By Steve Miller, RealClearInvestigations
June 9, 2020
CHARLESTON, W. Va. -- As the country considers a vast expansion of mail-in voting this November, the early returns are not encouraging concerning ballot integrity.
A postal carrier in rural Pendleton County (population 7,000) allegedly tampered with a ballot application sent out in advance of West Virginia’s primary June 9, changing affiliations of four voters from Democrat to Republican, which would have prohibited them from voting in the primary of their selected party.
The carrier, Thomas Cooper, was arrested and charged with election fraud in late May, one day before early voting began.
During early voting for a municipal election last month in Paterson, N.J., mail-in ballots were allegedly stacked outside of apartment buildings rather than put in individual mailboxes, and a post office in neighboring Haledon found 300 Paterson ballots bundled in a mailbox there.
When the county wrapped up checking the mail-in ballots to make sure they complied with the rules, 3,190 ballots, or 19% of the mail-in vote, were disqualified.
“Invalidate the election. Let’s do it again,” the Rev. Kenneth Clayton, former head of the local NAACP affiliate, told WNBC-TV in New York. “These kinds of acts make people not want to vote anymore. They feel disenfranchised, disconnected that their votes don’t count, and that is not fair to people."
They’re still counting ballots in Baltimore, where the city’s first mostly mail-in election last week featured hundreds of voters not receiving ballots and printing errors that made the mail-ins difficult to read.
Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot tweeted that the episode has resulted in “voter disenfranchisement through gross administrative incompetence and citywide irregularities.”
And in Clark County, Nevada, including Las Vegas – where the elections office had sent ballots to everyone on its list, including roughly 200,000 voters considered inactive – mail-in ballots were allegedly stacked outside of apartment buildings.
All states have a form of mail-in voting, necessary to allow expats, military members, the elderly and others to vote. The COVID-19 crisis is prompting election officials in most states to consider expanding eligibility to allow any registered voter to cast a mail-in, or absentee, ballot in order to avoid going to a polling site and risk infection.
The move is vigorously opposed by President Trump. Such voting has long been associated with fraud through ballot harvesting, vote buying, voter intimidation and misrepresentation. In courts, opposing sides are locking horns over purging rolls of ineligible voters -- the rolls that officials rely on to generate mail ballots. Conservatives stress opportunities for fraud and liberals warn of voter disenfranchisement.
Although five states – Oregon, Colorado, Utah, Hawaii, and Washington – have for many years automatically sent ballots to all registered voters, there is concern nationwide that communities may not have the time, resources and expertise to put protections in place during the five months before the general election.
Like many Republicans, West Virginia Secretary of State Andrew “Mac” Warner says, “I am not a proponent of mail-in voting” – but he acknowledges that “we needed to do this.”
Warner, who is seeking reelection this year, said the alleged ballot fraud episode in his state seems to confirm the fears of many other state election officials.
The fear is that states that have previously had to mail out and then authenticate a small number of ballots will not have an efficient way to handle the larger volume.
West Virginia’s 1.2 million voters were given the option to apply for an absentee ballot and nearly 300,000 responded, up from an average of 6,500 each election.
The flood of mailed ballots will test states that until now have had to verify signatures on thousands of ballots rather than tens of thousands or more.
“The states that are new to this are having to ramp up quickly,” said Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate, who is also president of the National Association of Secretaries of State.
Pate’s office received 488,000 requests for mail-in ballots for the June 2 primary, compared wiht a past average of 20,000.
“Each jurisdiction is obligated to put safeguards in so the voter has confidence in the process,” Pate said. “And you should let the public know that you have a system in place.”
In the states that have used primarily mail-in voting for a few years, minimal violations have been reported.
Oregon in 2000 became the first state in the U.S. to go to all-mail voting in a presidential election after voters backed the move.
Like most states, it has had ballot malfeasance, including 46 cases of people voting twice and six people casting ballots for deceased voters in the 2016 presidential election.
Colorado voters have received their ballots in the mail since 2013. A study found 48 cases of possible illegal voting in the 2016 presidential election there, mostly through casting ballots in two states.
Texas has for years vigorously pursued ballot fraud, particularly in the southern part of the state, where communities of political patronage have existed for generations. Enforcement falls on local elections administrators, who lack both the time and resources to actively pursue offenders even if they know who they are. In 2018 the state obtained 33 convictions, by far the most in the U.S.
Those include plea deals and fines, and cases can take a long time to adjudicate, an expensive process many local prosecutors are reluctant to take on.
“Any instances of ballot misappropriation are concerning,” said Joshua Douglas, a law professor at the University of Kentucky and a member of the advisory board for the National Vote at Home Institute, a vote-by-mail advocacy group. “But the amount of it is so small and when it happens, we inevitably catch it. In many ways, it’s a phantom problem that people conjure but does not exist in reality.”
Still, there are always cases that go undetected. With the focus of elections administrators being an accurate vote tally, they are far more likely to spend their thin budgets on making sure voting machines are sound and up to date before Election Day than in launching investigations into potential fraud afterward. That’s left to either a local law enforcement agency or the state, since elections offices don’t use investigators.
So alleged shenanigans are investigated typically only after whistles blow. In local elections, where ballot tampering is most common, concerned citizens or disgruntled candidates often draw attention to fraud.
It took a series of affidavits from witnesses and some dogged reporting by a local television station to expose the mail-in ballot tampering that sunk the November 2018 election to Congress of Republican Mark Harris in North Carolina. Harris was declared winner over his Democratic opponent by 905 votes, but after an investigation his victory was overturned.
“There doesn’t appear to be widespread ballot fraud, by cases,” Sean Roberts, chief technologist at the Lincoln Network, a libertarian-leaning think tank, said during a Facebook roundtable on mail-in balloting last week. “But we can’t necessarily say in those counties … that there is no fraud whatsoever.”
In all states, the signature on the ballot must be that of the voter, and verifying can be done either by scanning technology, if the county has it, or through manually comparing it to the signature on the voter’s registration card.
Sixteen states, including four of the five states that conduct all-mail elections, allow a voter a second chance if a ballot’s signature doesn’t match. The voter is contacted and can correct it within a prescribed amount of time. Other states disqualify ballots that do not match up.
Douglas thinks newcomer states can catch on to effectively carry out a mail-in election with short notice.
“It will be a real challenge but I have confidence it can be done,” he said. “It will be difficult.”
West Virginia is among the states trying to grapple with mail-in ballot oversight. The state formed an election fraud task force led by the U.S. Attorney’s offices in the Southern and Northern Districts of West Virginia that includes agents from the secretary of state’s office.
“We know there is a lot of room for irregularities,” Warner said. The state began training clerks on what to look for, including the nuances of signature matching, shortly after the state decided to send absentee ballot applications.
Warner is mostly concerned about his June 9 primary going off without any mischief. But if reelected, he’s sure he will face pressure to implement mail balloting for everyone.
“This time for mail-in voting for everyone, because of the coronavirus emergency, will become a groundswell for [universal mail-in voting] in the future and make this permanent,” Warner said.