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Fact check: Post showing five mail-in ballot applications is not evidence of voter fraud

Posts shared on Facebook suggest that an image of five mail-in ballot applications received by a husband and wife is evidence of voter fraud. This claim is misleading, alleging that a voter could mail in more than one ballot application or ballot by using someone else’s name. This fact check will explore the current mail-in ballot protocol in Illinois, as well as national safeguards that make potential fraud very difficult.

Reuters Fact Check. REUTERS/Axel Schmidt

Examples of these posts can be found here , here , and here . 

The claim feeds into a narrative echoed by President Trump previously that mail-in voting, which is expected to nearly double due to the COVID-19 pandemic, will increase voter fraud. After weeks of repeatedly raising concerns about mail-in voting, Trump urged voters in Florida to vote by any means, including voting by mail, on August 4. He claimed the Republican state’s election system is “Safe and Secure, Tried and True.” ( here

ILLINOIS CLAIM

The image shows mail-in ballot applications sent to five different individuals at the same address in St. Elmo, a city in Fayette County, Illinois. A post on Facebook with nearly 2,000 shares (  here  ) falsely claims that the image shows mail-in ballots themselves rather than applications for them.  

Jessica Barker, the Fayette County Clerk and Recorder whose name appears in the envelopes’ return address ( here ), told Reuters that Illinois residents voting by mail in the general election will not begin receiving their ballots until September 24.  

Intended “to protect the safety, health, and rights of the people of Illinois” during the COVID-19 pandemic, Public Act 101-0642, enacted on June 16, 2020, mandated that every election authority in Illinois mail or email an official vote-by-mail ballot application for the 2020 general election to any resident who changed his or her registration address between the 2020 general primary election and July 31, or had voted in the 2020 general primary election, the 2019 consolidated election, or the 2018 general election ( here ). The act required that every election authority do so no later than August 1.  

It is difficult and illegal for someone to fill out a mail-in ballot application under another person’s name in the hopes of obtaining more than one mail-in ballot. In a statement provided to Reuters, Barker explained that an “application requires the voter’s signature to be used in the verification process before a ballot can be mailed to the voter.”

As stated here by the Brookings Institute, a nonprofit public policy organization based in Washington, D.C., “it is a criminal offense to forge a name on a mail ballot, impersonate someone else, steal ballots, or deceive someone about their mail ballot.” 

Barker also pointed out that it is up to voters “to keep their information current with their local election official.” It is likely that that two different families whose surnames are visible on these envelopes occupied the St. Elmo address seen on the envelopes in the photo between the 2018 general election and July 31, 2020. Members of one of these families may not yet have changed their registration address.

Anyone registered to vote in Illinois may vote by mail. Applications for mail-in ballots can be submitted 90 days through five days prior to the election. To receive a full ballot, you must submit your vote-by-mail application at least 30 days before the election (November 3). Applications submitted fewer than 30 days prior will receive a federal ballot only.

Mail-in ballots themselves must be postmarked no later than Election Day (November 3) and received within 14 days of the election. For further information about voting in Illinois, visit the Illinois State Board of Elections website www.elections.il.gov/ .  

A recent Reuters Fact Check (here) tackled a similar claim in Michigan, and expanded on the broader obstacles to voter fraud which are also explained here below.  

BROADER OBSTACLES TO VOTER FRAUD

Jennifer Morrell, an election consultant and former election official for Utah and Colorado, explained to Reuters via email that in the U.S. a person fraudulently signing a ballot application and a ballot return envelope would be violating the law, given they are “signing an oath stating they are the person listed.”

Even if the forger is willing to take this criminal risk, they would need to know the personal details for all the voters they’re impersonating, including matching a signature exactly as it appears in the voter registry. They would have to do this over and over again with thousands of ballots to affect an election outcome.

Benjamin Hovland, Commissioner for the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, told Reuters that mail ballot fraud is very rare, precisely because it’s a felony. He explained that it is more common in local races like schoolboard appointments and Sheriff nominations.

Hovland noted that, precisely because election officials are aware of these potential issues, there are various safeguards in place. He explained that people often get caught if they do try to forge somebody else’s vote.

Specific system safeguards in place to prevent this type of fraud include the Electronic Registration Information Center (ericstates.org/) and following NVRA list maintenance procedures ( here , here ). 

The National Conference of State Legislatures provides information on home voting, including a section on security features in place here .  

Measures in place to counter voter fraud include hand-marked paper ballots, signature verification, examining and processing ballots ahead of election day to allow for more verification time, up-to-date address information, security cameras during storage, and many more (see Security Features of Voting by Absentee/Mailed Ballots section bit.ly/33vUvBA ).

“Overall, it’s a system that has been tested election after election,” Hovland said.

VOTER FRAUD BY NUMBERS

As with other forms of voting, documented cases of mail-ballot fraud are extremely rare. A Reuters explainer going into more detail into why mail-in voter fraud is rare is visible here . 

For example, the conservative Heritage Foundation, which has warned of the risks of mail voting, found 14 cases of attempted mail fraud out of roughly 15.5 million ballots cast in Oregon since that state started conducting elections by mail in 1998. According to an op-ed for The Hill ( here ) based on an analysis of Heritage Foundation data over the course of 20 years, there has been a national average of seven to eight cases per year of fraud involving mail-in ballots. 

Like any other voting method, mail balloting has its drawbacks. States rejected 1% of returned ballots in 2016 for arriving too late, missing signatures or other problems, according to EAC figures — though that figure was as high as 5% in some states. It can be more difficult to fix errors on mail ballots than on those cast in person, experts say.

Mail ballots can pose additional barriers to those who don’t speak English or have disabilities, and delivery can be problematic on Native American reservations, where residents sometimes don’t have street addresses ( here ). 

Mail-in voting can also lead to voter suppression in other ways. In Florida in 2016, for example, research by the ACLU found ballots by Black and Latino voters were two and a half times more likely to be rejected than those of white voters ( here ). The New Yorker pointed out that “in states with intentionally restrictive “exact match” voter-registration requirements, signature rejections are an easy way to cull legitimate voters” ( here ). 

Hovland told Reuters that the timing of this misinformation surge surrounding mail-in voting is exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which is changing processes and procedures like election deadlines and polling station policies. The changes lead to an increase in misinformation and disinformation taking advantage of the knowledge vacuum. He reiterated the importance of checking in with local election officials for the most accurate guidance.

A similar recent Fact Check on a claim out of Las Vegas, Nevada is visible here .  

VERDICT

Misleading. The image shows five mail-in ballot applications addressed to different people at the same address. These were mailed out state-wide in Illinois due to the pandemic. However, multiple safeguards, including criminal penalties, make mail-in voter fraud very difficult.

This article was produced by the Reuters Fact Check team. Read more about our work to fact-check social media posts  here  .  

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