Americans’ Inexperience with Voting By Mail Creates Risks

States should expand absentee balloting but prevent ballot harvesting 

Forty-six states and the District of Columbia will allow all voters to cast their ballots by mail in November’s election. But a recent analysis from the Pew Research Center shows that most American have not voted by mail–increasing the risk that ballot harvesting will affect election outcomes in some races.

Nationally, 21 percent of voters cast their ballots by mail during the 2016 election, according to Pew. In 29 states and DC that allowed “no excuse” absentee balloting, roughly one in five voters have voted by mail. But in 2020, many states are relaxing rules for absentee ballot requests due to the pandemic. And in these states, the experience will be new as Pew reports:

“Across these states, very few voters have cast ballots by mail in prior elections. Overall, in the 11 states requiring an excuse but expanding eligibility due to COVID-19, just 4.6% of voters cast their ballot by mail in 2016.”  

States’ plans to implement widespread absentee balloting and voting-by-mails makes good sense in 2020. Assuming the COVID-19 pandemic persists in November, many poll workers will be unable to work. (According to the Election Assistance Commission, in 2016, more than half of poll workers surveyed were older than 60.) Recent primary elections have resulted in voters waiting in long lines to cast their ballots. If social distancing is required or recommended on November 3rd, having millions of Americans wait in lines at the polls will be impractical. 

But the necessity of expanded absentee balloting doesn’t allow us to gloss over the risks of this form of voting, and address potential problems. In a new Lincoln Network working paper, my colleagues Sean Roberts and Alexiaa Jordan examine the technical and policy issues of voting by mail.

“National and state policymakers should protect the integrity of the democratic process by expanding access to vote by mail while establishing protections to address administrative problems and enhancing laws to prevent ballot harvesting and fraud,” they write.

The most significant security and integrity risk is that third parties will capitalize on opportunities for ballot harvesting in an attempt to alter election outcomes.

Concerns about the risks associated with widespread absentee balloting have been long understood within the nonpartisan community of election administrators. In 2006, the Election Assistance Commission studied voter fraud and intimidation. They found

“One point of agreement is that absentee voting and voter registration by nongovernmental groups create opportunities for fraud. For example, a number of studies cited circumstances in which voter registration drives have falsified voter registration applications or have destroyed voter registration applications of persons affiliated with a certain political party. Others conclude that paying persons per voter registration application creates the opportunity and perhaps the incentive for fraud.” 

Since 2006, the problem of ballot harvesting has grown as more states have shifted to widespread absentee balloting, and it’s a tactic that bad actors from both parties have exploited. In 2018, a Congressional race in North Carolina was even overturned after a consultant working on behalf of the Republican candidate harvested ballots. The State Election Board did not certify the vote and held a new election.  

In a May report, Rep. Rodney Davis of Illinois (the Ranking Members of the House Committee on Administration) issued a report on ballot harvesting in California and other states during the 2018 elections. The Rep. Davis and the Republicans Members of the committee found:

“This also gave rise to paid political operatives, known as “ballot brokers,” recruiting and pressuring voters to vote by mail. These ballot brokers identify specific locations, such as large apartment complexes or nursing homes, where voters have traditionally voted for their party and build relationships with the residents. Operatives encourage, and even assist, these unsuspecting voters in requesting a mail in ballot; weeks later when the ballot arrives in the mail the same ballot brokers are there to assist the voter in filling out and delivering their ballot.” 

The House Republicans’ report alleges that unlimited ballot harvesting led to the defeat of seven Republican candidates in the California 2018 midterm election. Importantly, the House Republican report described “absentee and mail-in voting” as “a reasonable means to increase voter participation,” and differentiated this voting method from the unfair practice of ballot harvesting. The report urged state laws to prevent ballot harvesting.

With many voters unfamiliar with absentee balloting and voting by mail, according to the recent Pew Research Center analysis, there’s a real risk that political operatives on both political sides will use ballot harvesting. As a result, Americans may be exploited or disenfranchised of their vote. 

The debate over voting-by-mail and preventing election fraud has been overly politicized. But there should be room for compromise on two key issues. Holding a safe election during the pandemic will require widespread voting-by-mail for voters who can’t physically go to the polls. Holding a fair election will require preventing ballot harvesting.

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