History Confirms That Mass Mail-In Voting Fraud Is a Myth

By Nova Barela
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Photo Courtesy: harpazo_hope/Getty Images

When COVID-19 first emerged in 2019, few people could have predicted that the virus would turn entire societies upside down within a matter of months. Now, as the 2020 presidential election draws closer, many of us are starting to wonder how we're going to vote during an age of social distancing and statewide quarantines.

One potential solution is voting by mail, but a number of voters remain skeptical. It’s by no means a new way to cast a ballot, but with the increased attention it’s been getting in the wake of the pandemic, voting by mail is facing growing controversy, politicization and villainization as Donald Trump and other republicans attempt to fight its expansion. This has raised the question of whether voting by mail is a safe and effective way to vote or a case of mass voter fraud just begging to happen. Rather than rely on guesswork, let's take a look at voting by mail data in the United States and see what its track record says about the actual potential for fraud.

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The Honest History of Voting by Mail

Voting by mail has a relatively long history in the United States; members of the U.S. military began using a distance-voting system to cast their ballots during the Civil War. As far as civilians are concerned, mail-in ballots or absentee ballots became an option for some voters on a state-by-state basis as early as the late 1800s. The mail-in option was originally intended for use by those who were either away from home or too ill to make it to the polls on election day, and those are common reasons why people still choose absentee ballots.

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Photo Courtesy: Interim Archives/Getty Images

It wasn't until the 1980s that California became the first state to allow citizens to vote by mail for no other reason than convenience. The idea of being able to vote without having to stand in line for hours at a polling site proved to be such a popular option that, by 2018, 27 U.S. states had added no-excuse absentee voting to their list of polling options, meaning that voters could opt to receive absentee ballots without needing to provide a reason for wanting them. However, some states still require that voters choose from a list of approved reasons why they can’t make it to a polling place in order to receive absentee ballots.

By 2004, 24.9 million Americans were casting their votes by mail, a number that more than doubled to 57.2 million by 2016. While mailing in a ballot may seem like a foreign idea to some, it's far from a new concept for many U.S. citizens. Several states now even utilize mail-in ballots as the default option for voting, automatically sending out these ballots via the U.S. Postal Service to all registered voters.

Do Fraudulent Mail-In Ballots Threaten Our Election Process?

According to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, two out of five voters in the 2016 election cast their ballots through the mail. In the same year, 16 states that allowed no-excuse mail-in voting as an option showed a combined percentage of over half of all votes cast through early, mailed or absentee ballots.

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Photo Courtesy: Paul J. Richards/AFP via Getty Images

Given that voting by mail has become a fairly common practice over the past few decades, experts have already been able to establish a clear picture of how it affects the potential for voting fraud. One investigative study from Arizona State University revealed that out of billions of mail-in votes cast between 2002 and 2012, only 491 cases of voter fraud were even attempted. As the Brennan Center for Justice puts it, "it is still more likely for an American to be struck by lightning than to commit mail voting fraud."

So, there may be a handful of instances in which someone risks five years in prison and $10,000 in fines in order to cast a vote in their dog's name. Such instances, however, are incredibly rare and have never been committed on a scale large enough to begin to influence the overall outcome of an election — not to mention that successfully committing voting fraud is no easy task to pull off.

Are There Official Safety Measures in Place?

The majority of Americans already trust the USPS to handle everything from their tax returns and credit card applications to census information and passport documents. So why would voting be any different? Despite what some politicians would have people believe, it isn’t. The mail-in ballot system is set up to be just as, or even more, secure when it comes to the handling of official ballots. Various security measures make it far harder than some people might assume for someone to cast a fraudulent vote.

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Photo Courtesy: George Frey/Getty Images

In order to cast a vote by mail, you're required to provide enough personal identifying information to prove that it's actually you filling out the ballot. Such verification information can include things like your address, birthdate, the last four digits of your Social Security Number or your driver's license number. You’ll likely need to sign the ballot’s return envelope, and, when your ballot is received, the person who tallies it will compare the signature on the envelope to the signature you provided when you registered to vote. If it doesn’t match, the ballot may be discarded.

Many jurisdictions now also offer barcodes that track your ballot envelope to make sure that it's delivered for processing. Not only is this a handy way to make sure that your vote is counted, but it's also used to flag duplicate or suspicious ballots. Rest assured that the odds of someone stealing your ballot and using it to successfully vote for your political foe are incredibly slim.

Last but not least, keep in mind that receiving your ballot by mail doesn't necessarily mean that you have to use the mail to send it back. If you're willing and able, you're always more than welcome to drop it off at a secure polling area such as a drop box in your community. Not only will you be able to place it directly into a secure box by hand, but you'll also be able to skip the long polling lines.

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The Official Mail-In Vote Verdict

While allegations of voter fraud are a tempting scapegoat for losing politicians in close elections, history and the data have shown that those allegations are really just a proverbial fall guy that’s caused panic among voters who take some politicians’ statements at face value. Many instances of what people initially assumed to be voting fraud have later been revealed to be nothing more than clerical errors or faulty data-matching errors. Historically speaking, fraudulent votes have made up no more than 0.0003 to 0.0025% of all votes cast in any U.S. election.

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Photo Courtesy: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

What the mail-in option has proven to do is increase voter turnout with no bias to either political party. Past mail-in elections have proven to provide such a convenient option for all voters that overall participation increased, particularly among people in rural areas, senior citizens, younger generations and people of color.

If you do receive a mail-in ballot this election season, rest assured it's no threat to democracy. It's simply a safe and secure way to make your voice heard from the comfort of your own home. For more information about voting by mail where you live, visit USA.gov to access your state’s election website.