SEATTLE — As states grapple with how to safely carry out elections during a pandemic, President Donald Trump has made an escalating series of fantastical — and false — accusations about the risks of embracing mail voting.
Without evidence, the president has warned that mail elections would involve robbed mailboxes, forged signatures and illegally printed ballots. In a tweet Monday, this one in all-caps, Trump warned of a “rigged 2020 election” and claimed: “Ballots will be printed by foreign countries, and others. It will be the scandal of our times!”
That claim about foreign-made ballots was the latest misleading statement from Trump: He offered no evidence, and the tampering of ballots is widely seen as a nearly impossible scenario because they are printed on very specific stock and often have specific tracking systems like bar codes.
Trump himself has voted by mail, yet at the same time he has claimed in the past that mail-in voting could mean “thousands of people sitting in somebody’s living room, signing ballots all over the place.”
“Kids go and they raid the mailboxes and they hand them to people signing the ballots down at the end of the street,” Trump said in May.
Officials in 11 of the 16 states that limit who can vote absentee have eased their election rules this spring to let anyone cast an absentee ballot in primary elections — and in some cases, in November as well.
In another state, Texas, Republicans won a temporary legal victory and successfully blocked an effort to expand vote-by-mail rules, but Democrats have appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
States that have long embraced mail voting, such as Washington state, which has been mainly using mail balloting since 2005, those running elections see no evidence of widespread fraud.
There have been concerning ballots filed, with dozens of potential cases flagged for deeper investigation in major election years. The officials running the elections know what attempted voter fraud looks like. And it doesn’t look anything like the ominous scenes of mass and coordinated criminality the president describes.
Kim Wyman, Washington’s secretary of state, said all methods of voting have the potential for fraud, but she said her experience in Washington is that mail ballot fraud is low.
“How do you respond to someone that makes an allegation that there’s rampant fraud?” said Wyman, a Republican. “You show them all the security measures that are in place to prevent it and detect it if it does happen.”
Here’s how Washington’s system works and the types of fraud they have encountered:
As with all types of balloting, registration vetting is one of the most important steps to make sure the people who are getting ballots in the mail are qualified to vote them. Washington state checks to make sure the person is not already registered elsewhere in the state and also verifies personal information, such as date of birth and Social Security number, to make sure it is a real person.
Back in 2007, a woman in Washington state successfully registered her dog to vote and received ballots in order to make a point about the system’s risks. But in 2016, officials in King County said, another person tried to register their dog to vote. The registration was not fully approved because the information did not match records in state and federal databases.
King County prosecutors sent a message to that person warning them that providing false information was a crime and saying that if their intent was to expose a flaw in the system, they were unsuccessful.
“Instead, your actions demonstrated that the state laws designed to prevent voter fraud work,” prosecutors wrote.
Trump has speculated that fraudsters can rob mailboxes — a federal crime — to collect ballots in order to commit election fraud, another crime. But Julie Wise, the director of King County elections, said that in her experience, when someone steals a ballot from the mail, it is usually because they were hoping to find something else.
Ballots in Washington state are tied to specific individuals, with unique bar codes that record the path of the ballot — a protection that would also, incidentally, make it difficult for a foreign country to print counterfeit ballots. Voters can actually track to see when their ballot has been mailed, when the election office has received it back from them and whether it has been counted.
If someone did actually try to acquire ballots through mail theft, Wise said, voters could monitor their ballot and call for a replacement, a process that would render invalid the original ballot that was sent. As Trump said, voters can print replacement ballots — hundreds of them if they wanted to. But since the ballots are linked to them individually, only one vote is going to be accepted and repeated submissions might be grounds for investigation.
Wise said officials have not heard of voters reporting that ballots were cast on their behalf unexpectedly, so thus far there is no evidence that people are stealing and submitting ballots.
Even if a ballot were to get stolen and submitted, it would run into another obstacle. Voters must sign the ballot return envelope. Workers at the election office are trained to examine signatures, checking to make sure the signature that comes in matches the one on file for the voter before sending the ballot along the line to be counted.
A voter with a problematic signature will be contacted by the election office, sometimes by phone, and asked to fill out an additional form to verify their identity. Wise said she has had her signature rejected on two occasions because it has changed over the years, and she was able to cure the discrepancy to get her vote counted.
“It’s a good system,” Wise said.
Unlike other states that depend on volunteers in polling places to manage ballots, Washington state uses professionals to distribute ballots and then collect, analyze and count them in a central location.
In the King County elections office, cameras keep an eye on everything, and the public can tune in to watch. Political parties and campaigns also monitor the process.
Wise has helped lead both traditional polling-place elections and those done entirely through the mail. She said it is clear that the mail-ballot process increases accessibility for people, allowing them to vote on their own time without having to stand in line. She said the all-mail option also allows for better vetting and checks that give her more confidence in such elections overall.
“I guarantee you that vote-by-mail is more secure and more accurate than polling place elections,” Wise said.
Cases of fraud
After elections, Washington has partnered with other states in a joint data analysis that looked at whether any voter cast a ballot in multiple states or whether a ballot was cast in the name of someone who was dead at the time of the election.
After the 2016 election, that system flagged 74 questionable votes in Washington state: 59 people who may have voted in multiple states, 14 people who may have voted multiple times within the state and one deceased voter. Those ballots were sent to county elections managers and prosecutors for further scrutiny.
King County had the most cases. Officials there said that in some cases, they found data errors, and the votes were legitimate. In cases of dead people, Wyman said that it has sometimes been found to have been cast by an older person whose spouse had just died and the person wanted to cast one last ballot for them. For others, she said, people who own properties in two states may convince themselves, erroneously, that it is proper to vote in both places.
After scrutinizing cases, investigators in King County did not see any significant fraud in 2016, but they sent letters to 10 people who appeared to have voted twice. The message was clear: We saw your two votes — even if they were in separate states — and that is a crime.
“Though we decline to pursue this matter further, it will not foreclose us from pursuing charges in the future should you engage in additional acts in violation of state election law,” a criminal prosecutor wrote.