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Voting by mail doesn’t lead to fraud ... if done right

Primary ballots are organized at the Salt Lake County Government Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, July 2, 2020.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

As the rhetoric heats up over election fraud and voting by mail, it’s important to remember this number: 3,143.

That’s how many counties, and county equivalents (boroughs, independent cities, etc.) exist in this country. You might be concerned that Washington is usurping local control in myriad ways, but national elections remain about as local as they can be.

Each of those counties conducts elections under its own rules — many of these are set by their states, but counties often retain control over certain elements of how votes are collected and tallied.

That’s a beautiful thing.

The more fractured you make something, the harder it is to fix, in every sense of the word. A conspiracy to rig the 2020 presidential election would have to involve precinct judges, vote counters and others, including postelection auditors, in several key counties.

Which is not to say it has never happened. Lyndon Johnson allegedly got dead people to miraculously rise up and vote for him in alphabetical order in one rural Texas precinct when he ran for the Senate in 1948. Author Robert A. Caro meticulously describes this in “Means of Ascent,” the second of four biographical books he wrote on the former president. Evidence mysteriously disappeared, making postelection investigations difficult.

But that was 72 years ago. None of those ballots was cast from a home or mailed in, and no one in an election office compared signatures on ballots to those on voter registration cards, as they do today. No one had a cellphone to secretly document what was happening in exchange for a viral moment of fame, which would be hard to resist today.

And yes, The New York Times published a report in 2012 suggesting that mail-in voting would lead to fraud. As I wrote at the time, the story quoted a former county attorney in Florida, who was concerned about “granny farming.” This is where fraudsters allegedly go into nursing homes and “help” elderly people vote by more or less filling out their ballots for them and mailing them in.

But the story never attempted to document this happening. In any event, it would be a slow and laborious way to alter an election, and easily detectable by nursing home officials who, especially in today’s pandemic, ought to monitor visitors carefully.

Back then, the Times noted, mail-in voting was seen as a way to help Republicans win. “In the 2008 general election in Florida,” the story said, “47% of absentee voters were Republicans and 36% were Democrats.”

Today, President Donald Trump seems worried it will help Democrats.

The vote-by-mail bogeyman, it seems, can be a convenient tool for whichever party feels the need to use it.

Credible evidence suggests all this is overblown. A study earlier this year by Daniel Thompson, Jesse Yoder, Jennifer Wu and Andrew Hall of Stanford University concluded, “In normal times, based on our data at least, vote-by-mail modestly increases participation while not advantaging either party.”

Part of that data came from Utah, one of five states that conduct all mail-in voting. Utah has phased this in since 2012. As a Deseret News story this week suggested, the Beehive State knows how to do it right. It has safeguards in place. No one has alleged widespread fraud here.

Add to this other studies and reports that conclude mail-in voting does not increase fraud, and your mind should be more at ease.

However, all this should be put in context.

Just because Utah has the process down doesn’t mean other states, trying to adjust to a pandemic, have it down, as well.

In a lot of states, the only way to vote by mail is to request an absentee ballot. Some states failed spectacularly in handling pandemic pressures on that system during primaries this year. One county in Pennsylvania failed to send absentee ballots until the day before the election, making it nearly impossible for people to get their vote postmarked before the deadline. In many other states, people said they requested, but never received, ballots in time to vote.

Fortunately, in a system fractured into 3,143 parts, people can take this up with their local officials. Fortunately, this is an age of ubiquitous cameras and social media.

Never underestimate the desire politicians may have to win. That’s true regardless of how people cast their ballots.

Preparation and redundant safeguards are vital. But voting by mail, done right, is as safe as any other method.