud­u­lent mail ballots would have to access closely held inform­a­tion of state or local elec­tion offi­cials, private vendors, the U.S. Postal Service, and indi­vidual voters. Every incre­mental new piece of inform­a­tion neces­sary for this scheme makes it harder to imple­ment.

Ques­tion: I heard Pres­id­ent Trump say 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?

Answer:  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 adopt a host of ballot hand­ling proced­ures precisely to prevent and/or identify improper disposal of ballots — and these processes appear to have worked in this instance. For example, two-person and/or bipar­tisan teams are present any time an indi­vidual is hand­ling or in the pres­ence of ballots, and there are limit­a­tions on who can handle ballots. Video camera surveil­lance monit­or­ing unat­ten­ded ballots allows iden­ti­fic­a­tion of anyone who improp­erly destroys or discards ballots. 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 to be attrib­uted to partic­u­lar staff present.

End Notes


Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, states are rely­ing more heav­ily on mail ballots in 2020. As many states have pivoted to accom­mod­ate greater usage of mail ballots, there have been loud but unproven claims about the vulner­ab­il­ity of mail ballots to malfeas­ance. Exper­i­ence demon­strates that mail ballot systems are secure — there has been fewer than one instance of mail ballot miscon­duct per state per year — and there is broad support across the polit­ical spec­trum for its reli­ab­il­ity.

All voting meth­ods — indeed, all systems — have vulner­ab­il­it­ies, and mail ballot systems are no differ­ent. Thank­fully, there is a menu of secur­ity features to protect mail voting — from broad avail­ab­il­ity of secure drop boxes to ballot track­ing to iden­tity veri­fic­a­tion to ballot secur­ity to post-elec­tion audits — and features have been adop­ted by juris­dic­tions across the coun­try. These features have kept mail ballot related malfeas­ance rare and should give the nation confid­ence that the upcom­ing mail ballot systems will be secure.