The mail-in ballot is certainly convenient. But the process raises several concerns
First posted June 18, 2022.
Updated July 20, 2023.
The mail-in ballot became a major news item in the 2020 presidential election. With COVID ravaging the countryside, mailing ballots to registered voters was considered one option to solve the problem of voting while parts of the country were in lockdown or having to delay on-site voting due to long lines, social distancing and other precautions.
A long time ago I worked in voter registration and when I saw that much of the country was going to utilize mail-in ballots, my instinctive response was one of great concern. I knew enough about the logistics of running an election to realize that a lot of things could go wrong with such an idea. As the Secretary of State for Washington noted, states were fast-tracking a voting process that the state of Washington took years to develop. As the election of 2020 evolved, her concern was fulfilled. A lot of things went wrong, whether those things were actual fraud, mismanagement or miscommunication. As someone who has spent much of his career in change management, I saw serious flaws in how the new voting technology was rolled out. Only a few localities had experience with mail-in ballots. The introduction to this form of voting was new to most of the country. Alongside that challenge was the introduction of drop boxes at remote sites. Add to that the logistics nightmare of a postal system that was struggling to deliver basic mail services. It spelled out a crisis in voter confidence. While much of that attention focuses on the events of January 6th, you could see in the back pages of newspapers various races throughout the country that had been thrown into doubt.
So I found my first mail-in ballot an interesting experience. Could I trust it?
Actually, upon further thought, this is not my first rodeo. I sent in a mail-in ballot in the 2020 election. But this was the first one where I actually spent time looking into the process.
Problem #1 – The Recipient
Fundamental to voting is validating the voter. This is done in a conventional process by going before an officially designated person at the precinct, presenting your ID and signing your name to the registration roster. This process assures that an actual citizen is voting and voting only once. If that person went to another precinct, their name would not be in the register.
Alaska has streamlined voter registration through the PFD process. For non-Alaskans, PFD stands for Permanent Fund Dividend, which is a hefty check Alaskans receive from oil royalties. Thus, anyone interested in about $1000 must fill out a form every year to affirm their residential status. In so doing, they can register to vote or update their registration. In the process, two additional items are collected such as your social security number (we pay taxes on the PFD dividend) and your birth date.
The mail-in ballot asks that you validate your identification. This can be done by writing down your Alaska driver’s license number or by noting the last four digits of your social security number or your birth date. As you can see, the PFD registration process accomplishes some things that other states may not have the luxury of providing. But you can also see how there are multiple ways to identify someone other than a drivers license. We often forget that correlating someone’s name with a birth date was about the only way to identify someone until the 1930’s.
According to the Alaska Elections website, identification credentials are verified for each absentee and mail-in ballot that is received. This can make it rather difficult to commit fraud with a person’s identification.
Problem #2 – The Address
Now it gets interesting. Louder with Crowder, a rather entertaining collection of comedians, became famous when they put together a video that explored the so-called “residences” of registered voters. Taking the voter rolls of the city of Las Vegas and Detroit, they checked several addresses that appeared suspicious. What they discovered were vacant lots, empty warehouses and other places clearly not designed to house humans. The video was quite controversial and YouTube suspended the show, leading Steven Crowder to move his program to Rumble as his primary streaming media platform.
What the video demonstrated was the age-old practice of phantom addresses. For Alaska, a PO box can be used to accept delivery of a ballot, but the voter must still be registered at a “residence.” But given that stipulation, it still depends on the diligence of the borough clerk to verify that the street address is a residence. It is still very difficult to patrol this problem. In the county I grew up in a joke that made the circuit was that the most commonly observed address on the voting rolls of Harrisburg was the town cemetery.
With the advancement of IT technology, it is getting easier to authenticate addresses. But not “easy.”
Take for instance the two cases uncovered by Project Veritas where homeless shelters received thousands of mail-in ballots. One of the shelter directors suddenly realized this was a problem with mail-in voting. While no fraud was uncovered, it did present some peculiar issues with mail-in ballots. Shelters and counseling centers often serve was gateways to parts of the population who do not have a permanent address or are in transition. So it is no wonder that thousands of people had registered over the past few years at these two homeless shelters.
While phantom addresses were common with legacy voting systems, the situation exposed by Project Veritas dramatically demonstrated what was happening with a precious document – the ballot. It was literally being tossed into the world. Imagine, if you would, you walked into a voting precinct and noticed that ballots were just laying about on the floor. You could pick up as many as you like, fill them out and stuff them into the ballot box. Sounds crazy, but that is exactly what was beginning to emerge with mail-in ballots. The chain-of-custody was being compromised. The person to whom the ballot was intended was not receiving the ballot. Somebody else was.
Problem #3 – The Chain of Custody
Once thousands of ballots begin to appear in the “wild,” the question that is next raised is what happens to them if the intended recipient no longer resides at the address? Hopefully the two best answers prevail. First, nobody sends the ballot back, but simply throws them away or throws them into a stack of papers at home. Second, somebody sends the ballot back. Return to Sender. This honor system is all we have because the ballots are delivered first class bulk mail, enabling the person residing at the address to return the ballot at no cost. But, alas, it all depends on the person residing at the address.
Yet, as Problem #2 points out, phantom addresses and multiple recipients at one address can generate a stack of “orphaned” ballots. All it takes is for an unscrupulous person to forge signatures, license numbers, SS #’s and birth dates to generate a fraudulent vote. This is possible because there is no official witness to the act. Remember the visit to the traditional voting precinct? There was always someone sitting at the table signing you in. That person was the third-party witness to your presence. That person has now been replaced by somebody who co-signs the ballot as a witness. Who is that person? How is it checked? This becomes quite problematic when the ballot is completed out-of-state and the witness is not a citizen of the state.
