As states likely expand the use of mail ballots in response to the COVID-19 breakout, they need to also protect the integrity of mail ballots to prevent both the appearance of impropriety and actual fraud this November. Lawyers Democracy Fund published a study last year by current Republican federal Election Assistance Commission(EAC) Commissioner Don Palmer (before he joined the EAC), describing some of the steps needed to protect the integrity of mail ballots and improve voter confidence in mail voting:
Recommendation 1: To confirm the identity of the applicant as the existing registrant, absentee ballot applicants should be required to provide an address, date of birth, signature, and identifying number, including the driver’s license or state identification card number, the last four digits of the social security number, or other identification number provided at registration. Many states are implementing an electronic verification process, similar to online voter registration, which would instantaneously confirm the identifying number of the voter with either the state voter registration database or the driver’s license system in the process of the voter requesting an absentee or mail ballot.
Recommendation 2: To reduce the number of individuals touching or handling voted or sealed absentee ballots, state legislatures should consider a law or regulation to authorize only family members, household members, or other caregivers to collect the absentee or mail ballot of a voter and return to the election office for counting and tabulation.
Recommendation 3: In addition to comparing the signature of the voter with the signature of the registrant and applicant for absentee or mail ballot, local election officials should find new ways to confirm the identity of the voters, such as the identifying number provided by the voter as the registrant, prior to counting the ballot. . . .
Recommendation 7: To improve voter confidence in voting by mail, state and local election officials should provide online access to mail ballot processing information that will allow a voter to closely track the status of their ballot in all stages of the process – ballot request, ballot transmittal, ballot return, and ballot counting process. Voters want to know if their ballot was received and counted, and if not, how the voter may attempt to remedy the problem. To receive what information is available from the U.S. Postal Service is a bit more complicated, but to provide a best estimate of where the mail ballot may be in the postal system, there are ballot tracking tools that localities can use to partner with the USPS to provide additional detailed information to voters, similar to tracking a package in the mail system.
There are also serious concerns about the disenfranchisement of voters through coercion and manipulation outside the secrecy of the voting booth. Making changes shortly before a big election presents unique challenges that must be considered and will place a huge burden on election officials:
But some election experts warn that an abrupt adoption of vote-by-mail systems in states that aren’t sufficiently prepared would introduce new risks and avenues for disruption. The results, they say, could bring widespread confusion or even disenfranchise voters.
“Rolling something as complex as this out at large-scale introduces thousands of small problems — some of which are security problems, some of which are reliability problems, some of which are resource-management problems — that only become apparent when you do it,” said Matt Blaze, an election security expert and computer science professor at Georgetown Law School. “Which is why changing anything right before a high-stakes election carries risks.”
Before states move to expand mail voting in response to COVID-19, they need to consider and address the concerns of fraud, coercion, security, and manipulation. This is vital for both the actual integrity and public perception of mail voting.