Sometimes it’s hard to follow the president’s specific line of attack on voting by mail, as it shifts unpredictably from a general assault on that venerable practice, to phony distinctions between “mail ballots” and “absentee ballots,” to claims that millions of dead people will somehow be allowed to vote. But one common denominator is that he never offers any remedy for the problems he sees or imagines other than to cast doubt on the legitimacy of what is expected to be a majority of ballots cast in November under current state laws and procedures. That’s one very good reason why so many of us suspect he is laying the groundwork for contesting any adverse election result, perhaps by claiming victory on Election Night and then attacking the validity of mail ballots that will ultimately tilt the results in Joe Biden’s direction.
The irony is that Trump is correct that states not used to handling enormous quantities of mail ballots could be overwhelmed this November and make mistakes — though the mistakes are more likely to involve voter disenfranchisement than voter fraud. But the short-term solution isn’t to make up a fraud scare and send out lawyers to fight every effort to make it easier to vote in a pandemic, but rather to throw some serious federal money at the problem, perhaps accompanied by a few strings facilitating both ballot security (to address Republican concerns) and ballot access (valued mostly by Democrats). But while Democrats have proposed $3.6 billion in election assistance as part of their HEROES Act coronavirus stimulus proposal (on the table since it passed the House in May), no Republican proposal has included a dime to make voting easier or more secure.
It’s helpful to cut through all the incoherent presidential rhetoric and figure out what, if anything, Trump is legitimately complaining about, and what, if anything, could be done about it without accepting the absurd premise that voting by mail is generally evil.
For all his demonization of “universal mail-in voting,” Trump has not trained his fire on the five states that already had that prior to the COVID-19 pandemic (Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Utah, and Hawaii), presumably because they all have smoothly conducted elections with no sign of fraud. But he has raised alarms about the four additional states that will mail ballots to all active registered voters this year (California, Nevada, New Jersey, and Vermont), suggesting vast numbers will wind up being pilfered by fraudsters from the mailboxes of people who have died or moved, and will then be fecklessly counted without examination by overwhelmed election workers.
As the Washington Post explained recently, third-party tampering with mail ballots sent in error is highly unlikely to happen on any significant scale:
The only way “dead ballots” would affect an election is if third parties were to obtain the ballots and use them to cast votes. The issue then would be voter fraud, not inefficiency. Since those dead ballots are mailed to family residences or returned to sender (election boards), the opportunity for collecting and misusing dead peoples’ ballots is exceedingly small.
The same is true of ballots mailed to people who have moved. Fourteen percent of households change residence every year, which means the number of ballots “incorrectly” directed could be as high as 40 million in any election cycle. But most people leave forwarding addresses when they move, so the ballots will follow them. Furthermore, most moves occur within the same state. Relocated voters who want to cast their ballots have the incentive and opportunity to alert election boards to their new address. Here again, one has to wonder how likely it is that a third party would obtain those movers’ ballots and use them to cast a fraudulent vote.
Trump’s fear-mongering also ignores the fact that 43 states — including those that are mailing out ballots to all active registered voters (except for tiny Vermont) — have ballot-security systems that at a minimum require signatures which have to be authenticated against those filed by the voters during the registration process. The biggest problem with such requirements is that they will throw out, not include, questionable cases, which is why voting-rights advocates are pushing for “cure” opportunities where voters with challenged (or omitted) mail-ballot signatures can come up with more definitive identification documents.
The specter of third-party ballot manipulation is even less compelling in the 41 states that either require a separate mail-ballot application process, or restrict voting by mail to those with specified excuses. In such jurisdictions (which include all the feasible 2020 presidential battleground states other than Nevada), potential fraudsters would have to jump through two sets of hoops without detection. And all these phantom threats ignore the fact that ballot tampering is generally a criminal offense in most states. In California, for example, it could land you in prison for up to three years.
Where Trump is on slightly firmer ground is his suggestion that, particularly in states with less experience dealing with massive voting by mail, election officials may be overwhelmed, as he put it rather crudely in a recent interview:
“The problem is when they dump all these [ballots] in front of a few people who are counting them, and they’re going to count them wrong,” the president said in the interview, without offering evidence. “The post office is not to blame.”
As the Brennan Center for Justice points out, there are available means for automating ballot intake and sorting, and ensuring that election personnel are not overwhelmed:
An immediate infusion of funding is needed to expand capacity to process a surge in the number of mail ballots, including purchasing high-speed ballot scanners and automated mail sorting systems, securing additional warehouse space to store the additional equipment and supplies needed for mail balloting, and increasing election staff to process mail ballots and ballot applications.
There is also a technological solution to the problem of uneven or unfair ballot signature authentication:
Uniform processes for signature matching should be implemented and funding for signature matching software should be provided. Because signature matching can lead to voter disenfranchisement, especially for voters with disabilities and illnesses, voters whose signatures are found not to match should be offered timely notice and a meaningful opportunity to cure or prove that they personally cast the ballot.
The solution, very simply, is money — at a level that seems impossible for cash-strapped states and localities to provide, but that is strictly sofa-cushion money in terms of the trillions the Feds have already spent and may soon spend again on coronavirus relief and stimulus efforts. It’s intolerable that Trump complains endlessly about unsound election systems, yet will not authorize his negotiators to accept a nickel of federal spending to improve them nor, for that matter, find some money on his own as he recently did (legally or not) with expiring CARES Act provisions.
This contradiction reinforces the impression that Trump wants more, not less, confusion over 2020 voting, like a horse that can only win on the muddiest of tracks.