President Trump is raising a completely legitimate concern that an unprecedented expansion in the use of mail-in ballots in the 2020 election could lead to voter fraud. But that has not stopped his critics from declaring his statements to be false.
Really? In 2012, before mail-in voting became a partisan political litmus test, The New York Times published an article titled “Error and Fraud at Issue as Absentee Voting Rises.” The piece noted that “there is a bipartisan consensus that voting by mail... is more easily abused than other forms,” and that “votes cast by mail are less likely to be counted, more likely to be compromised and more likely to be contested than those cast in a voting booth.” A bipartisan Commission on Federal Election Reform, chaired by former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, concluded in 2005 that “absentee ballots remain the largest source of potential voter fraud” and that “vote buying schemes are far more difficult to detect when citizens vote by mail.” Carter and Baker also pointed out that citizens who vote at nursing homes “are more susceptible to pressure, overt and subtle, or to intimidation.” In Florida, there is even a name for this: “granny farming.”
No one questions that mail-in ballots have much higher rates of not being counted. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology study found that in the 2008 presidential election, 7.6 million of 35.5 million mail-in ballots requested were not counted because they never reached voters or were rejected for irregularities. That is a failure rate of more than 21%. In 2008, it did not matter because the election was not particularly close and mail-in ballots only accounted for a fraction of votes cast. But imagine the impact that would have in a close election in which mail-in voting is tried on a massive scale.
If mail-in ballots are adopted widely for the 2020 election, mass failures would be inevitable because about half the states have either no or extremely limited vote-by-mail options, and thus lack the experience or infrastructure for sending out, receiving or securing millions of mail-in ballots. We’d be conducting an experiment of unprecedented scale right in the middle of one of the most contentious elections in U.S. history.
Moreover, there is a huge difference between sending ballots to a small number of citizens who request them and requiring that they be mailed to every registered voter, as Democrats are demanding. Under the Democrats’ plan, ballots would inevitably be sent to wrong addresses or inactive voters, putting millions of blank ballots into circulation—an invitation for fraud. Add to that the danger of what Democrats call “community ballot collection” (aka “ballot harvesting”) where campaign workers collect absentee ballots in bulk and deliver them to election officials, and you have a recipe for disaster.
Democrats are already expressing concern that Trump may not accept the results if he loses. So why would they give him an excuse to do so? Maybe because Democrats don’t believe they can win without mail-in voting. During a pandemic, only the most motivated voters are going to show up at the polls, and Democrats have a massive enthusiasm gap with Trump. A March Washington Post-ABC News poll found that just 24% of Biden supporters said they were “very” enthusiastic about supporting him, which is “the lowest (level of enthusiasm) on record for a Democratic presidential candidate in 20 years of ABC/Post polls.” By contrast, more than twice as many Trump’s supporters—53%—are “very” enthusiastic about supporting him. While Trump voters would walk over broken glass to get him re-elected, Democrats are terrified their voters won’t get out of bed to vote for former vice president Joe Biden. Solution? Let them vote from their beds.
That could backfire. Democrats are concerned about African American turnout because COVID-19 has hit the black community especially hard.
But using mail-in votes may not work out the way they hoped. One recent study found that in 2018, “black voters across Georgia’s 159 counties are disproportionately more likely to have their (absentee) ballots rejected than white voters.” If mail-in voting is attempted on a massive scale in 2020, and large numbers of African American votes are not counted, it may be Democrats who are crying fraud and claiming a violation of the Voting Rights Act. If that happens, Democrats will regret going on record insisting mail-in voting is perfectly safe.
Eight years ago, the Times declared that “the flaws of absentee voting raise questions about the most elementary promises of democracy.” Now that Trump is raising those same questions, the publication says doing so is illegitimate. It was right the first time.