While mail‐in voting has been on the rise for some time, with roughly a quarter of voters in the 2018 midterms voting by mail, the country is still poised for a dramatic shift in voting processes this fall. Up to 70% of ballots cast this November could be mailed in. Such a major change in voting procedures places the integrity of the election is some danger. Thankfully, while fraud in mail balloting is more common than in in‐person voting, it still hasn’t been a significant problem, with one estimate placing the fraud rate at 0.00006%.17
Absentee ballots are hand‐marked paper ballots, which are considered the most secure type of ballot because of the lack of room for machine error, immunity from hacking, and ease of auditing to confirm results.18 Using modern ballot practices, ballot forgery is near impossible because each ballot has a barcode unique to the voter and tied to a state database. Fortunately, there is similarly little evidence of widespread ballot theft.19 Legitimate ballot integrity concerns do exist, however, regarding ballots mailed to incorrect addresses and the collection of ballots by third parties, known as “ballot harvesting.”
1. Mailing to Incorrect Addresses. In states that routinely conduct elections primarily by mail, like Colorado, ballots are mailed out to every registered voter at the voter’s last known address. Such states, however, slowly implemented vote‐by‐mail over the course of many years and are equipped to handle the potential issues, such as outdated addresses, that arise from vote‐by‐mail systems. As a result, “states that have moved entirely to vote‐by‐mail have some of the lowest numbers of voter fraud.”20 With the onset of COVID-19, however, states without significant experience processing mail‐in ballots on a wide scale have moved to copy all‐mail states, with limited success. Maryland, for example, “planned to send every registered voter a mail‐in ballot for the June 2 primary election” as part of the state’s “effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus.”21 Unfortunately, delays in this effort “resulted in 1 million registered voters in Baltimore City and Montgomery County receiving their ballots late — or not at all.”22
Similarly, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced that his state would send ballots to every registered voter, at their last known address.23 This is particularly concerning in California, which has a history of sloppy voter‐roll maintenance, leaving inactive voters on its rolls for decades, without checking against death records or out‐of‐state re‐registrations.24 Systems like California’s where ballots are mailed to voters’ last known addresses, particularly in states that have not undergone a careful transition, are rife with the potential for errors and ballot fraud, both intentional and unintentional, and states should be wary of implementing them. When crafting new election rules and procedures for 2020 and beyond, states should consider having voters request absentee mail‐in ballots rather than simply mailing them off to all addresses on their voter rolls.
2. Ballot Harvesting. Another absentee‐voting practice under fire is so‐called “ballot harvesting,” where third parties collect and turn in the absentee ballots for an entire nursing home or housing complex, for example, instead of the voters’ returning or mailing the ballots themselves. Although “Democrats see the practice as helpful for vulnerable populations,” critics have raised concerns that it “opens up those same vulnerable populations to manipulation and vote coercion.”25
The legality of ballot harvesting varies widely across the nation. Twenty‐seven states and the District of Columbia allow a designated agent to return a voter’s absentee ballot, but 12 of these states limit how many ballots a single agent can return. Nine states allow a ballot to be returned by a voter’s family member, and only one state, Alabama, specifically requires that the ballot must be returned either via mail or by the voter him‐ or herself. The remaining 13 states “do not address whether an agent or family member may return an absentee ballot on behalf of a voter,” with some informally accepting the practice and others not. Several states have further limits on agents’ returning others’ ballots, such as banning them from being paid for the service.26
Turning in someone else’s ballot is not an inherently dubious practice. Allowing a person to return the ballot of an elderly parent or disabled spouse makes a lot of sense — and particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, states should be wary of placing more obstacles in the way of seniors’ voting. But there is also a high possibility for abuse by an agent tasked with returning ballots. A voter might be intimidated or coerced, physically or emotionally, into voting as the agent directs rather than according to the voter’s own preferences. Alternatively, an agent might simply not return some ballots based on which candidate the voter selected, or even alter the ballot where possible. When crafting new election rules and procedures for 2020 and beyond, states should take great care to balance the benefit of allowing an agent to aid an elderly or disabled person in voting with the potential harm of voter disenfranchisement and coercion.