Should We Be Worried About Voter Fraud? Experts Say Preparedness May Be The Bigger Issue.

vote by mail chicago envelope
Vote by mail has expanded in Illinois, but with it have come fears of voter fraud. Becky Vevea / WBEZ
vote by mail chicago envelope
Vote by mail has expanded in Illinois, but with it have come fears of voter fraud. Becky Vevea / WBEZ

Should We Be Worried About Voter Fraud? Experts Say Preparedness May Be The Bigger Issue.

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Illinois state Rep. Mark Batinick was one of several Republican lawmakers who voted against a vote-by-mail expansion bill in May. The bill expanded the state’s remote and early voting laws to provide Illinoisans more voting options in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. But many Republicans expressed concern it would make for a chaotic voting season, ripe with fraud.

Batinick told WBEZ he’s not opposed to remote voting — it’s actually his preference to mail in a ballot. He just doesn’t think local election authorities are prepared for such a widespread change on such a short notice.

And he says some of his suspicions have already been confirmed. Earlier this week, he told WBEZ he already got a bunch of calls from Will County residents about the ballot applications that were mailed out.

“In my county, they mailed a valid application request form out to every registered voter. We had several people contact our office saying things like, ‘My son’s lived in Colorado for 10 years and he got an absentee ballot request form,’ [and] ‘These people haven’t lived here for a long time.’”

“So there’s all these absentee ballot request forms floating around there that shouldn’t be floating around there,” Batnick said.

That wasn’t supposed to happen. The new law said applications were only supposed to go out to registered voters who also voted at least once in the last two years.

But not every election authority in Illinois keeps its voter rolls up to date. To give a comparison, the Chicago Board of Elections updates its list every year. That’s why you get a little paper voter card from their office.

What happened in Will County is not a great start for an expanded voting system that’s already been dogged by worries it will lead to widespread fraud. That’s only heightened in recent weeks due to President Donald Trump, who has been speaking regularly in dire terms about the potential for voter fraud.

And while there is a long history of concerns about voter fraud, experts say there’s little evidence that supports— or truly diminishes— those concerns.

Still, the timeline for people to return mail-in ballots may be a bigger concern, some experts say.

The Washington Post on Friday reported that the U.S. Postal Service sent letters to 46 states --- including Illinois --- at the end of July, warning that their election schedules are too narrow to allow votes to be returned on time.

In a letter to Illinois’ State Board of Elections dated July 30 and obtained by WBEZ Friday, the USPS advises officials that some of the state’s timelines for mail-in balloting are “incongruous with the Postal Service’s delivery standards.”

The letter goes on to say that while the USPS is not saying Illinois has to move its timelines, it suggests requests for ballots should be made no later than 15 days before the election. Voters trying to get their ballots postmarked by Election Day also should take note of the collection times of mailboxes they’re dropping them in.

In Illinois, election law, including early voting and vote by mail timelines, are set by state law not the state election board. This election cycle, you can wait until Oct. 29 to request a mailed ballot. For it to count, it must be filled out and postmarked by Nov. 3. All early voting sites have been authorized to collect filled out ballots, and some election authorities, including Chicago, are offering ways for people to track their mailed ballots like they would a package traveling through the postal system.

How the Civil War prompted absentee voting

John Fortier with the Bipartisan Policy Center wrote a book about the history of remote voting. He says the issue is a complicated balancing act — between voters’ rights and election security.

“I don’t think that there is room for the likelihood of widescale voter fraud, but I definitely think there are integrity issues related to the ballot,” he said.

Fortier said remote voting, starting with the absentee ballot, came shortly after the push for a secret ballot.

“Back in the late 19th century, we had a big movement for every state to move to having a secret ballot because you had machine politics of an earlier era,” Fortier said.

That meant you could see how people voted based on the color ballot they pulled. Sometimes you weren’t even allowed to vote in the booth alone — maybe your boss or the local precinct captain went in with you. Chicago has historically had plenty of stories like this — precinct captains rounding up inebriated people at neighborhood bars and leading them to the polls, or offering families turkeys in exchange for support.

Fortier says the push for vote by mail started around the Civil War, when soldiers were away. Concerned about fraud even then, authorities added numerous restrictions to absentee voting too.

“And that kind of explains why it used to be in many states that you had all these requirements, like one who only really needed it could get a mailed ballot, and secondly that you’d have requirements like a notary public or a witness would have to see that you have an uncast ballot and nobody was pressuring you or seeing how you voted,” Fortier said.

It wasn’t until the 1970s when states like California, Oregon and Washington started questioning if all these requirements were actually making it harder for people to vote that rules were changed to make absentee voting easier.

But with convenience comes new fears: This idea that people will maliciously tamper with ballots, that dogs and dead grandparents will vote, that bundles of ballots will just disappear or that someone will vote on your behalf without you even knowing.

The myths of voter fraud

Brian Gaines is an elections expert with the University of Illinois. He says there are two big myths when it comes to voter fraud — that it’s widespread and that it doesn’t happen at all. Part of the problem, he said, is poor tracking of voter fraud.

“Cases arise very rarely, but when they come to light, it’s not because every state has some kind of systematic audit to make sure there’s no fraud,” he said. “So I think the safe thing to say is nobody has a great fix on how much exactly it takes place.”

Most of the research on voter fraud is based on survey data, Gaines said, but added that it’s no more reliable than survey data of college students on cheating.

Until the country spends more resources updating voting technology and studying the impacts of remote voting, these myths will continue to dominate the conversation, he said.

But even bigger than voter fraud is the concern of preparedness. If states don’t have what they need to process the flood of mail-in ballots, vote counts could be delayed, stoking fears of fraud, experts warn.

Fortier says that’s why it’s important not to procrastinate — just because the election is Nov. 3, it doesn’t mean you need to wait until Nov. 3 to postmark your ballot.

“We’re much better off if we have most of the voting by Election Day, and not subject to a close election where the lawyers of both sides will descend on this. The process becomes very messy,” he said.

Local election authorities will start mailing out ballots to voters in Illinois who request them as soon as Sept. 24. Additionally, drop boxes will be set up for people to leave their ballots in secure locations, and to avoid dropping them in the mail.

Claudia Morell covers city politics for WBEZ. You can find her @ClaudiaMorell.