Democrats have fought in court and pushed state legislatures for years to increase avenues for voting. State election officials from both parties are expanding vote-by-mail this year to mitigate the risk of spreading the novel coronavirus. President Trump has fumed at these moves and for weeks has been spreading false information about vote-by-mail laws and safeguards, often tweeting baseless warnings about a phantom plot to steal the election.
The RNC video made for an interesting fact check. Like Trump, it warns that widespread voting by mail is a recipe for election fraud. In a curious twist, these dire warnings are all delivered with a comedic tone, the finished product resembling a late-night TV skit.
Although the video is satirical, an RNC official said the claims are all grounded in fact. So here we go.
States and local governments are in charge of running U.S. elections. Each jurisdiction has its own set of rules, but all states offer accommodations for voters who cannot make it to the polls. “In two-thirds of the states, any qualified voter may vote absentee without offering an excuse, and in one-third of the states, an excuse is required,” according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Documented instances of voter fraud are exceedingly rare in the United States, the odds being lower than those of being struck by lightning, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. More than 250 million votes have been cast via mail ballots since 2000, according to the Vote at Home Institute. In 2018, more than 31 million Americans voted by mail, representing one-quarter of election participants. Five states — Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington — use mail ballots as the primary method of voting.
“Despite this dramatic increase in mail voting over time, fraud rates remain infinitesimally small,” the Brennan Center says. “None of the five states that hold their elections primarily by mail has had any voter fraud scandals since making that change.”
“There were 491 prosecutions related to absentee ballots in all elections nationwide between 2000 and 2012, out of literally billions of ballots cast,” Richard L. Hasen, an elections expert at the University of California at Irvine, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed.
A Washington Post analysis of data collected by three vote-by-mail states with help from the nonprofit Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC) found that officials identified 372 possible cases of double voting or voting on behalf of deceased people out of about 14.6 million votes cast by mail in the 2016 and 2018 general elections, or 0.0025 percent.
We asked the RNC to respond to the expert consensus that voting by mail is not riddled with fraud. An RNC spokesperson said that “there’s just no substitute for in-person voting with a secret ballot” and added that states such as Washington, which primarily votes by mail, had several years to mount their systems safely. The timeline would have to be compressed into a few short months this year, inviting risks, RNC officials said.
The RNC video is a mock advertisement for a faux product called “Ballot Harvest.” A box with a lemon logo is shown working its way through a cartoon conveyor belt as an unseen pitchman says things like: “Get fresh ballots delivered right to your door!”
By the end, viewers are left with the impression that Democrats would steal the election by expanding and then somehow rigging vote-by-mail procedures. (“Convenient and affordable, Ballot Harvest is a steal. Ballot Harvest — the fix is in!” the video narrator concludes.)
“This entire campaign to try to delegitimize mail voting, the American election system, is not only baseless and false but incredibly damaging to our country and our democracy,” said Wendy R. Weiser, an election expert and vice president at the Brennan Center. “It’s not even clear what the scheme is that they’re envisioning. It seems like they’re throwing as many allegations and conspiracy theories against the wall as possible in the hopes that some of it might stick, and drive fear and distrust in the election.”
Let’s break down each claim.
“Are you tired of driving all the way to a polling location to vote? Sick of always having to remember your ID to get a ballot? Worry no more, because the fix is in! Introducing: Ballot Harvest.”
McDaniel voted by mail in Michigan in 2018, just as Trump and other administration officials have cast mail ballots in recent years. It hardly needs to be stated, but being “tired” is not the only reason to do so. A deadly pandemic, a military or work posting abroad, mobility issues and health considerations also come to mind as possible reasons. Many states do not require a reason for absentee voting.
The video mentions “always having to remember your ID” to vote in person. Voting by mail also requires identification after the initial voter registration process: the last four digits of a Social Security number, for example, or a signature that matches what’s on file in the state voter registry.
“Get fresh ballots delivered right to your door! Make your voice heard — as many times as you want. We’ve rigged up our system to churn out ballots for every living thing in the country: millions a day!”
To mitigate public health risks during the coronavirus pandemic, several states have decided to expand vote-by-mail this year. Georgia, Iowa, Nebraska and West Virginia, where Republicans are in charge of elections, are mailing absentee ballot applications to all registered voters. So is Michigan, which is governed by Democrats, among other states.
Some states are mailing the actual ballots to “active” and in some cases “inactive” registered voters. But this is far from the RNC’s claim about ballots for “every living thing in the country: millions a day!”
Weiser said most of the states that are sending out ballots are not mailing them to inactive voters. “Inactive voters are not ineligible voters,” she added. “The states that have this category use it as an interim category of people who are already on their list as registered voters but they think may have moved. … If the voters show up on Election Day, that flag is removed and they are active voters again.”
