Officials in all-mail balloting states say GOP claims of fraud are false

By: - April 16, 2020 8:50 am
all-mail balloting

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Officials in states where everyone casts their ballot by mail say Republican claims, like those made by local leaders and even President Donald Trump, that such elections are havens for fraud and stolen elections aren’t true.

Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington have all-mail elections, meaning every registered voter is mailed a ballot. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, California, Nebraska and North Dakota allow counties to use all-mail elections, while 13 other states, including Arizona, permit some localities to do so.

Arizona elections officials have urged the GOP-controlled legislature to implement a similar system here for the 2020 election to ensure voting rights aren’t limited by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

A proposal made last month by the Arizona Association of Counties would have given each county the option of using all-mail only for 2020. The option would only be available if Arizona was still under a disaster declaration for COVID-19 and would have to be approved by each county’s board of supervisors.

Lawmakers did not give the proposal a hearing as they raced to pass a caretaker budget and leave the Capitol in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Among the reasons cited by opponents was that all-mail balloting would be rife with fraud. Rep. Shawnna Bolick, R-Phoenix, penned an op-ed in the Arizona Republic warning that all-mail voting would compromise the integrity of elections, and several other GOP lawmakers have used their social media pages to peddle warnings that it would be more vulnerable to fraud. 

President Donald Trump has joined that chorus, tweeting, “Mail in ballots substantially increases the risk of crime and VOTER FRAUD!”

States with all-mail balloting haven’t found that to be the case.

“Our state’s experience has not been seeing an increase or a large amount of fraud. In fact, probably the opposite – a very small incidence of fraud,” said Kim Wyman, Washington’s secretary of state.

All-mail balloting not a vector for fraud in red or blue states

Much like in Arizona’s vote-by-mail system, which is voluntary but used by around 80 percent of voters, all Washingtonians who are registered to vote receive their ballots in the mail with envelopes that are tied to their voter registration information. They fill out their ballots, sign the envelope and either mail it back or drop it off at a designated place. 

When election officials receive the envelope, they compare the signature to the one that’s on file for the voter. If they’re unsure, they contact the voter. Once they’re confident of a match, the ballot is counted. After a voter’s ballot is counted as received, any other attempt to vote under that voter’s registration information is automatically flagged and the ballot discounted.

In deep red Utah, election officials also haven’t found mail balloting to be vulnerable to fraud.

Utah has never mandated that counties use all-mail balloting. Rather, lawmakers pushed them in that direction by requiring them to send annual notices to voters reminding them that they can vote by mail, which proved more expensive than simply sending a ballot to every registered voter.

Rozan Mitchell, the elections director for Utah County, just south of the Salt Lake City area, said the only problems she generally sees with all-mail voting is when people sign their spouse’s ballot envelope, or when a parent signs the envelope for an adult child who is away on a church mission. Sometimes, an elderly voter will show up at a polling place after forgetting and not realizing he or she already mailed in a ballot.

Occasionally there are red flags, Mitchell said, such as when several ballot envelopes have the same person’s handwriting. In those cases, election officials refer the case to the county attorney for prosecution. But Mitchell said she’s only seen that happen once in 20 years.

“It’s really not that common. People think it happens all the time, and it really doesn’t,” Mitchell said.

Wyman said the most common problem Washington sees with fraudulent voting is people who try to double vote by casting ballots in multiple states. Washington, like Arizona, is part of a multi-state system that cross-references voters to catch people who vote multiple times. Of about 3.5 million ballots cast in the 2018 general election, Wyman said there were about 100 instances where people might have voted twice.

In Arizona, that kind of double-voting is the most common election fraud problem, as well. Since 2010, the Arizona attorney general’s office has only successfully prosecuted about 30 voter fraud cases. About two dozen of those were people who cast ballots in multiple states, said spokesman Ryan Anderson.

Andrea Chiapella, a spokeswoman for the Oregon secretary of state’s office, said her state had 22 convictions for voter fraud in 2016, which she noted represents one one-thousandth of a percent of all votes cast.

Justin Lee, elections director for the Utah lieutenant governor’s office, said election officials in the Beehive State have seen no evidence of voter fraud outside of anecdotal stories. In addition to the security measures Utah uses to verify mailed ballots, Lee said the state’s ban on door-to-door ballot collections, derided as “ballot harvesting” by opponents, adds another layer of security. 

Arizona has a similar ban on the books. A federal appeals court ruled it was unconstitutional because it discriminated against minority voters, but that ruling is on hold until after the November election. 

Arizona could quickly expand, officials say

Arizona election officials and other advocates of all-mail voting say the state’s robust early voting system shows that it’s already well prepared to make the switch.

“It’s not that big of a leap for us, frankly,” said Cochise County Elections Director Lisa Marra, who recently authored an op-ed in the Republic with Pinal County Recorder Virginia Ross, a Republican, advocating for counties to be able to hold all-mail elections in 2020.

Marra said Arizona already has sufficient safeguards to ensure that mailed ballots are legitimately cast. For instance, election officials receive forensic training to help them match signatures. And counties wouldn’t need high-speed tabulation machines to count ballots because they start counting 14 days before an election anyway, she said, referencing a claim Bolick made in her op-ed. 

Yavapai County Recorder Leslie Hoffman, a Republican, said counties regularly clear out inactive voters, such as those who have moved or have passed away, from their voter rolls, as required by the National Voter Registration Act. Arizona’s larger counties also receive weekly updates from the postal service regarding address changes. Yavapai County, which has about 235,000 residents, receives roughly 300 change-of-address notices per week, Hoffman said. 

Even in all-mail balloting states, the label is a bit of a misnomer. In most all-mail states, voters still have the option of casting a ballot in person. 

