Some Americans need absentee or mail ballots. The sick or physically disabled, for example. Or those who are overseas serving our country in the military or the diplomatic service. And others who, for quite legitimate reasons, won't be in town on Election Day.
But moving to all-mail elections would be dangerous. Ironically, it would likely disenfranchise many voters—the opposite outcome of what proponents of such a change desire.
Absentee ballots are the form of voting most vulnerable to being stolen, altered or forced. In past elections, hundreds of thousands of ballots have been rejected for defects. Millions more have been undelivered, misdelivered or reported missing.
Absentee ballots are cast outside the supervision of election officials and outside the presence of election observers. This destroys the important principle of transparency. It potentially intrudes on the secrecy of the ballot-casting process and subjects voters to intimidation and pressure in their homes.
Anyone who doubts the unscrupulous and fraudulent tactics used to gather absentee ballots should look at a case we were both involved in when we worked at the U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. v. Ike Brown. That case demonstrates how vote harvesters—campaign workers and political consultants—abuse the most vulnerable voters. The victims were, as is usually the case, the poor and powerless. They were visited in their homes by politically connected vote harvesters. The vote harvesters voted the ballots—not the voters.
Vote-by-mail also has logistical problems. Our entire election system was designed for in-person voting. We do not have the administrative infrastructure to ensure a clean election based on current voter registration lists. There are serious problems with the accuracy of every single state's voter rolls, some far worse than others.
People are registered multiple times. In some states, the dead remain on the rolls as active registrants for years, sometimes decades. Voter rolls are missing basic information like apartment numbers, birthdates and sometimes even full names. No reasonable person would think we should mail ballots automatically to everyone on these broken lists, which is what some are urging states to do.
This will lead to tens of thousands of ballots—a very valuable commodity—being sent out all over the country to erroneous registrations. Will these ballots get cast anyway by others? Will they be gathered up by vote harvesters so that they can be used to steal elections? That is not a risk we should take.
In the past year, the Public Interest Legal Foundation (PILF) has undertaken the task of compiling a national database of all available voter registration records so they can be uniformly compared against federal and state records to identify registrants appearing to be deceased, duplicated, relocated or otherwise outdated as presently listed. Full Social Security numbers were used to validate identities. The results are shocking.
At the turn of the new year, New York, Texas and Michigan respectively led the nation with the most deceased registrants who were positively identified against the Social Security Administration's Death Index. When comparing with 2016 and 2018 voting history files, PILF found more than 14,000 ballots had been "cast" and counted in the names of individuals long after they had died.
Another emerging error pattern is duplicate registrations. Often, small differences in a voter's given name can cause duplicate registrations. But PILF even found one individual who became simultaneously registered to vote seven times in the Pittsburgh area with the same exact name, birthday and address.
During the 2016 and 2018 general elections, public data appear to show that more than 13,000 duplicate Michigan registrants were credited with casting second ballots. These are registrants with the same first name, last name, date of birth and address. More than two of every three of these duplicate votes were cast via mail.
Federal figures regarding mail balloting do not inspire confidence in the system, either. According to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, since 2012, more than 28 million mail ballots went unaccounted for and another two million were returned as undeliverable. When ballots bounce back, outdated voter rolls are usually to blame. But for the rest of the "Status Unknown" ballots, as they are officially called, one can only wonder what happened to them. Unlike polling place ballots, the absentee ballot system introduces huge blind spots in the chain of custody.
It is in these blind spots where abuses often occur. In June 2017, a postal worker went to federal prison for accepting $1,000 in bribes from South Texas vote harvesters, known as "politiqueros," in exchange for telling them when and where ballots would be delivered on his routes during the 2014 Democratic Party primary contests, so they could obtain the ballots.
If you don't think mail ballot fraud is occurring, then you haven't visited the Heritage Foundation's election fraud database that has a sampling of almost 1,300 proven cases of fraud, including many examples involving absentee or mail-in ballots.
In another example, four Fort Worth, Texas women were charged in 2018 with 30 felony counts as a "paid voter fraud ring" targeting elderly residents during the 2016 elections. The Texas attorney general noted: "Fraudulent applications were generated through forged signatures and by altering historical applications and resubmitting them without the knowledge of the voters. Harvesters also used deception to obtain signatures from voters...some were forced into receiving primary ballots for the political party supported by the harvesters, though it was not the party the voters wanted to vote for." Those cases are still pending.
Or take the case of Leslie McRae Dowless, a Republican political operative accused of illegal possession of absentee ballots and falsifying witness statements in North Carolina during the 2018 election. Although that criminal case is also still pending, Dowless' actions resulted in the election results for North Carolina's Ninth Congressional District being thrown out and a new election called.
Americans are going to their local grocery stores, pharmacies and retail establishments that have implemented all of the safety protocols recommended by health officials. There is no reason why they can't vote in their neighborhood polling places, too.
South Korea proved it could be successfully done on April 15, when 29 million people voted in their national elections, using all of the recommended safety protocols, with no spike in COVID-19 infections. Wisconsin did the same on April 7. Liberia did it successfully in 2014 in the midst of the deadly Ebola epidemic using the same safety protocols in its polling places.
We can do the same in November.
This piece originally appeared in Newsweek