The RNC video suggests one voter could cast multiple ballots (“as many times as you want”) but that’s not how it works. Most states have bar codes printed on their mail ballots, and more states have begun to use bar codes this year. When a completed ballot arrives, election officials scan the bar code to link it with the voter registered in the system. Officials typically compare the signature on the ballot to the one in the registration, among other steps. Duplicate ballots from the same voter wouldn’t be recognized by the system after the first ballot was scanned, Weiser said. If someone requested a new ballot, the original would be voided.
“When you’re ready to return your ballots, we’ll send someone right to your door to collect them, even the unused ballots. And don’t worry about signing. We’ve got that covered, too.”
Democrats are pushing for more states to allow third-party groups that collect sealed and completed ballots from voters. Republicans call it “ballot harvesting.” Democrats call it “ballot collection.” Political operatives from both sides routinely do it, as our colleague Amber Phillips of The Fix wrote, and Democrats used it with particular success in California in 2018.
“Behind the scenes, GOP leaders and on-the-ground operatives are privately strategizing ways to improve their own ballot-harvesting operations in California, where the party now holds seven out of 53 congressional seats, according to people familiar with the efforts,” The Post’s Amy Gardner reported. “Republicans tested the tactic in a few races last year, encouraging voters in one Orange County district to entrust their ballots to campaign workers carrying ID badges marked ‘ballot security’ to convey legitimacy, according to those involved.”
Supporters say third-party ballot collectors help enfranchise certain groups for whom voting is difficult, but opponents say bad actors could be tampering with their ballots.
“Community organizations should be permitted to help collect and deliver voted, sealed ballots,” according to Democracy Docket, a group led by the Democratic election lawyer Marc Elias that is challenging ballot collection restrictions in some states.
“This ad is about warning against Democrat plans to nationalize ballot harvesting, which is a real threat to the integrity of our elections,” RNC spokeswoman Liz Harrington said. “Republicans will continue to ensure Americans have confidence in the vote by keeping ballot safeguards in place and not letting Democrats put their paid campaign operatives in charge of our elections.”
Ironically, officials in North Carolina ordered a new election in the state’s 9th Congressional District this year after concluding a GOP operative, McCrae Dowless, orchestrated a “coordinated, unlawful, and substantially resourced” scheme to collect, fill out, forge signatures and in some cases discard absentee ballots in the interest of a Republican candidate, Mark Harris. No scheme like this by a Democratic campaign has emerged in states with or without third-party ballot collection. North Carolina does not have such a law.
Signature verification “is done in most jurisdictions,” Weiser said. Voters also sometimes use personal information such as their name, birth date, address, driver’s license or the last four digits of their Social Security number to verify mail ballots.
Elias’s group is suing in some cases to allow voters to correct errors that disqualified their ballots, including signature issues. “His lawsuits are not to end signature verification,” Weiser said, adding that there are “significant racial disparities” in rejecting ballots based on signature matches.
An RNC official sent a RealClearPolitics article that found: “Between 2012 and 2018, 28.3 million mail-in ballots remain unaccounted for, according to data from the federal Election Assistance Commission. The missing ballots amount to nearly one in five of all absentee ballots and ballots mailed to voters residing in states that do elections exclusively by mail.” (This doesn’t account for the multiple safeguards election officials can use to verify completed ballots.)
The official also sent a New York Times article from 2012, headlined: “Error and Fraud at Issue as Absentee Voting Rises.” (It concluded that vote-by-mail fraud is “far less common than innocent errors,” though more prevalent than in-person voting fraud.)
The Pew Charitable Trusts found, also in 2012: “Approximately 24 million — one of every eight — voter registrations in the United States are no longer valid or are significantly inaccurate. More than 1.8 million deceased individuals are listed as voters. Approximately 2.75 million people have registrations in more than one state.” (State officials regularly scrub their voter registration lists of inactive voters, but “under federal law they can’t remove them until after two federal elections, because a piece of returned mail doesn’t necessarily mean the person moved,” Weiser said.)
The Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee, in its report about Russian election disinformation, recommended: “Sitting officials and candidates should use the absolute greatest amount of restraint and caution if they are considering publicly calling the validity of an upcoming election into question. Such a grave allegation can have significant national security and electoral consequences, including limiting the response options of the appropriate authorities, and exacerbating the already damaging messaging efforts of foreign intelligence services.”
The Pinocchio Test
A sober warning about the risks of voting by mail, this video is not. It tortures the facts to create a narrative of an election about to be stolen.
The illegality being satirized here is a phantom. State election officials, in many cases Republicans, are expanding vote-by-mail as a public health precaution to prevent the risk of spreading the coronavirus — not to rig the outcome.
No one is sending out millions of duplicate ballots, no one is mailing ballots to every living being, no one is standing up an army of dirty tricksters waiting to corrupt those ballots, and no one is doing away with signature verification requirements or other safeguards.
As the Senate Intelligence Committee said, such grave allegations “can have significant national security and electoral consequences.” We give the RNC video Four Pinocchios.
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