New study finds voting by mail does not increase risk of voting fraud
The COVID-19 pandemic led to an expansion of mail voting throughout the United States in 2020. A first-of-its-kind study has assessed the likelihood of the occurrence of various potential attacks on this voting method.
More than 159 million Americans cast ballots in the November 2020 presidential election — the largest total turnout in U.S. history. Expanded mail-in voting is credited as one of the main factors responsible for this record participation.
While previous research has focused on vulnerabilities of electronic systems used for in-person voting, a new study led by Towson University professor and elections security expert Natalie Scala, published Monday in the scientific journal Risk Analysis, dives deep into issues with voting by mail.
In the run-up to the November 2020 election, then-President Donald Trump claimed increased use of mail ballots would lead to widespread fraud and some ballots would be returned too late to be counted because the Postal Service could not handle the influx of election mail.
But Scala’s research undercuts those claims.
“What we found in our study is that the dramatic scale-up of mail voting in the 2020 election did not increase risk,” she said. “We argue that expanding mail voting is safe and should be used moving forward because it increases voter access and reduces the likelihood of adversarial interference.”
The basis for Scala’s study is an “attack tree” produced in 2009 by the University of South Alabama for the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, which developed attack scenarios for six different voting systems, including mail voting, and identified potential vulnerabilities from insider threats (such as from election officials, poll workers and county IT staff), external threats (from foreign states, candidates or their supporters) and unintentional voter error.
Scala determined an update was needed because the 2009 report involved voting machines and processes that are now dated and election threats have evolved. She also quantified the risk of each threat to mail-based voting, and offered mitigation strategies, because the 2009 assessment only provided a list of risks.
With help from University of Towson colleagues and U.S. Military Academy researchers, Scala identified 30 new threats to voting by mail but identified none of them as “high concern.”
“Insider threats included manipulating a return envelope, deliberately misspelling a name on a ballot, and denying or altering a vote. External threats included stealing or destroying ballots, acquiring access to a drop box, and stealing blank ballots from mailboxes. An expired voter ID was a new threat assigned to voter error,” the report states.
The researchers found the most likely insider threat was for returned ballots to be misplaced or destroyed in counties’ mailrooms after delivery by the Postal Service. To avoid this, they advised appropriate mailroom staffing to handle the ballots.
As for external threats, the most likely identified was for voters to experience “organized coercion” at “debate and vote” events held by local political parties.
“At a debate and vote event, members may invite a voter to bring their blank mail ballot. The party members then influence the voter to fill out their ballot in a favorable way to the majority. This is dangerous because it can change a voter’s choice. Voters are more likely to experience suppression tactics in a group setting,” the study states.
Scala cautions mail ballots should not be filled out in group settings.
The most likely unintentional voter error, Scala and her team found, is failing to sign ballots correctly, so the signature on file does not pass muster in a signature-verification process used by election administrators, which can cause ballots not to be counted.
To address this, they recommend states implement a “’notice and cure’ system,” allowing voters to fix problems with their signatures, and standardized training for election judges on how to verify signatures.
Trump’s continued claims he lost the 2020 presidential election due to voting fraud led several Republican-controlled states to pass laws with stricter rules for voting by mail--even Florida, where Trump defeated Joe Biden by more than 300,000 votes.
Though Scala's elections research lab at Towson University is nonpartisan, she believes lawmakers should be moving in the opposite direction and making mail voting easier.
"Expanded mail voting can increase voter access and voter convenience, and I would hope all elected officials want to successfully and easily bring citizens’ voices into the political process," she said in an email.
She highlighted Florida in an Oct. 9 op-ed in the Orlando Sentinel discussing her research. She wrote in April the Sunshine State passed one of the most restrictive voting-rules bills in the nation, inhibiting mail-in voting through reduction in drop boxes and strict ID requirements.
Florida's Republican governor Ron DeSantis signed the bill despite the resounding success of mail voting in the 2020 election.
"Florida provides a strong case study in mail-in voting for skeptical Republicans," Scala stated in her op-ed. " Over 2.2 million Floridians voted by mail in the 2020 election, more than four times the number of 2016, and the state went decisively to then President Trump. Mail-in voting was expanded throughout Florida, allowing seniors to cast their ballots early and easily, without worry for their preferred candidate," she wrote.
Texas has also made changes to voting by mail that are causing headaches for election officials.
With Republican state lawmakers’ passage of Senate Bill 1 along party lines last year, Texas voters must now include their driver’s license number, state ID number or the last four digits of their Social Security number on vote-by-mail applications, and the numbers must match those on file with the state.
Ahead of the state’s March primary elections, Democratic election officials of some of the state’s largest counties, including Travis (seat Austin), Harris (Houston) and Bexar (San Antonio) are complaining the new requirements have forced them to reject hundreds of these applications.
SB 1 also created criminal penalties for county election chiefs who send vote-by-mail applications to voters who did not request them.
Despite concerns about mail-in ballot fraud, use of this voting method is growing across the U.S. Eight states — California, Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Vermont and Washington — now allow all elections to be conducted by mail, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
And, Scala notes in her report, voting by mail is not vulnerable to a level of fraud that could change election results.
“Although there are some risks to mail-based voting, its decentralized nature suggests that the threat at a macroscopic scale is low; mitigations at the local level can prevent threats from existing and can lessen or minimize impact if they in fact do occur,” she wrote.