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voting elections mail-in ballots

Myths and facts about voting by mail.

As we head toward midterm elections in early November, there's a lot of misinformation floating around about how voting is conducted and how votes are processed. Sadly, we're reaping what widespread misinformation has sown in the form of continued election result denial, legislation that makes it harder to vote and even vigilante voter intimidation at ballot drop boxes.

Convincing someone their preferred candidate didn't win because the other side cheated is an easy political win, especially in a hyperpartisan atmosphere. But the reality is that the vast majority of Americans want elections to be as fair and accurate as possible, so sorting out truth from fiction and understanding how our election processes actually work—as opposed to how partisan sources tell us they work—is important.

Voting by mail comes up a lot in discussions of election integrity, so let's take a look at how mail-in ballots work and clear up some misunderstandings that might cause people concern.


Frequently, people will share things they've heard from a friend or a cable news host or a social media post without verifying whether those things are true. Every state handles mail-in ballots a little differently in terms of how people receive ballots and when they get counted, but the safeguards to prevent fraud and ensure eligible votes are counted are fairly standard.

Rumor: Mail-in voting is too new to be safe and secure.

Reality: Americans have been voting by mail since the 19th century. Those early mail-in votes came from soldiers in the Civil War and since then, members of the military who are deployed outside of their home states have long been voting by mail.

Widespread mail-in voting for civilians is newer, but not new. Oregon has been conducting all mail-in elections since 2000, so has had more than two decades to perfect its system. Washington state has done the same since 2012 and Colorado since 2014. In the past three years, Utah, Hawaii, Vermont and California have gone to all-mail-in voting. (Incidentally, Vermont and Washington took the No. 1 and No. 2 spots for electoral integrity in the 2018 midterm rankings in Harvard's Electoral Integrity Project, and all of the other states named here ranked in the top 20.)

Rumor: Mail-in voting gives Democrats an unfair advantage.

Reality: Studies have shown that there appears to be no statistically significant advantage for either party when mail-in voting is implemented. So there's that.

But as an anecdotal example as well, Washington state (where I live) elected a Republican secretary of state—the person in charge of elections at the state level—multiple times with our mail-in voting system until she resigned last year to work on election security at the federal level. And that's in a Democratic-leaning state overall. And the district I live in has elected a Republican representative to the House for years with all mail-in voting. Mail-in ballots are equally available to everyone and make voting very simple, so it doesn't make sense that it would give either party an advantage.

Rumor: Mail-in voting makes it easier to commit voter fraud.

Reality: The Brookings Institution shared data from the conservative Heritage Foundation that analyzed voter fraud over many years in different states. Here are the number of voter fraud cases Heritage found for states that had mail-in voting during most of the time period they analyzed and the total number of ballots cast during that time.

Colorado: 14 cases over 13 years out of 15,955,704 votes cast.

Oregon: 15 cases over 19 years out of 15,476,519 votes cast

Washington: 12 cases over 6 years out of 10,605,749 votes cast

This is what people mean when they say voter fraud isn't a concern. It's not that it never ever happens. It's just that it doesn't even come close to being anywhere near significant enough to approach making a dent in election results.

And false fraud allegations can have tragic real-world results. Everyone needs to make sure they triple-fact-check fraud claims before passing them along.

Rumor: I know of people who received more than one ballot in the mail, which means they'll be able to vote twice.

Reality: Nope, they can't vote twice even if they have two ballots. It doesn't really matter how many ballots a person receives since only one can be submitted and processed for each voter. Election officials try to avoid voters receiving more than one ballot since it causes confusion, but if it happens, it's not an indication that anything fishy is going on. Once one ballot is processed, another ballot for the same voter can't be. Multiple safeguards are in place to ensure that only one ballot is processed for each registered voter and to ensure that the person's signature on the ballot envelope is legitimate.

Rumor: Mail-in voting opens up the possibility of voter coercion.

Reality: This could be true. At a polling place, each individual votes privately so no one else can see who they vote for. People can still feel coerced into voting a certain way, but there's no way for anyone else to really know how they voted. When ballots are mailed to homes, it is possible for one person in the home to force another person to vote a certain way, but: 1) If there are really enough controlling and abusive households that coercion could sway an election, we have bigger problems on our hands than mail-in voting, and 2) Voter intimidation and coercion is a crime, whether it's someone sitting next to a drop box with a gun or someone sitting next to their spouse with a threat.

Rumor: Mail-in voting offers more opportunities for mistakes in the election process.

Reality: There's no evidence for a claim like this. Every voting system can run into problems. Polling places have power outages and voting machines break. Tens of thousands of voters in Virginia were recently given the wrong information about which polling place they are supposed to go to to vote in person. Mail-in voting systems aren't any more prone to things going wrong than any other voting system.

The full reality is that mail-in voting is a convenient, secure way to run an election, which has been proven by bipartisan and nonpartisan sources over and over again. Claims to the contrary are simply political games designed to sow fear and distrust, which is unfortunately an easy way to sway voters.

However you decide to vote, just vote. Democracy only works as intended if we all participate.

This article originally appeared on 04.15.19


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