The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Democrats’ voting rights bill is an assault on election integrity

Chester County, Pa., election workers process mail-in and absentee ballots at West Chester University on Nov. 4, 2020. (Matt Slocum/AP)
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House Democrats passed H.R.1, the ostentatiously and misleadingly named For the People Act, Wednesday night on a near-party-line vote. The Senate should reject this dangerous assault on election integrity.

The bill’s primary danger lies in its virtual abolition of any safeguards to ensure that a vote represents the true desire of a single, eligible voter. States would be effectively barred from mandating the use of a photo-ID to establish that a person is the registered voter they claim to be, instead permitting a prospective voter to merely sign a sworn affidavit. States would also be required to adopt same-day voter registration in federal elections, even during early voting, so that a person could show up at a poll, sign a registration form and cast a vote without any checks to ensure the person was actually eligible to vote. Together, these provisions would make it extremely easy for a motivated individual or group to move from poll to poll and cast a number of fraudulent ballots without any reasonable fear they would be caught.

The bill also cavalierly opens the door to voting fraud in its treatment of mail balloting. It would expressly permit a person to collect mail ballots and deliver them to the relevant election agency. It purports to limit this to already sealed ballots, but of course it would be almost impossible to prove a ballot was sealed when it was handed off. The most recent proved instance of mass voter fraud involved exactly this procedure, when a Republican operative cast fraudulent votes for candidates who paid him by collecting unsealed mail ballots from voters and then filling them out for the preferred person. H.R.1 would make it much likelier that unscrupulous operatives of both parties could try to use this scheme to tip the scales in their favor.

H.R. 1 also makes it virtually impossible for a state to ensure that even a mail ballot sent directly was cast by the person it purports to be from. It bars any state from requiring identification for a mail ballot and also prohibits states from requiring that a ballot be notarized or witnessed. Without either requirement, matching a signature on a ballot with that on a voter-registration card is the only safeguard against a person casting a vote for someone else. That’s a very thin reed to rely on, especially because the people who verify mail ballots will likely be lenient in their application of this standard in order not to deny a truly eligible person their right to vote.

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The measure also disables other possible ways in which election integrity could be assured. It prevents states, for example, from requiring more than the last four digits of a person’s Social Security number on a registration form. That theoretically opens the floodgates for undocumented immigrants who have illegally obtained SSNs, especially when combined with the requirement that certain state agencies automatically register people as voters when they come into any contact with the system. States are also prevented from removing registered voters from the rolls when a piece of mail is returned as non-deliverable and are required to provide at least 15 days of in-person early voting for federal elections. Entrepreneurial fraudsters could send mailings to all the names on a voter list, see which ones were returned and assemble a list of non-deliverables; they could then recruit people to vote in person under those names without having to show identification (see above).

Democrats’ claims that there have been no large-scale cases of voter fraud to date are beside the point. Incentives matter, and H.R. 1 creates massive incentives for people to cheat. We would never apply such a standard to community safety or the prevention of a mass-casualty terrorist attack. Our democracy can work only if all people, not just the partisans of one faction, trust that our system is fair. H.R. 1 makes it impossible to reach that standard because it creates so many clear and obvious ways to subvert elections.

It would be easy to create an election system that satisfies people concerned about voter fraud and voter suppression. Our smartphones now have fingerprint- and face-ID systems that protect our devices from unauthorized use. We could easily create a national voter database and attach pictures or fingerprints to every registration. This would even be compatible with same-day registration, provided each polling place had a computer with a camera that could snap a picture and immediately upload it to the database. Australia’s vote-by-mail system requires each applicant to create and answer a personal security question, thereby ensuring that the person who casts the mail-in vote is the person they claim to be. Millions of Australians use this each election, and there is no history of voter fraud or suppression.

Democratic elections are America’s birthright. H.R. 1 would sell that birthright for no reason and must be defeated.

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