The political impact of the COVID-19 pandemic appears to be as unpredictable as the virus itself, and as potentially monumental as the financial losses it has caused. Although the November election is still almost five months away, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is leading the charge for states to have mandatory mail-in ballots, purportedly in the interests of public safety.
Some people — including the ever-vocal President Donald Trump — view mandatory mail-in voting as a prescription for widespread voter fraud. Unsurprisingly, those arguing in favor of these voting changes denounce warnings against mail-in ballots as false and a thinly veiled ruse for opponents' "real" motives: to disenfranchise voters.
In fact, this has opened a new front in the ongoing social media battles between Trump and the left. Twitter finally caved to pressure to "fact-check" Trump's tweets, starting with his recent tweet about voter fraud. (No word yet on whether they'll be fact-checking former President Barack Obama's tweets, or presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden's, or those of the major media.)
Advocates for new ways of voting downplay instances of voter fraud, claiming that it's so infrequent it's inconsequential. But there's plenty of evidence that voter fraud is quite common, and that it matters.
Even a small number of illegally cast or uncounted votes can have profound consequences. Consider that the 2000 presidential election was decided by the electors in the state of Florida; George W. Bush won Florida (and, therefore, the presidency) by only 537 votes out of 6 million cast in that state. That margin may be unusual for a national election, but state and local elections are often decided by a small number of votes; by way of example, between 2013 and 2017, 86 elections in the state of Ohio were decided by one vote .
Furthermore, the numbers aren't always small; a 1982 Justice Department investigation revealed that more than 100,000 fraudulent votes had been cast in a Chicago election.
Nor is it true that instances of voter fraud are few and far between. The Heritage Foundation maintains a database of nearly 1,300 confirmed cases of voter fraud, including those resulting in convictions and prison time, and overturned elections. And of course, many cases simply go undetected or unreported.
Voter fraud can take many forms including impersonation or identity theft, false registration, duplicate voting and voting by people who are ineligible (like noncitizens). Voter fraud is also possible with inadequate chain-of-custody procedures, and ballot harvesting has raised that concern. Ballot harvesting — a process that allows people to collect other voters' ballots and turn them in — captured the nation's attention in the 2018 elections when seven precincts in Southern California flipped from Republican to Democrat — after Election Day, as harvested ballots were turned in and counted.
Ballot harvesting is legal in 27 states and Washington, D.C., but California's law is the most lenient. There are few chain-of-custody protections in the ballot harvesting statute California passed in 2016, and no restrictions on who can collect the ballots or how many they can collect. There is also no data being collected on the number of votes cast this way.
Any vote procedures without adequate measures to ensure that all votes are received, authenticated and counted translate to lost votes as well as potentially fraudulent ones. The history of absentee voting by mail — a staple for our military and other Americans living abroad — is rife with examples. The Public Interest Legal Foundation, or PILF, published research last month showing that in just the past 10 years, 28 million absentee ballots went missing or were misdirected. PILF President and General Counsel J. Christian Adams warns that expanding mail-in voting in response to the coronavirus is a disaster waiting to happen. "Absentee ballot fraud is the most common; the most expensive to investigate; and can never be reversed after an election," he says. "The status quo was already bad for mail balloting. The proposed emergency fix is worse."
Jessica Huseman at ProPublica agrees: "(S)low-moving state and county governments, inconsistent state rules and limited resources ... could make it difficult to ramp up nationally to reach more than 200 million registered voters in the November general election. ... There is bipartisan consensus that mail-in ballots are the form of voting most vulnerable to fraud."
Even in-person voting is fair game for fraud when rules are changed to allow same-day registration and voting, or when voting is allowed without photo ID. But photo ID is probably the vote-integrity measure that garners the most vocal opposition. Democrats routinely oppose photo ID laws, claiming that voting is too important a right to be subject to such restrictions, and that photo ID laws impermissibly discriminate against minorities, the elderly and the homeless.
In the era of COVID-19, the hypocrisy of that argument is made clear. I looked for states that have imposed photo ID requirements for COVID-19 testing and found plenty including California, Florida, Kentucky, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Texas, Washington, Washington, D.C., and Wisconsin. Not only are such tests often a matter of life and death but the populations that have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus also include minorities, the elderly and the homeless.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, only five states — Washington, Oregon, Utah, Colorado and Hawaii — had mandatory mail-in voting ("mandatory" meaning that all voters automatically received mail-in ballots for every election). But other states are now contemplating changes in light of the virus.
It is impossible to know in advance how widespread mail-in voting will be exploited without adequate vote-integrity measures, but history tells us that where such opportunities exist, they will be exploited. Contrary to the media narrative, it is the lack of proper vote-integrity measures that actually disenfranchises voters, by diluting or canceling their votes.
COVID-19 has stolen enough from us. We must not let our voices and our votes be stolen, too.