op-ed

In the Wall Street Journal: Heed Jimmy Carter on the Danger of Mail-In Voting, ‘Absentee ballots remain the largest source of potential voter fraud.’

11 Apr , 2020  

Dr. John Lott has a new op-ed in the Wall Street Journal.

‘Absentee ballots remain the largest source of potential voter fraud.” That quote isn’t from President Trump, who criticized mail-in voting this week after Wisconsin Democrats tried and failed to change an election at the last minute into an exclusively mail-in affair. It’s the conclusion of the bipartisan 2005 report of the Commission on Federal Election Reform, chaired by former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James Baker III.

Concerns about vote-buying have a long history in the U.S. They helped drive the move to the secret ballot, which U.S. states adopted between 1888 and 1950. Secret ballots made it harder for vote buyers to monitor which candidates sellers actually voted for. Vote-buying had been pervasive; my research with Larry Kenny at the University of Florida has found that voter turnout fell by about 8% to 12% after states adopted the secret ballot.

You wouldn’t know any of this listening to the media outcry over Mr. Trump’s remarks. “There is a lot of dishonesty going on with mail-in voting,” the president said Tuesday. In response, a CNN “fact check” declares that Mr. Trump “opened a new front in his campaign of lies about voter fraud.” A New York Times headline asserts: “Trump Is Pushing a False Argument on Vote-by-Mail Fraud.” Both claim that voter fraud is essentially nonexistent. The Carter-Baker report found otherwise.

Intimidation and vote buying were key concerns of the commission: “Citizens who vote at home, at nursing homes, at the workplace, or in church are more susceptible to pressure, overt and subtle, or to intimidation. Vote buying schemes are far more difficult to detect when citizens vote by mail.”

The report provides examples, such as the 1997 Miami mayoral election that resulted in 36 arrests for absentee-ballot fraud. The election had to be rerun, and the result was reversed.

There are more recent cases, too. In 2017 an investigation of a Dallas City Council election found some 700 fraudulent mail-in ballots signed by the same witness using a fake name. The discovery left two council races in limbo, and the fraud was much larger than the vote differential in one of those races. The case resulted in a criminal conviction.

In a 2018 North Carolina congressional race, Republican Mark Harris edged out Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes. Fortunately, the state had relatively complete absentee-ballot records. Election officials became suspicious when they discovered that the Republican received 61% of mail-in votes, even though registered Republicans accounted for only 19% of those who had requested mail-in ballots.

A Republican operative, L. McCrae Dowless Jr., had allegedly requested more than 1,200 absentee ballots on voters’ behalf and then collected the ballots from voters’ homes when they were mailed out. Mr. Dowless’s assistants testified that they were directed to forge voters’ signatures and fill in votes. A new election was required, but Mr. Harris didn’t run. Mr. Dowless faces criminal charges for absentee-ballot fraud in both the 2016 and 2018 elections and has pled not guilty.

It is often claimed that impossibly large numbers of people live at the same address. In 2016, 83 registered voters in San Pedro, Calif., received absentee ballots at the same small two-bedroom apartment. Prosecutors rarely pursue this type of case.

Mail-in voting is a throwback to the dark old days of vote-buying and fraud. Because of this, many countries don’t allow absentee ballots for citizens living in their country, including Norway and Mexico. Americans deserve a more trustworthy system.

The rest of the piece is available here.

Dr. Lott’s primary concern is vote buying, which is very difficult to detect because both parties involved in the exchange have an incentive to hide it. Vote fraud cases are also difficult to prosecute, but examples of successful prosecutions are available here, here, and here. An analysis of multiple people registered to vote at the same address in Houston in 2012 is available here.

The Public Interest Legal Foundation (PILF) just released data showing more than 28 million ballots by mail went unaccounted for from 2012 to 2018, with more than one million going to the incorrect address in 2018 alone. “Absentee ballot fraud is the most common, the most expensive to investigate, and it can never be reversed after an election,” said J. Christian Adams, who is the PILF’s president. “The status quo was already bad for mail balloting. The proposed emergency fix is worse.”

Letters in the Wall Street Journal were published on April 22nd, 2020.

Regarding John R. Lott Jr.’s “Heed Jimmy Carter on the Danger of Mail-In Voting” (op-ed, April 11): Given the present Covid-19 environment, preserving elections has become an issue, and vote by mail (VBM) is a logical solution.

Oregon was the first U.S. state to adopt vote by mail for some elections in 1981. In 2000 it became the first to use VBM in a presidential general election. The turnout was 79%. VBM has become a popular feature of Oregon elections, supported widely by both Democrats and Republicans. 

But does Oregon’s system pass all the tests for elections? Increased participation, yes. Convenience, yes. Cost savings, yes. Integrity, not so much. Oregon law provides the opportunity for anyone to find out who has voted and their party affiliation. It is perfectly legal for the phone banks of a candidate to call those who have not voted and offer to come to their door and pick up their ballot. Oregon also allows canvassers to enter nursing homes and places of congregate living to help people fill out their ballots. In my first election to the Oregon Senate, I spent the days before the election going to the homes of those who had not mailed their ballots. I obviously was picking up ballots of Republican voters, but why create an opportunity for fraud, particularly in closely contested elections? How many of these voters ever call the election office to see if their vote arrived and was counted?

When I was a state senator, legislation was introduced to improve the integrity of VBM but never received a hearing. Vote by mail, yes. Ballot harvesting, no.

Frank Morse

Albany, Ore.

All registered voters in California receive an official ballot in the mail, but my son received a ballot this year and he hasn’t lived in the state for four years. When my foreign-national daughter-in-law got her California driver’s license, she was automatically registered to vote by the DMV (she noticed and corrected the error). How many other “extra” ballots are floating around?

The outside of the mail-in envelope has my address, signature, and party affiliation. No opportunity for mischief there. I sealed the envelope on my ballot, but at the polling place I noticed that the glue hadn’t stuck. It was OK, the helpful poll worker had a glue stick handy. Do ballots have a special glue just for elections? 

If you cannot mail your ballot or drop it at the polling place, you can have someone drop it off for you, if that person signs the outside. Who checks? Some California ballot-drop boxes were placed outside buildings. What security measures were provided? 

Californians could submit ballots as much as a month before the primary on March 3. California has extended the date on which the results need to be certified to May 1. Are the mail-in ballots still being counted?

Carlos Martinez 

Morgan Hill, Calif.

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