The Left and Right are Both Wrong About Mail-In Ballots

With the coronavirus pandemic reaching further South and a second wave expected to hit the rest of the states in the Fall, the prospect of in-person voting seems suddenly similar to the idea of going to work in a toxic waste dump. We will do it if we have to, but if there is a safer way, we should consider it. The obvious solution to this problem is the mail-in ballot. It requires no contact with the outside world, no standing in long lines in close proximity to coughing strangers,  and no touching an oily voting machine that hundreds of neighbors have touched as well. With mail-in ballots, we could simply fill out a ballot and return to the sender. Easy peasy lemon squeezy, right?

Another benefit: absentee ballots are much cheaper than in-person voting polls. As a result, states are wisely expanding absentee voting programs ahead of November. But there are good reasons to worry about absentee ballots that neither the left nor the right are paying enough attention to.

This is not to say that attention isn’t being paid to absentee voting, however. Americans are notoriously skeptical of mail-in ballots, often for the wrong reasons. The issue often provokes nightmares of greedy politicians stuffing counterfeit ballots into collection bins and organized gangs of fraudsters filling out enormous stacks of ballots, undeterred by the prospect of hours of mindless paperwork. This is the sort of fantasy that motivated the creation of the caucus model for primaries, in which voters show up in person to be counted directly. Caucuses are designed to foil any would-be fraudsters or rogue paperwork enthusiasts who might try to tamper with paper ballots or sneak a few extra votes in on behalf of deceased compatriots. To be seen in person and counted in person is the purest form of democratic participation there can be.

But with in-person voting now attended by the prohibitive prospect of close proximity with potentially contagious strangers, many Americans feel their right to vote squeezed between the danger of a deadly illness and the nightmare of voter fraud. 

Meanwhile, liberals seem to dismiss the potential for voter fraud that comes with absentee ballots even as they strain against the disenfranchisement of minorities and the poor that voter ID laws cause. Let’s unpack that. On the one hand, liberals say they want to protect the right of every American to cast a vote, but on the other hand, they seem to be unwilling to accept measures that would ensure that protection, such as voter ID laws. The reason that liberals are so strongly against voter ID laws is a good one, however, given the long history of ways in which ID laws prevented poor and minorities from voting: many poor citizens do not have documents like driver's licenses and birth certificates, and in many cases such documents are made difficult to acquire. Therefore, from the liberal perspective, mail-in ballots are not only fine substitutes for in-person voting: they’re better, in part because they don’t come with the risks of discrimination and documentation requirements that can lead to problems at in-person polling stations.

What liberals have more trouble grappling with is the reality that voter fraud does indeed occur and is a real problem. Many liberals dismiss the notion of voter fraud as an outright fabrication. But a comprehensive study conducted by Arizona State University’s News21 found 491 instances of absentee ballot voter fraud between 2000-2012. Recently, the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, announced that its voter fraud database had swollen “to 1,285 proven cases of voter fraud in America,” though they did not provide a breakdown of specific types of voter fraud, so the number of absentee voter fraud cases is unknown. But considering that absentee voter fraud is well documented to be the most prevalent form of voter fraud, it is safe to assume that a strong proportion of the cases in their database are instances of absentee ballot fraud.

The evidence is clear: voter fraud does happen. However, the savvy reader might now be realizing a key fact that conservatives tend to ignore, namely that out of the billions of votes cast over the past 20 years, the number of known voter fraud cases numbers only in the thousands. Even accounting for voter fraud cases that were never caught, the number of cases over the past two decades is probably not much more than a few tens of thousands, and only a fraction of that is attributable to absentee ballot fraud. That is a vanishingly small percentage of the total number of votes cast, and is the true justification for liberal’s nonchalance: since the numbers of absentee voter fraud are so minuscule, why worry about a problem that has no effect on our electoral system?

Conservatives will often rejoin this critique by pointing out that strategic voter fraud can in fact sway elections in the United States. For instance, a North Carolina election in 2018 was overturned after the Republican candidate’s 905 vote lead was found to be based partially on fraudulent absentee ballots collected and filled out by a Republican operative, L. McCrae Dowless Jr. Authorities were never able to prove that all of the 905 votes were fraudulent, but the courts overturned the election anyway to preserve the integrity of the vote. Conservatives will point to this instance as an example of how targeted absentee ballot fraud can be used to taint elections. As the facts stand, they seem to be correct on this point, and liberals seem to be misunderstanding the danger of targeted absentee ballot fraud. The danger is not that it is widespread, the danger is that, in close elections, even a small number of fraudulent absentee ballots can swing an election.

But conservatives must also grapple with an uncomfortable truth: Mr. Dowless was a conservative, and while there is no clear evidence that absentee ballot fraud favors one party over the other, Republicans do benefit from it to some degree. Moreover, beyond fraud, absentee ballots themselves often help Republicans, especially in areas of the country with high elderly populations who cannot physically come to the polls, such as the all important swing state of Florida, which saw 2.6 million mail-in ballots submitted for the 2018 midterm elections. 

Wisconsin is another state where absentee ballots could make the difference in elections, since elections there are often decided by slim margins of just a few thousand votes. If Republicans successfully block the use of absentee ballots in November due to fears of fraud, they may inadvertently shoot themselves in the foot and lose the 2020 presidential election.

Still, there is one problem with absentee ballots that all sides should be concerned by but which neither side seems to be talking about, and it is not fraud. The problem is that absentee ballots are hard for many states to count quickly and accurately. Going back to the 2018 Florida midterms, an understaffed election management team was unable to produce a count quickly, leading to “allegations of ballot stuffing, protests and more than a half-dozen lawsuits,” according to the Miami Herald. 

But factors other than staffing issues also add to the problem. For instance, absentee ballots are notoriously difficult for many voters to properly fill out. Voters will sometimes fill them out improperly, sign their name in the wrong place, or their signature may differ enough from the one election officials have on file that they cannot trust it. Additionally, “although some states deem an absentee ballot eligible if it is postmarked by Election Day, other states require the absentee ballot to arrive at the local election office by then… These ballots largely are rejected not because the voter is unqualified, but because of errors in the process of the voter’s submission,” Politico has noted. In all these cases, the ballots are tossed out. For these and other reasons, 8.2% of absentee ballots were discarded nationwide in the 2018 midterm elections, a significant number.

As states move forward with expanding their absentee voter programs ahead of the November 2020 presidential elections, they should prepare for a significant uptick in lawsuits and election ballot count challenges. In addition, voters should be wary of overly complex ballots and submission processes. Liberals are correct that absentee ballot voter fraud is not a problem in aggregate, and conservatives are correct to worry about targeted absentee voter fraud in competitive states, but both sides should be much more worried about errors in filling out and submitting absentee ballots than fraud. Liberals must acknowledge that absentee ballots are not the magic bullet they hoped they would be for all of their voter disenfranchisement worries. Conservatives, likewise, should rethink their commitment to stalling the expansion of absentee ballot programs. After all, conservatives like small budgets, and voting by mail is much cheaper than voting in person. In addition, voting by mail allows more older people to vote, which often favors Republicans in swing states, so it might be in conservative’s strategic interests to expand absentee ballot programs.

As we face the prospect of voting during a pandemic in November, Americans must prepare for a lot of drama surrounding absentee ballots. There will be accusations of fraud as usual, but there will probably be much more significant problems with counting ballots due to staffing shortages and user error. Absentee ballots are problematic, but not for the reasons many people think. Our focus should be sorting that out in time for November.

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