Polling places must be available to voters who are visually impaired or have language barriers and need their ballots to be read to them. Voters sometimes need replacements for lost ballots when it’s too late to mail them another. Colorado, Hawaii, Utah and Washington have same-day voter registration, which might not allow enough time to mail a ballot to a new voter. And with the exception of Oregon, which only permits in-person voting for people with disabilities, Mitchell said Utah and other all-mail states allow anyone who wants to vote in person for any reason.

Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, said the system would be similar in Arizona, and that anyone who wants to vote in person would still be able to.

GOP lawmakers, Ducey: No chance

Opponents in the legislature aren’t necessarily convinced.

Sen. Sine Kerr, R-Buckeye, posted a photo on Facebook of eight early ballots, along other pieces of mail, that her husband found in October near her house, which she and other colleagues pointed to as evidence that voting by mail is insecure.

Kerr acknowledged that the ballots couldn’t be voted unless someone knew what the individual voter’s signature looked like and was able to passably forge it. But she was still wary of all-mail balloting.

“There are safeguards in place, but I think this demonstrates that it’s still not fail-proof,” she said.

Rep. Bret Roberts, R-Maricopa, is skeptical that voting by mail can be as secure as voting in person.

“You can find articles and instances where things have happened that may not necessarily be fraud, but there’s opportunity for things to happen that can cause people’s votes to not be counted when it comes to a mail-in ballot,” Roberts said. “In reality, the only really sure way to ensure that your ballot’s going to be counted is to vote at the polls.”

Roberts, who has long voted by mail but plans to cast his ballots in person this year, said he believes in-person voting is more secure than voting by mail to begin with. And he worried that Arizona’s system will become less secure if the state switches to all-mail elections. 

He questioned whether Arizona’s voter rolls are adequately scrubbed of people who have moved or died, even though doing so is required by federal law. And he pointed to Kerr’s discovery of ballots last year and allegations of ballot insecurity elsewhere in the country, suggesting that more reliance on the postal service would lead to more such problems.

“Those are humans and there is human error that can happen. So, in order to be certain that you have chain of custody for a ballot, the best way to do this is at a poll,” Roberts said.

And fraud isn’t the only reason some Republicans say they don’t want to go to an all-mail system.

Roberts emphasized, as have many other Republican lawmakers, that anyone who wants to receive an early ballot in the mail can do so, and urged election officials to inform voters of that option. 

Absent the legislature authorizing an all-mail election, Hobbs and Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes, a Democrat, have announced plans to send notifications to every voter urging them to sign up for an early ballot. 

But if voters want to go to the polls, Roberts said they should be able to. If they’re concerned about COVID-19, he said, they have more than enough time to request an early ballot. And for those who still want to vote in person, Kerr urged that they practice social distancing and use other precautions, no different than when people go to the grocery store or other places.

Patrick Ptak, a spokesman for Gov. Doug Ducey, said the governor wants to ensure that Arizona can hold a safe and secure election, but suggested that can be accomplished without all-mail balloting. Ptak noted that Arizona successfully held its Democratic presidential preference election on March 17 while allowing people to vote in person.

At a press briefing on April 14, Ducey emphasized that people have months to ask for an early ballot if they want to vote by mail, but threw cold water on the notion of going to all-mail balloting. The governor said the state is “not going to disenfranchise anyone from voting on Election Day. We’re going to have more availability, not less,” though all-mail systems still allow voters to cast ballots in person on election day if they want.

Republicans fear loss of political power

Trump has also signaled another reason why he and some Republicans may be opposed to all-mail balloting — concerns that it will help elect more Democrats. In response to attempts by congressional Democrats to mandate all-mail voting as part of a COVID-19 relief bill, Trump said during an appearance on Fox & Friends, “The things they had in there were crazy. They had things, levels of voting that if you’d ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again,” 

Politics is also a factor for Arizona’s GOP opponents of increasing the use of vote-by-mail. Roberts retweeted a comment by Trump arguing that Republicans should oppose all-mail voting and saying that the GOP doesn’t fare well under such systems, including his own commentary. 

“Another example of what AZ will have to look forward to if we don’t engage. Razor thin margin in the House,” Roberts tweeted.

Roberts said his comment was meant to illustrate that, if Democrats take control of Arizona’s legislature – Republicans hold the House by a margin of just 31-29 – that they’ll look to enact policies like all-mail voting. He also expressed concern that Democrats would take advantage of an all-mail system more than Republicans would. Democratic campaigns already send people to voters’ doors inquiring about the status of their mailed ballots, and Roberts said he’s uncomfortable with voters “being hounded” at their homes.

The debate in Arizona is probably a moot point already. Legislative leaders have voiced their opposition to all-mail voting for 2020. And even if they hadn’t, lawmakers won’t return to the Capitol to finish out the session until the end of April at the earliest. 

County election officials had hoped that their boards of supervisors would decide whether to switch to all-mail balloting for the August primary by April 15. Jen Marson, executive director of the Arizona Association of Counties, said things become more difficult after that due to ballot printing and other deadlines. She said counties could probably make it work if they decided by May 1, but making the switch for the primary election wouldn’t really be feasible after that.

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Jeremy Duda
Jeremy Duda

Jeremy Duda is a Phoenix native and began his career in journalism in 2003 after graduating from the University of Arizona. Jeremy Duda previously served as the Mirror's associate Editor. Prior to joining the Arizona Mirror, he worked at the Arizona Capitol Times, where he spent eight years covering the Governor's Office and two years as editor of the Yellow Sheet Report. Before that, he wrote for the Hobbs News-Sun of Hobbs, NM, and the Daily Herald of Provo, Utah. Jeremy is also the author of the history book “If This Be Treason: the American Rogues and Rebels Who Walked the Line Between Dissent and Betrayal.”