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Residents of some states may not be able to vote in person and may be forced to vote using absentee or mail-in ballots as long as the current emergency continues, with social distancing being the norm and schools, businesses, offices and government facilities closed.
But no one should forget that absentee-ballot voting is vulnerable to intimidation, fraud and chaos as all-mail elections move behind closed doors beyond the oversight of election officials. Not to mention prolonged counting and potentially lengthy delays in certifying questionable results.
Election officials should start taking steps now to ensure that if a mailed ballot system is ordered, the election itself can be protected from the dangers that will otherwise result.
Georgia, for example, has declared that its June 2020 primary will be conducted by mail. Election officials have taken steps to avoid some of these concerns. Only registered, active (not inactive) voters will be sent an absentee-ballot request form. This will cut down on fraudulent voting, as unauthorized persons won’t be able to send in unsolicited ballots that show up in states that simply mail absentee ballots to all registered voters without receiving a request.
As an added benefit, by sending the request forms first class, election officials will receive valuable information from the U.S. Postal Service, such as whether a voter has moved or died. This will help confirm the accuracy of the voter-registration list.
All states and localities contemplating voting-by-mail should require voters to respond with a request for an absentee ballot in a written form – with a signature. That accomplishes two objectives: active voters are notified of the change in the process, and the signature will allow election officials (and interested citizens) to compare and authenticate voter identity.
For further protection, officials should require a photocopy of an ID or, for example, if they have a state driver’s license or ID card, the serial number of that identification on the absentee-ballot request form.
State voter-registration lists around the country are notoriously inaccurate and out-of-date, with many jurisdictions having duplicate or triplicate registrations, registrants who have died, and registrations lacking full address data. Some counties have more registered voters than voting-age citizens.
The coronavirus has taught us a valuable lesson: election officials should be ever-mindful and actively engaged in ongoing voter list maintenance, year-in and year-out.
Not every new resident at an address will throw out a ballot automatically mailed to the old resident at that address, and where there are no safeguards, individuals may cast votes using ballots originally intended for other voters. It is further tempting to campaign workers and activists to canvas neighborhoods – often poor, minority neighborhoods – looking for those “extra” ballots.
Simply put, automatically mailing ballots to all registrants is an open invitation to fraud.
States should require voters to register prior to Election Day with sufficient time for election officials to validate and verify the information provided by voters of their identity, their residence, their citizenship status, and any other information relevant to their eligibility to vote. Same day or Election Day registration doesn’t allow for such verification.
States should only accept absentee ballots that are officially postmarked by the U.S. Postal Service on or before Election Day. This assures that ballots are not cast after Election Day and after preliminary election results are known, which would otherwise risk giving voters (or vote “harvesters”) the ability to manipulate close races after the polls have closed.
States should ban all ballot “harvesting” by third parties. Only the voter or close family members should be able to hand-deliver a completed absentee ballot. Candidates, political consultants, party activists and campaign guns-for-hire – all of whom have a stake in the outcome of the election – should not be allowed to collect absentee ballots from voters.
Anything else is a recipe for intimidation and fraud, as occurred in the 2018 election in North Carolina’s Ninth Congressional District, and in multiple other cases. Moreover, it is difficult to see how vote harvesting would comply with government orders requiring or recommending “social distancing.”
Election officials must also establish protocols and work with local U.S. postal authorities to ensure integrity in the mail system, to prevent the slow delivery of ballots.
When processing the returned absentee ballots from voters, states must have strong authentication standards. This includes allowing election officials and observers to compare signatures on the ballot envelopes to voter registration signatures.
If states insist on unwisely mailing out absentee ballots automatically, voter rolls must first be reviewed and cleaned. The Justice Department should swiftly file lawsuits under the Help America Vote Act against states with suspected inaccurate voter rolls.
Only accurate voter rolls should be used for mass mailings of absentee ballots, and proper voter-roll maintenance and clean-up ought to include comparisons with other databases. That includes state social service agencies, tax authorities, the DMV, and corrections departments, as well as federal databases at the Social Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security to confirm voter information and eligibility.
The Department of Homeland Security must end the roadblocks states currently face in verifying the citizenship of registrants. States and localities should also utilize the National Change of Address system available from the U.S. Postal Service to update addresses of registered voters and remove those registrants who have relocated out of state.
As the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said in a 1998 report, absentee ballots are the “tools of choice” of vote thieves. Switching to mail-in ballots due to the coronavirus outbreak should only be a temporary measure that is not used for future elections. In the meantime, adequate safeguards to protect the integrity of an all-mail election must be implemented.
The coronavirus has taught us a valuable lesson: election officials should be ever-mindful and actively engaged in ongoing voter list maintenance, year-in and year-out. They should be complying with federal law and ensuring that only eligible voters are on the voter rolls, and that voters who die or relocate are removed in a timely manner.
By engaging in zealous voter roll maintenance, election administrators will be prepared for any changes in the system that might result from emergencies that may interfere with the voting process. Hopefully, the emergencies from the coronavirus will be long since lifted by Nov. 3 and there will be no need for changes in the process for the general election.
The fallout from the disease is a stark reminder, however, that the integrity of our elections can only be protected by the ongoing actions of conscientious election officials committed to ensuring that every eligible voter is able to cast a ballot, with the sure knowledge that it has not been diluted by error, fraud or mistakes that could have been corrected months or years beforehand.
J. Christian Adams and Cleta Mitchell are the president and chairman of the Public Interest Legal Foundation, respectively.