Of course, the coronavirus introduced a handful of hurdles for states intending to hold in-person elections. Three of the election officials I interviewed mentioned that they faced staffing shortages, as many of their volunteers tended to be in a high-risk category for coronavirus due to age. In Wisconsin, staffing shortages resulted in Gov. Tony Evers calling in 1,000-plus National Guard troops to man polls.
But many states, unequipped for large-scale absentee voting, will attempt in-person elections anyway. Kentucky, where 98 percent of votes are cast in person, is one of them. “It’s hard to turn on a dime and redo an election system in a very short period of time,” said Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams.
One of the biggest challenges facing the expansion of vote by mail is the suspicion it meets across the aisle. President Donald Trump said voting by mail is “ripe for fraud.” Republicans coming down in favor of security over accessibility (as the oversimplification goes) prefer voters to fill out ballots under the supervision of election officials. They’re quick to point out chronic problems facing administrators including outdated registration rolls, vote-buying, and ballot-harvesting that allow bad actors to commit voter fraud.
Using data from the Federal Election Assistance Commission, the Public Interest Legal Foundation found that in 2016, nearly 6 million mail-in ballots went “unaccounted for,” or missing. Ballots mailed to the wrong address is a consistent issue, though there is not evidence that these unaccounted for ballots were used maliciously.
“I agree with the president’s point that voting by mail is uniquely susceptible to fraud, but I believe you can catch all of that and have a stable and normal election as long as some integrity is built into it,” Adams said. He said steps, such as as verifying signatures and requiring personal information in applications for ballots discourage bad actors.
Adams said he finds laws allowing for ballot harvesting of particular concern: “We’re not going to allow ballot harvesting when an activist, a political volunteer, can bring in boxes and boxes of cast ballots while I’m Secretary of State. It’s a great way to get more vote fraud.”
Such fraudulent schemes do occur, though skeptics note that current research does not seem to indicate the problem is systemic.
The Commission on Federal Election Reform, chaired by former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James Baker III, in its 2005 report concluded that absentee ballots are “the largest source of potential voter fraud.” The commission said that citizens who vote away from the ballot box are “more susceptible to pressure, overt and subtle, or to intimidation.”
The most recent example of voter fraud came in the 2018 midterm elections. L. McCrae Dowless Jr., an operative for Republican Mark Harris’ campaign, requested more than 1,200 absentee ballots on voters’ behalf and ballot harvested them from their homes when they were mailed. Dowless currently faces criminal charges for absentee-ballot fraud. Harris won by just 905 votes over Democrat Dan McCready. A new election was ordered, but Harris did not run.
Not all Republicans view absentee balloting with a wary eye. Wyman is one of them: “I’ve done elections for a long time. Do I believe there’s rampant voter fraud? No, I do not. Do I believe it’s 100 percent perfect? No, I do not.” She mentioned cases of well-meaning relatives who had posted a ballot in a recently deceased loved one’s name.
She doesn’t believe such cases represent an attempt to “change the outcome of the election on some massive scale.”
Former National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Davis told Politico that Republicans assume “mail-in ballots help Democrats” but said he believes that is because of their reluctance towards utilizing the method. It remains to be seen which party will favor it more if both push for it equally. Even Trump admitted on Twitter that absentee ballots are “a great way to vote for the many senior citizens ... who can’t get to the polls on Election Day.”