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Vote-by-mail is not full of fraud, despite Trump’s debate claims

But his unfounded assertions are still dangerous.

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People watch the first Trump-Biden presidential debate in Hollywood, California, on September 29, 2020.
Mario Tama/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

Let’s get this out of the way: Mail-in voting is not full of fraud.

President Donald Trump spent the tail end of the first presidential debate of 2020 on a tirade against voting by mail, which American voters are expected to do in greater numbers than ever in this election.

“A solicited ballot is okay,” Trump claimed on Tuesday. “You’re soliciting, you’re asking, they send it back, you send it back. I did that. They’re sending millions of ballots all over the country. There’s fraud.”

Trump appears to be drawing a distinction between “absentee voting” — where voters typically request a ballot — and “vote-by-mail,” where election officials send ballots to all eligible registered voters. States such as Oregon, Washington, Colorado, and Utah practice vote-by-mail, in which if you’re registered to vote in an election, you’re sent a ballot that you can then send back via the mail or drop off at an official location or secure dropbox.

This year, because of the coronavirus pandemic, many more states are sending ballots to registered voters. States like California, where counties already had many voters casting ballots by mail, are now sending ballots to registered voters. Others, like Vermont and New Jersey, are mailing out ballots for the first time. In total, nine states, plus the District of Columbia, are sending all registered voters mail ballots this year. (Montana is allowing each county to decide.)

Other states fall somewhere in between: Some are sending ballot applications, but not ballots themselves, to all registered voters. Others still require voters to request ballots but have waived the requirement of providing a legitimate reason for voting absentee, or have allowed the pandemic to count as an accepted reason. But, in all cases, there’s an additional step voters have to take.

Either way, Trump’s claims that vote-by-mail is full of fraud are unfounded.

Voting fraud, in general, is rare. In Oregon, which has been voting by mail for about two decades, officials referred 54 cases of possible voter fraud to law enforcement in 2016. Of those, 22 people — representing just 0.0001 percent of all ballots cast that year — were found guilty of having voted in two states.

Another analysis by the Washington Post and the nonprofit Electronic Registration Information Center found officials in Colorado, Washington, and Oregon referred 372 possible cases to law enforcement of double voting or voting on behalf of a dead person, out of about 14.6 million mail-in votes in the 2016 and 2018 general elections. That comes out to about 0.0025 percent of all ballots.

This year, American voters could be voting in record numbers by mail, and experts told me this could put pressure on election officials, especially in those states that have never conducted a universal vote-by-mail election before.

Some experts and voting advocates worry this could cause problems that disrupt voting or disenfranchise some voters. But it’s not tied to malfeasance, though that’s harder to see when you have a president who just spent a portion of a nationally televised debate alleging exactly that.

And typically, mail-in ballots do have a higher rejection rate than in-person voting, mostly because of human errors like failing to sign a ballot or filling it out incorrectly or if the ballot arrives past the deadline.

These are legitimate concerns with mail-in voting (which is why doing it early makes a big difference), but they can happen whether this is “vote by mail” or “absentee” voting. And those problems can be partly remedied with good public outreach and awareness campaigns, robust procedures like “cure” processes that give voters opportunities to correct mistakes, and more resources to administer elections.

Problems with elections — either in polling places or by mail — happen in, well, every election, and as America changes the way it votes, more issues are going to arise. But Trump’s insistence on discrediting voting by mail, a system that works and is very popular in both the Republican- and Democratic-leaning states that have it, undermines Americans’ trust in elections and the democratic process.

And that’s the most dangerous part of Trump’s diatribe against voting by mail. By sowing these conspiracies about rampant fraud, he is harming Americans’ faith in the election results, and trying to frame the process as rigged and flawed from the start. This could depress turnout, but it also lays the groundwork for him, or his backers, to challenge the results.