Absentee ballots gain popularity despite warnings of potential voter fraud

On Election Day, millions of votes will be counted from people who do not vote in person. Instead, they will make their voices heard through mail-in, absentee ballots.

Election officials insist absentee ballots are a secure way to vote, and they have become increasingly popular.

Others brand absentee ballots as the weak link in the electoral system, charging that they are susceptible to voter fraud.

"We have a very thorough verification process so that anyone who should be able to vote, and chooses to vote by mail, their right will be preserved," insists John Hogan, the county clerk in Bergen County, N.J. "We have very, very little voter fraud, and if there is any indication of voter fraud, it is investigated immediately."

The United States Election Assistance Commission says that in the last federal election, the 2010 mid-terms, 90.8 million Americans cast ballots, and of that total, 14.2 million, or 15.6 percent, used absentee ballots.

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Hogan explained how absentee ballots are handled when a voter request one.

"Our people get the information. They do a verification process,” he said. "The ballot is sent out. ... That ballot is then returned to the Board of Elections, which actually counts and does another verification process to make sure it is the correct person."

When absentee ballots are opened, Bergen County, like many other jurisdictions, relies on officials from each major party, a pair of Democrats and Republicans, to oversee the process. They then verify the ballot, and if it passes muster, it is counted as a vote. The ballots are kept under constant guard.

"We store them in a room that is secured, that's locked and that only our supervisor of the Elections Division and I have keys to, and that is locked up," he said. "This office, the whole area of the clerk's office, is secured at nighttime. We have guards at each door, security guards, and we have an armed county police officer in the building."

One county in Connecticut even keeps its absentee ballots in a walk-in former bank safe, protected by a heavy steel door, locked in cages.

But despite the precautions, some election veterans say abusing absentee ballots is the easiest way for elections to be stolen.

"It's extremely easy to steal an election with absentee ballots," declares Bob Mirch, the former Republican leader in the Rensselaer County, N.Y., legislature.

"There is no question about it. You take all the small towns in America, and you start adding up 25, 30 stolen absentee ballots and that is an awful lot of votes. There is no doubt that stealing absentees can definitely throw an election."

Mirch should know. In 2009, he uncovered a suspected massive case of absentee ballot fraud in his hometown of Troy, N.Y. Subsequently, a bevy of Democratic politicians and political operatives were investigated and indicted. Eight were hit with charges, including the local elections commissioner. Four defendants have pleaded guilty, one was acquitted and three still face trial.

Prosecutors said the scheme involved forging absentee ballots, without the real voters knowing about it, and then voting the fake ballots to throw the 2009 Troy primary.

"Somebody was signing somebody else's name. That’s one problem, no voter ID," Mirch said. "The Board of Elections people are overwhelmed during the time of an election. And when they get the paperwork in the mail or from people requesting an absentee, they sometimes don't have the time to compare the signature on the application to the signature on file, and when that occurs, an absentee goes out that is illegal."

Just this year there have been absentee ballot fraud cases in at least nine other states.

In West Virginia, a candidate admitted filling out absentee ballots and voting for himself. In Arkansas, officials say absentee ballots that were cast for the rival candidate were ripped up and thrown away. In other cases, absentee ballots were either also filled out by the politicians, bought or sold or illegally handled.

One longtime former elections official does not think the absentee ballot system is secure. She thinks that voters should ask their elections officials questions about how they handle absentee ballots.

"How are you protecting the ballots that I have voted? How do we know what has happened to it, once it gets to your office? What are the procedures?" former Denver Election Commissioner Jan Tyler said. "Ballots are received in an office. Do they sit around for any length of time?"

She says the verification of signatures is where the process can break down, and she notes that even the counting process can damage absentee ballots and make them potentially unusable.

"If a ballot comes in damaged, it might be duplicated to make sure it goes through the machine and gets counted," she said. "Sometimes the machine will damage a ballot, and in that case it is duplicated by the duplicating team. But this is a function that needs to be monitored very closely by anyone interested in the integrity of an election."

She points to the closely contested presidential race in 2000 that was ultimately decided in George Bush's favor, based on a margin in Florida of a mere 537 votes.

"The nightmare scenario that election administrators do dread, is that we could have not one, five or 10 Floridas out there for this election, and it could hinge, this time, not on hanging chads but on absentee ballot fraud."

Despite that worry, Tyler remains an advocate of voting by absentee.

"I believe it is the best way, the most efficient way, to reach the largest number of people," she notes.

Hogan, in Bergen County, expects to receive upwards of 40,000 absentee ballots for this election and understands why voting by absentee ballot, even if a voter is in town on Election Day, has become more popular.

"With the economy, people are working more than one job, and they have kids," he said. "It becomes more and more difficult to get out and vote, so this gives them another opportunity that they don't have to stop at a polling place in a presidential election year and stand on line and wait to vote."

If you suspect voter fraud or problems at the polls where you live, tell us: Voterfraud@Foxnews.com

Tamara Gitt contributed to this report.