With the 2020 election behind us, it might be tempting to declare mail-in voting a success, given that 46 percent of voters across the nation and 48 percent in Alaska voted by mail. However, the contention surrounding the 2020 election demonstrates lost confidence in our elections, which can only be restored by making it easy to vote but hard to cheat. The fact remains that mail-in ballots enable ballot-harvesting; are more vulnerable to being stolen, altered, or forged; and are susceptible to voter fraud. Retaining strong protections on mail-in ballots is crucial to preventing their abuse and restoring the impartiality of our elections.
Absentee voting is often confused with universal mail-in voting, but their only commonality is use of the mail. To receive an absentee ballot, the voter must request one first. Some states require a valid reason, such as being out of state or having a medical condition. Other states, including Alaska, are “no-excuse” absentee, which means that voters do not have to specify their reasons for obtaining an absentee ballot. Yet both forms of absentee voting are not “universal mail-in,” voting, in which a ballot is sent to every registered voter, no matter if the voter might prefer to vote in person. Colorado and Oregon have used universal mail-in elections since 2013 and 1998, and states recently adopting mail-in voting include Hawaii, Utah, and Washington. In universal mail-in voting, voters no longer need to request a ballot to receive one – which has obvious consequences.
Absentee ballots are vulnerable to ballot harvesting, a predatory practice in which activists canvass neighborhoods to return absentee ballots on behalf of voters. Ballot harvesting is allowed in 24 states and Washington, D.C., while 12 states only allow family members, caretakers, and household members to return absentee ballots for a voter. Mail-in ballots are cast without the supervision of poll workers, leaving voters vulnerable to intimidation in their own homes, as electioneering laws only cover locations near polling places. Further, once a ballot is out of a voter’s custody, there is no telling whether it has been forged contrary to their preferences. An Arizona ban on ballot harvesting was upheld as constitutional in Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee, but ballot harvesting is so appallingly common that harvesters have regional names: “boleteros” in Florida and “politiqueras” in Texas. If ballot harvesting is a common problem for absentee ballots, then imagine the outcome under nationwide universal mail-in voting.
Outright fraud is committed with universal mail-in ballots, and sometimes, the fraud is enough to flip the outcome of local elections. Consider the May 2020 mail-in municipal election in Paterson, New Jersey, where the vice president of the city council and a candidate were charged with voter fraud. Almost 20 percent of votes were disqualified; residents report never receiving their ballot, yet are listed as having voted, and 800 ballots were invalidated after appearing in mailboxes improperly bundled together. Another example from the 2017 Dallas City Council election found almost 700 fraudulent mail-in ballots signed by the same witness using a fake name. In San Pedro, 83 people were found registered at the same two-bedroom apartment. New, creative ways of committing voter fraud are easier with mail-in ballots, especially when universal mail-in is implemented hastily in response to public health crises.
Aside from fraud concerns, mail-in ballots are prone to errors that cause voters to be disenfranchised. Often, these are due to missing signatures, signature discrepancies, and a lack of a witness or notary signature. Other errors, like circling a candidate’s name or choosing too many candidates, are possible at the polling place but are usually corrected by election officials. Consequently, the rate of rejection is two orders of magnitude higher for absentee ballots than for in-person votes: 1 percent compared to one-hundredth of a percent. And this ignores that absentee ballots are often rejected for arriving after election day, although 21 states allowed ballots to arrive after election day in 2020, and the human errors that occur in printing and mailing out ballots, such as 100,000 ballots in Brooklyn in 2020.
Universal mail-in voting has some unique vulnerabilities compared to absentee ballots. Universal mail-in voting sends a ballot to every registered voter, and voter rolls are rarely purged – which means inactive voters who have died, moved, or otherwise ineligible will receive a ballot. This is significant, especially when the pandemic increased moves: about 13 percent of Americans move each year, with 14 percent of those moving out of state. Automatic mail-in ballots to voters who have moved will be sent to the wrong address; whoever receives those ballots may not return them, or worse yet, may cast them as fraudulent votes.
Few would claim that voter fraud does not exist. Instead, defenders of universal mail-in voting contend that incidents of voter fraud are so isolated and localized that fraud could not change the outcome of a national election. Unfortunately, some federal and state actions are attempting to spread weakened protections on absentee ballots. For instance, the For the People Act (H.R. 1) would have prohibited states from requiring a witness signature or notarization, required states to create permanent absentee lists, and required states to mail absentee ballot applications to all registered voters.
Alaska is not immune to the mistakes and vulnerabilities of mail-in ballots. The Alaska Division of Elections listed the wrong Democratic nominee for Anchorage’s House District 28 on absentee ballots sent to 135 Alaska residents living overseas. Juneau voted to hold the October 9, 2020 election entirely by mail and dropped the witness signature requirement. Alaska passed Ballot Measure 2 in the November 2020 election, which will implement ranked-choice voting, further complicating the process of completing a ballot. Alaska is not insulated from the incentives for fraud, and human error is inevitable, especially if a universal mail-in voting system were established statewide or nationwide.
Every invalid vote – whether through honest mistake, deliberate fraud, or a ballot harvested through coercion – disenfranchises a legitimate voter. There is a reason that most developed nations ban mail-in voting unless the voter is out of the country. The aftermath of the 2020 election ought to demonstrate that, even assuming that voter fraud did not statistically affect the outcome, the faith of voters was badly shaken by the possibility of fraud nullifying their vote. Only 65 percent of all voters believe the election was free and fair. Instituting safeguards on absentee ballots and protecting the right to vote by making it easy to vote, yet hard to cheat is necessary to restore confidence in our elections.