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Is Voting by Mail Safe and Reliable? We Asked State and Local Elections Officials

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought absentee and by-mail voting to the forefront of national attention in ways few could have predicted. BPC elections experts predict that as many as 70 percent of all ballots cast in the November election will be cast by mail.

As rates of absentee and mail voting increase, some government officials have raised concerns that more mail voting will lead to widespread voter fraud. Not only are rates of voter fraud extremely low, but even before the pandemic all states allowed some form of absentee voting, with the majority of states allowing no-excuse absentee voting or all-mail voting (also called vote-by-mail or VBM).

We sat down with three experienced state and local election officials and members of BPC’s Task Force on Elections to better understand the precautions that they take to make sure the absentee voting process is secure and reliable. Below are some highlights of our conversations, edited for clarity.

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1. What are some common myths about absentee voting security that you encounter in your work as an election official?

Each of the three election officials said the most common myth about absentee voting is that mail-in ballots are more susceptible to voter fraud.

Colorado’s Elections Director Judd Choate reflected that when asked about mail-in fraud, he likes to “tell the counter story.”

“People who vote in person sometimes don’t update their addresses, even when they have moved. But because it’s an in person voting model, the state or county doesn’t go to great extremes to keep [address] lists clean.”

In comparison, jurisdictions with all-mail elections must constantly update voters’ addresses to ensure that the right voters receive the right ballots. As a result, when a person moves, they are unlikely to get the wrong ballot by mail, whereas an in-person voter with an outdated address could be going to the wrong polling place for years.

Choate summarized: “In that way, vote-by-mail actually reduces fraud instead of promoting it.”

Based on her experience as Washington State’s Director of Elections, Lori Augino added that “Of the nearly 3.2 million ballots cast [in Washington in 2018], only 0.004% of the total ballots cast may have been fraudulent.”

2. How does your office ensure absentee ballots are securely delivered and returned?

According to Washington’s Lori Augino, “The linchpin of our security is signature verification.”

“Every single signature on every single ballot that is returned to a county election official is checked against the signature on file in a voter’s registration record. This enables officials to do to two things: (1) ensure the ballot was returned by an eligible voter, and (2) if the signature on the ballot envelope does not match the signature on file, it gives the voter a chance to either update their record or alert election officials that the ballot returned may be fraudulent.”

San Diego County’s Registrar of Voters Michael Vu added that in addition to conducting signature verification, he takes the following precautions:

  • Using an election management system to track every ballot issued and prevent double voting.
  • Updating voter registration lists daily to ensure the voter’s correct residence address and mailing address is on file.
  • Sending out mailers to determine if a person has moved.
  • Have staffed mail ballot drop off locations, adding a layer of security and transparency to the ballot drop off process.

3. What steps would your office take if it believed an absentee ballot had been tampered with or fraudulently filled out?

Choate, Augino, and Vu all detailed a similar method for handling ballots with signature irregularities, rooted in a process known as ballot curing:

  • “First, we contact the voter to mitigate the specific issue,” Augino said. Contacting voters about signature irregularities, or curing, is an essential part of any absentee voting process as it gives voters a chance to fix ballot errors before discarding them entirely.
  • Second, Choate explained that through the curing process officials determine “if the voter simply can’t repeat their signature, or if someone else voted the ballot.” Augino added that if it becomes clear that a voter’s file simply has an outdated signature, the voter would be given a chance to update their signature file to avoid any issues in the future. While local election administrators and their staffs conduct curing, Augino clarified that “county canvassing boards ultimately determine whether ballots in question may be counted.”
  • Finally, in the rare case that a ballot was cast fraudulently, election officials work with law enforcement to prosecute offenders. According to Augino, “In Washington state, it’s a Class C felony to commit voter fraud. When we find evidence, we take it seriously and forward it to law enforcement for investigation and consideration for prosecution.”

4. What advice do you have about maintaining voter confidence for election officials working to expand absentee and mail voting?

Judd Choate’s advice for election officials currently working to expand absentee voting was simple: “Be completely open.” He continued “the more you let people see what you’re doing, the more confident they are in the results. Let watchers, parties, and press see everything you do. Let them follow around ballot pick up teams, watch (and even challenge) the signature verification process and observe adjudication and tabulation.”

Michael Vu took a more historical approach in reminding election officials that “mail balloting is not a new phenomenon…With the right safeguards in place, mail balloting is a secure way of voting.  This is demonstrated by high adoption rates in counties like San Diego where, on the whole, voters trust that it is safe.”

Finally, Lori Augino advised election officials to “balance access with security. You can’t expand access to the ballot without incorporating the compensating security controls.”

All three election officials said they take numerous steps to safeguard the absentee and mail voting process. They, like state and local election officials across the country, are focused on ensuring that the elections they oversee are secure, legitimate, and accessible.

Lori Augino ended our conversation by emphasizing the importance of voter confidence in American democracy, saying that “at the end of the day, inspiring voter confidence boils down to assuring both sides believe the results accurately reflect the way people voted. The moment one of these standards goes out of balance, we jeopardize confidence in voting and our democratic processes.”

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