May 2, 2022

A Primer on Mail-In Voting – Part II

A Primer on Mail-In Voting – Part II

Last time, I shared some of the history of voting by mail and the procedures currently used by various states.  Today, I want to focus on two questions:

  • Does voting by mail favor one of the two major parties?
  • Does voting by mail result in more illegal voting?

Partisan Advantage?

Most of the academic research before 2020 concluded that allowing voters to mail in their ballots had not resulted in a clear advantage to either party.  Early in 2020, a Stanford research team looked at mail-in voting data from 1996-2018.  They concluded that voting by mail increased turnout of both Democratic and Republican voters by about 2%.  As a result, they concluded there was little likelihood that voting by mail had resulted in a clear partisan advantage for either side.

Based on working in Texas elections for the last five decades, I am not sure I agree with their conclusion.  Republicans, at least in Texas, were the masters of promoting mail-in voting by seniors, who tend to vote more conservatively.  A number of Republican groups, including the infamous pay-to-play slates, would mail the applications for a mail-in ballot to seniors with a history of voting in the Republican primary.  In almost every election Republicans had a significant advantage when mail-in ballots were counted.  But in the last few years, Democrats basically took that page out of the Republican playbook and began actively promoting mail-in ballots for seniors with a Democratic primary voting history.  As a result, the tally of mail-in ballots by each party has mostly equalized in recent elections.

The Security of Voting by Mail

There is no question that voting by mail is inherently less secure than voting in person.  The Commission on Federal Election Reform, chaired by James Baker and Jimmy Carter, concluded in its 2005 report that “Absentee ballots remain the largest source of potential voter fraud” (p.46, emphasis added).

There are two characteristics of voting by mail that make it inherently more risky than voting in person.  First, the voter is not presenting themselves at a poll, so it is more difficult to verify the voter’s identity and to ensure that the voter is not being improperly influenced or coerced while completing their ballot.  Second, ballots must leave the custody of officials, creating the risk that they can be fraudulently completed or that valid ballots can be intercepted and destroyed before they are returned for counting.

Drop Box in Cleveland, Ohio

Notwithstanding these risks, there have been a very small number of cases of documented fraud related to mail-in voting.  The conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation, maintains a database of documented cases involving voting irregularities dated back to 1982.  During that time, hundreds of millions of votes have been cast by mail.  However, there are only a few hundred cases in their database involving mail-in ballots. In only a handful of cases have involved enough ballots to make a difference in the outcome of the election.

However, there have been some high-profile cases in which mail-in voting fraud was consequential.  One of the most notorious was the Miami mayoral election in 1998.  The results of that election were overturned by a court, which found widespread fraud in the absentee ballots along with other irregularities.

I recently spoke at some length to Lori Augino, the executive director of National Vote at Home Institute, a non-profit, nonpartisan group that promotes responsible mail-in voting.  Before becoming the executive director at NVHI, Augino was the director of elections in Washington state, one of the first states to adopt mailing ballots to all registered voters.

In my conversation, Augino demonstrated an incredibly in-depth understanding of the issues surrounding mail-in voting.  Interestingly, her organization does not advocate the adoption of universal mail-in voting unless and until a jurisdiction has adopted certain safeguards.  Most of their recommendations have not been implemented in Texas, and certainly were not in place in Harris County in 2020 when it proposed a dramatic expansion of voting by mail.

High on their list of recommendations is the rigorous maintenance of voter rolls.  Of course, a certain number of voters are always moving, and a certain number pass away each year.  A smaller number are convicted of a crime for which they lose their right to vote.  For the most part, voters do not self-report these changes.  So, without proactive procedures to constantly update this information, there will be a significant number of voters on the rolls who should not be there for various reasons.

Mailing ballots to every voter on the roll that is not routinely updated will result in thousands of ballots being mailed to addresses where the voter no longer lives.  Having a large number of ballots addressed to invalid voters outside the custody of election officials obviously creates a risk of the ballot being inappropriately.  This is why NVHI emphasizes the importance of robust safeguards to ensure ballots are only mailed to voters entitled to cast one in the election.  (The issue of maintenance of the voter roll deserves a post of its own which I intend to write soon.)

NVHI also recommends the use of signature verification software and strict standards for drop box construction and placement.  It also has a variety of recommendations for design of mail-in ballots and carrier envelopes and ballot opening and counting procedures.  My sense is that if election officials followed the procedures recommended by NVHI, the risk of mail-in ballots being used fraudulently would be negligible.

Of course, based on the performance of some of our election officials, especially in here Harris County, that is a pretty big “if.”

Some voters may find voting by mail more convenient, but many elections officials argue it is expensive and time-consuming for them.  It can also delay election results being reported.  So, given the risk that election officials might not follow the proper procedures and the additional cost and hassle of processing mail-in ballots, is it worth it?

More on that next time.

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