In recent months, the debate over mail-in balloting has evolved into a battle between Team Trump’s worries about fraud and the claims of Democrats and their news media allies that such concerns are an unwarranted effort at disenfranchising voters.
It wasn’t always this way.
Fifteen years ago this very month, a bipartisan panel of American statesmen and stateswomen — from ex-President Jimmy Carter and ex-Senate leader Tom Daschle on the left to former Secretary of State James Baker and former House Minority Leader Bob Michel on the right — studied the future of U.S. elections and issued strong words of caution that the expansion of mail-in voting that began a few years earlier in Oregon posed real fraud risks, especially in close elections.
“To improve ballot integrity, we propose that federal, state, and local prosecutors issue public reports on their investigations of election fraud, and we recommend federal legislation to deter or prosecute systemic efforts to deceive or intimidate voters,” the Commission on Federal Election Reform urged in 2005. “States should not discourage legal voter registration or get-out-the-vote activities, but they need to do more to prevent voter registration and absentee ballot fraud.”
Moreover, the commission strongly urged that voter identification was a key to preventing cheating, something some liberals today claim provides xenophobic “new barriers to the ballot box.”
“The electoral system cannot inspire public confidence if no safeguards exist to deter or detect fraud or to confirm the identity of voters. Photo IDs currently are needed to board a plane, enter federal buildings, and cash a check. Voting is equally important,” the commission said.
The commission, created by American University and supported by several liberal nonprofits, looked at ways of increasing voter participation and reducing fraud and saved some of its strongest words of concern for mail-in balloting, which was just beginning en masse in Oregon.
“While vote by mail appears to increase turnout for local elections, there is no evidence that it significantly expands participation in federal elections,” the commission wrote. “Moreover, it raises concerns about privacy, as citizens voting at home may come under pressure to vote for certain candidates, and it increases the risk of fraud.”
“Oregon appears to have avoided significant fraud in its vote-by-mail elections by introducing safeguards to protect ballot integrity, including signature verification. Vote by mail is, however, likely to increase the risks of fraud and of contested elections in other states, where the population is more mobile, where there is some history of troubled elections, or where the safeguards for ballot integrity are weaker,” the commission said.
The commission acknowledged its members were split on the extent of voter fraud: Some believed it to be widespread, while others perceived it as minor. But the members’ final report detailed concrete examples of voter fraud cases.
“The November 2004 elections also showed that irregularities and fraud still occur,” it wrote. “In Washington, for example, where Christine Gregoire was elected governor by a 129-vote margin, the elections superintendent of King County testified during a subsequent unsuccessful election challenge that ineligible ex-felons had voted and that votes had been cast in the names of the dead. However, the judge accepted Gregoire’s victory because with the exception of four ex-felons who admitted to voting for Dino Rossi, the authorities could not determine for whom the other illegal votes were cast.
“In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, investigators said they found clear evidence of fraud, including more than 200 cases of felons voting illegally and more than 100 people who voted twice, used fake names or false addresses, or voted in the name of a dead person,” it added. “Moreover, there were 4,500 more votes cast than voters listed.”
Today, in the era of Trump and in the midst of a pandemic, the bipartisan agreement from that commission is long since gone. Democrats are pressing hard to deploy widespread mail-in voting and reject picture ID and other validation efforts.
Trump and his Republican allies, like Attorney General William Barr, are more aligned with the sentiments of the 2005 commission’s warnings.
Mail-in ballots are “open to fraud and coercion,” the attorney general told CNN this week, citing a recent prosecution in which a single Texas suspect submitted 1,700 fraudulent ballots.