Chain of custody was central to the election reforms enacted in Georgia in 2021. Georgia not only advanced the use of mail-in ballots in the 2020 election, but also introduced another development – the local dropbox. While well-intended, the drop-boxes were not monitored properly. Stuffed ballot boxes, composed of a copious number of ballots, began to appear. The 2021 reform required that dropboxes be placed at designated government locations where monitoring was provided 24/7.
The recent documentary 2000 Mules demonstrated the chain-of-custody issues presented by mail-in ballots. 1 In that film ample evidence was presented showing people visiting multiple drop-boxes depositing ballots. While the technology used in the investigation was verifiable, the elephant in the room was “where did the ballots come from?”
The chain-of-custody issue is so problematic that even the state of Alaska recommends that you take the ballot to the post office and have it hand canceled. I thought that was rather funny being that the idea of mail-in ballots was to be make voting convenient, saving you the time of driving to a voting precinct and waiting in line. Instead, they recommend you drive to the post office and wait in line :). Yet this recommendation demonstrates the risk of using the mail. Your ballot can be stolen from your mail box or even mishandled by the postman. A ballot can also be removed from processing at the post office before it is canceled. So hand-delivering the ballot to the post office clerk and witnessing the cancellation removes at least three points-of-risk.
Chain-of-custody also plays into the additional services that the state can provide to assure voters that their ballots are processed. First, the state of Alaska has a website where you can track whether your ballot has been received. Secondly, the state of Alaska can relay confirmations of receipt by text messaging and/or e-mail if you choose.
Problem #4 – Ballot Harvesting
Ballot harvesting is technically illegal in most parts of the country. Laws usually state that voting is the act of a responsible adult and should be done without coercion or “assistance”. Yet folks persistently press this restriction to the limit. They can do so because, once again, the ballot is now “in the wild.” Unscrupulous manipulators often target areas where ballots have been delivered to communities of vulnerable people, like nursing homes, homeless shelters and such. Instead of following strict procedures that guard each person’s right to vote in private, they hover around and offer suggestions and watch how the person votes. Or they simply fill out the ballots themselves. If a person votes for the wrong person, they can throw away the ballot later.
Ballot harvesting first gained serious attention when about a half dozen Republican congressional candidates magically lost their races as last-minute ballot deliveries arrived. This occurred in 2018 and it is no surprise that this practice was on the radar in 2020. While a great deal of attention goes to the Presidential race, ballot harvesting’s most dramatic impact is in local elections. To have 1500 votes for one candidate at one address is quite significant. While it may not affect a presidential or senatorial outcome, it can determine who will represent that address in the city council or the state legislature.
The two most famous cases of ballot harvesting were uncovered by Project Veritas. One person directed people to vote one way, while the other clearly demonstrated how harvesting affected the selection of a certain Congresswoman in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
So Are Mail-In Ballots a Good Idea?
Gosh – they are so convenient.
Good idea? No.
The problems noted above have one common root – the availability of the ballot for fraudulent use. The ballots, now out in the wild, are anybody’s game. The legacy system of where you have to deliberately drive over to a voting station has none of that. It actually only leaves one risk factor which are phantom addresses. But a government official witnesses the submission of the ID. The ballot remains in the custody of the government officials. The voting process is private, with the ballot being inserted into the box. All within a few steps.
There are no perfect systems, but the scope of fraud has now narrowed considerably with traditional voting. Phantom addresses are actually an on-going challenge for voter registration officials, and it is part of their job performance evaluation as to how they go about solving that problem (or it should be). But within the voting station itself, potential for fraud has been reduced to that of the voting officials themselves. They can still break the law, but it is often under the watchful eyes of cameras and the consequences are serious.
Good idea? Maybe.
My father is in his upper 90’s and going to a voting station is a monumental task, even if he can still drive and walk about. But there is a solution to that already in place. It is called the Absentee ballot. The only technical difference between a Mail-In ballot and an Absentee ballot is that the latter is sent only upon request. Mail-in ballots go to every registered citizen whether they want it or not or whether they actually live at the residence or not.
The ballot harvesting problem demonstrates need as much as opportunity. Nursing homes, assisted care patients, the homeless and people in hospital care should all have the opportunity to vote. Busing them to a voting station can often be impractical. The challenge in these type of situations is constructing a system that guards the chain-of-custody and guarantees that a person is voting without guidance or coercion. There are no easy solutions here, but the matter bears continued discussion.
“Washington State Has Years of Experience with Mail-in Ballots”, Governing, Republished from the Seattle Times, by Joseph O’Sullivan, September 29, 2020
“WA Secretary of State: Trump comments about mail-in voting fraud ‘undermines confidence’”, KIRO, August 3, 2020
“NO RETREAT! Exclusive PROOF of Voter Fraud,” Louder with Crowder, YouTube, February 23, 2021
“SHOW NOTES: NO RETREAT! Exclusive PROOF of Voter Fraud,” Louder with Crowder, February 23, 2021 (in case the YouTube video is suspended again)
“Ballot harvesting bounty: How Dems apparently used election law change to rout California Republicans,” Fox News, by Andrew O’Reilly, December 4, 2018
1 The jury is still out on whether 2000 Mules was accurate in its reporting. The original website (2000mules.com) is no longer operational. Wikipedia‘s article on the film is highly charged with editorial comment (no surprise there). There is also some concern that when asked by the Georgia State Election Board that True to the Vote has been slow in presenting the evidence.
© Copyright 2022 to Eric Niewoehner