In January, California police announced the results of a months-long investigation into the alarming discovery in 2021 of a man passed out in his car with drugs, a gun, and 300 mail ballots. Police concluded that Eduardo Mena was trying to steal people’s identities, not their ballots.
That was the good news. The bad news is that the Mena incident showed it was trivially easy to steal hundreds of ballots weeks before an election. If Mena hadn’t passed out in a convenience store parking lot, he may have gotten away with it, too. That’s hardly a testament to the security of mail-in voting.
The Mena story is just a taste of the many, deeper issues with mail-in voting — concerns that seldom get the attention they deserve, even as Congress debates measures like HR1 to supercharge mail voting nationwide.
The fact is, widespread mail voting can inject doubt and uncertainty into elections. In its final report, the 2005 Commission on Federal Election Reform — co-chaired by former president Jimmy Carter and former secretary of state James Baker III — pegged mail voting as “one of the major sources of fraud.”
Add into the mix the reckless demands by liberal activists and politicians to eliminate even the most basic vote-by-mail safeguards, and it can quickly become a nightmare for democracy.
Ironically, voters and fraudsters are attracted to mail voting for the same reason: convenience. Voting at home can be easier than traveling to a polling place, and for some it is a necessity. But unlike the polls, living rooms and nursing homes are not tightly regulated and closely monitored. That creates opportunities for fraudsters to interact with voters in ways they never could at a polling place. As even The New York Times has acknowledged, major vote fraud scandals invariably involve mail voting.
The residents of Paterson, New Jersey can attest to that. Four people were indicted for trying to steal a 2020 municipal election through widespread absentee ballot fraud. Voters across the city reported never receiving a ballot, even though records showed a ballot had been returned for them. A local NAACP leader called for a fresh election, and one eventually had to be held.
One common tactic for committing fraud is known as ballot trafficking or harvesting. Organizers and activists go door-to-door to “help” voters cast their ballots and then collect them, all without any official supervision. Proponents defend the practice as aiding vulnerable voters. In practice, though, vote trafficking often turns these voters into victims.
In Kentucky, a mayor running for reelection conspired with family members to bribe, coerce, and intimidate absentee voters, specifically targeting poor and disabled people. The object: to compel them to cast their mail ballots for the mayor while the conspirators watched.
Vote trafficking often targets group homes. In Texas, a social worker at a State Supported Living Center was recently charged with 134 felony counts for attempting to register 67 of the facility’s residents. None had given their consent, and many had been legally judged mentally incapacitated.
Mail voting creates other opportunities for fraud, as well. Few states adequately maintain their voter rolls. In 2020, many states responded to the pandemic by opting to mail ballots or applications automatically to every person on their inflated rolls. The result: in Nevada and New Jersey, undeliverable ballots were left on street corners and in garbage cans. In Michigan, 500,000 mail ballot applications bounced back while potentially hundreds of thousands more went to residences where voters no longer lived.
Fraud is far from the only concern raised by widespread mail voting. Mail ballots are more likely to be rejected than votes cast in-person. In fact, more than 560,000 ballots were rejected in 2020 alone, roughly equivalent to the population of Wyoming. Often, ballots are rejected because of simple mistakes that are easily fixable at a polling place, or because voters’ signatures are subjectively deemed invalid. Ballots can also get lost in the mail, or arrive too late to be cast or counted. In other words, there are lots of ways to trip up a mail ballot.
The danger here is not just that an individual’s vote isn’t counted. When contentious elections are decided by narrow margins with a potentially decisive numbers of ballots rejected, that becomes a recipe for doubt about the legitimacy of the election, and it fuels lawsuits and post-election challenges that drag the process well past election day.
Fortunately, there are commonsense policies that states like Texas, Georgia, Florida, and others are adopting to address these concerns. For starters, states would be wise to replace subjective signature matching with popular and objective voter ID standards for mail ballots. That not only reduces the opportunities for fraud, but also cuts down on the risk that legitimate votes will be rejected.
States should consider banning and criminalizing organized vote trafficking, while continuing to permit voters to get genuine assistance from family and caregivers. Since traffickers often use drop boxes to deposit their hauls, regulators should require that drop boxes be monitored and secured.
States should set the deadline for mail ballot requests far enough ahead of elections so ballots have enough time to reach a voter and to be returned before election day. The USPS recommends two weeks. And voters should be able to track their ballots like an Amazon package, from beginning to end.
The convenience of mail-in voting is undeniable, but so are its risks. Mail ballots are the most vulnerable form of voting. Citizens who entrust their voice to a mail ballot deserve to know that their ballot is safeguarded. After all, it should be both easy to vote and hard to cheat.
Jason Snead is Honest Elections Project Action's executive director. He had previously served as a senior policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation's Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies.