Could the controversy over mail-in ballots lead to a disputed election?

Could the controversy over mail-in ballots lead to a disputed election?
Source: Hans Pennink/AP

In late July, President Donald Trump suggested in a tweet that the November election should be delayed due to the prospect of mail-in voting fraud.

Specifically, Trump wrote that the 2020 election in the United States could be the most “inaccurate and fraudulent” in history and that it could be a “great embarrassment to the USA” if widespread mail-in voting is allowed amid the pandemic.

In an interview published in early August, Trump clarified his thinking on the matter, claiming that mail-in ballots would be difficult to accurately count and that fraud would be easier to commit.

“They’re gonna send tens of millions of ballots … all over the place. Who’s gonna get them? There is no way you can go through a mail-in vote without massive cheating,” he argued.

According to a fact-check on Trump’s claims, there is no evidence that mail-in voting is marred by widespread fraud. Ballots are reportedly designed with security in mind, something akin to the safeguards put in place on printed money. Signatures would have to be faked to match those on voter roll files.

“Ballots are built unique for each election,” said Jennifer Morrell, a US elections consultant.

“Each jurisdiction will normally have dozens to hundreds of unique ballot styles. Proofs for each ballot style are reviewed and tested to ensure the ballot scanners will read those ballots and only those ballots,” Morrell told NPR, claiming that in order to influence the election in a meaningful way, fraudsters would have to “replicate all of these elements exactly and do it for the 10,000-plus jurisdictions and hundreds of thousands of unique ballot styles within the U.S.”

In a study looking into the incidence of mail-in voter fraud in Washington state during the 2018 midterm elections, out of 3.2 million ballots cast overall, just 142 cases of voter fraud were identified, including those who tried to vote twice or vote on behalf of a deceased family member.

In the 2018 elections, about 23% of all ballots were sent in via mail, representing tens of millions of ballots nationwide.

Although some conservatives say mail-in ballots give Democrats an advantage over Republicans as higher turnout generally favors the left, five US states currently conduct elections almost entirely by mail, including Utah, a conservative state.

Could 2020 be different?

The US does not have an official federal agency overseeing ballot designs, which proponents of mail-in voting say makes it more difficult to orchestrate voter fraud. Still, there are some who are concerned over a possible overburdened mail-in voting system during the pandemic.

According to Emily Bazelon, a journalist with The New York Times Magazine, Congress has not set aside enough funding to ensure the election is properly run this November. Bazelon also argued there have been instances this year where elections were poorly managed due to the pandemic, such as the Wisconsin primary in April.

“Election officials were just swamped. There were tens of thousands of more people asking for absentee ballots – really, hundreds of thousands more – than they’d ever seen before. And they had a big backlog,” she said.

Bazelon added that confusion and disagreements over the dates by which absentee ballots could be accepted eventually led to a significant number of votes not being counted.

Some Democrats have also raised concerns about mail-in voting. For Douglas Kellner, co-chair of the New York State Board of Elections, there are aspects of the mail-in voting process that could potentially be exploited, especially considering the emphasis placed on mail-in votes this year.

“If you analyze all the steps involved in a mail election you start to see where the weak points are for fraud,” Kellner said, referring to the chance that groups of individuals with bad intentions could attempt to intercept ballots in the mail.

Election worries

Amid the uncertainty, some are worried that Trump could use the pandemic and mail-in voting to claim the election is illegitimate, especially if vote tallies are close.

“His broad campaign to discredit the legitimacy of American elections, to say they’re rigged, to say that vote-by-mail is given to fraud — it will split America, and it will also be damaging to our elections and our standing in the world,” argued Wendy Weiser, the director the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law, a nonpartisan think tank.

After the president suggested that the election could be delayed, the comment received widespread pushback from both Democrats and Republicans, inducing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

“Never in the history of the country, through wars and depressions and the Civil War, have we ever not had a federally scheduled election on time, and we’ll find a way to do that again this November 3,” he said in response to Trump’s remarks.

Still, many Republicans say they agree with President Trump’s concern over mail-in voting, potentially leaving an avenue for conservatives to rally behind Trump in the case that he deems the election unfair.

“You could have a case where this election won’t be decided on the evening of November 3rd. Lots of things will happen during that period of time [it takes to count mail-in votes], especially when you have tight margins,” Trump said in response to what a disputed election could look like.

“Lot’s of things can happen. There’s never been anything like this,” he added.

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