As more people are expected to vote by mail in the 2020 Election in November due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, much has been said about the security and accuracy of casting a ballot through the mail.
One widely-viewed photo shared to Facebook claimed an Illinois couple who received five vote-by-mail applications at their address would be able to send them back and receive five ballots — enabling two people to cast five votes “with no one the wiser.”
The image shows five envelopes marked as “Official Election Mail” from the Fayette County Clerk & Recorder’s office sent to five individuals at a single address. The August 7 post was later marked by Facebook as containing “False Information” based on two independent fact checks by the Associated Press and PolitiFact.
This claim and others like it is both highly unlikely and illegal, according to experts.
“The way it works is, people can no more vote multiple mail ballots than they could go into various different polling places on Election Day and try to vote,” said David Becker, founder of the Center for Election Innovation and Research.
When election officials mail out a ballot to a voter, they verify that the voter’s signature on the ballot application form matches the voter’s signature on file.
“The voter file tells election officials where someone lives, whether they’ve asked for a mail ballot, whether they’ve received it, whether it’s come in, whether they voted some other way. And every single request for a mail ballot is checked against that voter file,” Becker added.
States are tasked with overseeing elections and voter registration lists, not the federal government. So each state mandates its own method of verifying absentee ballots — but most use the signature, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).
Not to mention, whoever engages in such behavior as described in the Facebook post would also be committing a felony. Voter fraud is a criminal offense that can be punishable by up to five years in prison, a hefty fine, or both.
“Imagine risking going to jail for five years in order to change one vote, to go in and vote twice or fill out an absentee ballot for your spouse or your parent who has passed away and risk five years of jail time for that,” said Commissioner Ellen L. Weintraub of the Federal Election Commission. “It would make no sense. It’s completely irrational as a crime, because you get very little benefit.”
A number of states have expanded voting by mail options this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, including Illinois. A law signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker in June requires election officials mail vote-by-mail applications by Aug. 1 to all registered voters who participated in the last three state-wide elections. The new law requires election authorities to send the forms to the “registered address and any other mailing address the election authority may have on file, including a mailing address to which a prior vote by mail ballot was mailed.”
Outside organizations, including political parties, may also mail Illinois voters ballot request forms, which could result in voters receiving more than one ballot application. In North Carolina, voters received absentee ballot request forms bearing President Donald Trump’s face.
“If someone sent in 10 requests for a mail ballot, they would receive one. In some states, that might even be against the law,” Becker said, adding that each voter has a unique voter ID number that is tied to a single ballot.
“If they tried to return multiple mail ballots, if for some reason they took someone’s mail ballot that they shouldn’t have, there are codings on the outside of those ballots,” Becker said. “There are ways that the signatures are going to be matched.”
In the run-up to the presidential election, Trump has made repeatedly stated that mail-in voting would lead to widespread voter fraud. But top election officials and research on the subject both indicate that incidents of voter fraud are exceedingly rare.
In Washington, one of a handful of states that has held elections by mail even before the COVID-19 outbreak, county officials check the signature on every single ballot envelope and compare it to the voter registration signature on file. If those two things don’t match, they contact the voter and give them a second chance — which is also a fraud check.
Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman, a Republican who oversees her state’s mail-in voting process, said the state has not seen “any kind of rampant fraud in my 27 years of doing elections.”
During the 2018 election, the state found that out of 3.2 million ballots cast, there were 142 cases of voter fraud — where people had either voted more than once or cast a ballot for a deceased family member.
“Is it perfect? No. But is it rampant fraud? No,” Wyman said.
This story was reported from Cincinnati. The Associated Press contributed.