When President Trump objects to mass mail voting, the guardians of conventional wisdom rush to assure the public that absentee ballots are secure. Phrases like “no evidence” of “widespread fraud” are routine talking points. But then check out the panic attack this week.
Speaking in North Carolina on Wednesday, Trump told his supporters to mail an absentee ballot, by all means. But he added that they should “check their vote,” by trying to cast a ballot at the polls on Election Day, to see if they’re marked down already. “If their system is as good as they say it is, then obviously they won’t be able to vote,” he said. “If it isn’t tabulated, they’ll be able to vote.”
The press treated this as a bombshell, saying Trump had urged his fans to commit fraud by illegally voting twice. For the record, we’d discourage anyone from taking Trump’s advice. North Carolina’s Board of Elections put out a statement Thursday saying voters can find out from home whether their mail ballots have arrived. Checking at the polls “is not necessary, and it would lead to longer lines and the possibility of spreading COVID-19.”
If mail voting is as secure as everyone seems to want desperately to believe, though, isn’t Trump correct to say that two-timers would be turned away? The system should be able to handle such a test as routine. Instead the President’s suggestion was treated like an attack on democracy. “It’s like advising someone to try to rob a bank to see if the security is as good as the bank says it is,” Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simontold CNN.
But hang on: What if the U.S. Postal Service falls down on the job? This spring in Ohio, 300 ballots showed up 13 days after an election, which the USPS blamed on an “unintentional missort.” In 2016 roughly 75,000 absentee votes nationwide were rejected because they didn’t make the deadline (compared with about 160,000 disqualified for suspect or missing signatures). The USPS delivers most first-class mail in two to five days. What if a North Carolinian put a ballot into that blue collection box a week before Election Day, but the tracking system doesn’t say it arrived?
“If you mail in a ballot a week before the election and it’s not showing up, or you’re not able to determine whether or not it’s been accepted, you can vote in person,” Patrick Gannon, a spokesman for the North Carolina Board of Elections, said on a press call Thursday. “If your ballot subsequently arrives at the county board of elections, that vote will not be counted.”
Officials discourage this, and they might investigate it, but North Carolina’s fraud statute requires bad intent. At least one state explicitly allows in-person voting to override an absentee ballot, in case a swing voter doesn’t stay swung. “The Election Law recognizes that plans change,” New York’s voting website says. “The Board of Elections is required to check the poll book before canvassing any absentee ballot.”
The responses to Attorney General Bill Barr’s remarks this week were even more obtuse. Barr said that mass mail voting is “playing with fire,” suggesting that a foreign adversary could counterfeit and submit fake ballots. One media fact-checker said there was no way that a hostile power could pull this off without detection, as if the sudden appearance of thousands of tainted ballots would, in itself, be no big deal.
Another fact-checker used the tried-and-true line: There’s no proof that a foreign adversary is trying to counterfeit ballots. But wait, these folks also claim Trump isn’t taking Russian election interference seriously.
The overreaction to Trump’s voting remarks betrays that there really could be an issue with ballot integrity this fall. Yet the media-Democratic chorus only gets alarmed at the prospect that Trump might exploit it. The reality is that both parties are gearing up to challenge mail-in voting with lawsuits that could tie up the result of a close election for weeks. They’d do better by the country if they paid more attention to the risks and reduced them.