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Fact check: Post showing mail ballot applications from past tenants misleadingly oversimplifies voter fraud

A claim shared over 140,000 times on Facebook misleadingly alleges voters could use ballot applications mailed to previous tenants to receive and submit more than one ballot in the November 2020 election. This fact check will explore the safeguards in place in both Michigan and nationwide, that would make potential fraud very difficult.

An election worker places a mail-in ballot into an election box at a drive-through drop off location at the Registrar of Voters in San Diego, California, U.S. November 5, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake

Examples of the post are visible 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 )

MICHIGAN CLAIM

The post features a photograph of five envelopes from the Official Election Mail and Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, allegedly addressed to the same household. The caption reads: “I received 5 ballot applications today. 4 are for people that lived here 7 years ago. I could send all these in and receive 5 ballots to vote. This is why we shouldn’t have mail in voting.”

It appears the claim has been circulating since at least May 23 ( here ), days after the Secretary of State of Michigan Jocelyn Benson announced absentee ballot applications would be mailed to all registered voters in the state ( here ).

To allege that this tenant could “send all these in and receive 5 ballots to vote” is misleading. Experts consulted by Reuters explained that while a voter might receive erroneous absentee ballot applications, to send these applications back, receive somebody else’s ballot and then submit it, would be committing a series of crimes.

Christopher Thomas, who served as the state election director of Michigan for 36 years until 2017 and is now member of the MIT Elections Data Lab, called the claim “highly inflammatory and not accurate.” Thomas told Reuters via email that not only would being in possession of a ballot sent to another person be a felony, but “it is also a felony to falsely impersonate a voter.” (A relevant Michigan election law excerpt is visible bit.ly/33x5yKK )

Fraudsters would need to know a voters’ personal information, such as date of birth, and be able to forge their signature to match the voter registry. The Michigan Attorney General notes bit.ly/2PonU8F that election officials “conduct careful examinations of these applications to ensure they are authentic, complete and comport with the law,” and that no absentee ballot is provided unless a properly signed application is received.

Thomas explained that in the “unlikely event” that the impostor in this Facebook claim received a ballot after sending a fraudulent application (then filled it in and cast it), the person “would have committed a series of felonies”, including the forgery of a signature on the application ( bit.ly/2ELGp4C and bit.ly/3gvCbfr ) .

BROADER OBSTACLES TO VOTER FRAUD

Jennifer Morrell, an election consultant and former election official for Utah and Colorado, also confirmed 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. Hovland reiterated the importance of checking in with local election officials for the most accurate guidance.

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

VERDICT

Misleading. Multiple safeguards, including criminal penalties, make mail-in voter fraud very difficult. Facebook posts oversimplify the risk of forged ballot votes.

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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