REGIONAL— With fears about the health risks that upcoming elections could pose to both voters and poll workers, there’s been a push by election officials across the country to move to …
REGIONAL— With fears about the health risks that upcoming elections could pose to both voters and poll workers, there’s been a push by election officials across the country to move to greater use of mail-in voting. And election officials aren’t the only ones. A new Minnesota Poll, released Monday, showed that 59 percent of Minnesotans favor a proposal by Secretary of State Scott Simon to move to mail-in balloting statewide.
Election officials note that mail-in balloting is popular with voters, who like the convenience, and it typically costs less to administer because it doesn’t require maintaining polling places.
But support for the measure is breaking down sharply on partisan lines, with 97 percent of identified DFLers in Minnesota expressing support, while nearly three-quarters of Republicans say they oppose the idea. That opposition is likely being fueled by President Donald Trump, who has claimed, without evidence, that mail-in balloting is rife with voter fraud. Those claims, which Trump put out on Twitter, prompted a rare fact-check response from Twitter, which flagged the president’s comments and linked to news sources that provided more factual information on the topic.
While mail-in balloting may sound like a new idea, it’s actually been used for years in other parts of the country, and also in parts of Minnesota. St. Louis County, for example, has had mail-in balloting for decades for voters living in unorganized portions of the county.
St. Louis County Elections Supervisor Phil Chapman said the use of mail-in ballots is both cost-effective for the county and convenient for the approximately 2,200 voters who typically take advantage of the service, since they don’t have to travel to a distant polling place to vote.
In Minnesota, any township outside the metro region and any city with fewer than 400 registered voters can opt to go to mail-in voting for residents. Under mail-in voting, every registered voter in a jurisdiction that adopts the system automatically receives a ballot in the mail, complete with a return envelope. That’s different from absentee balloting, which requires a voter to fill out and send in an application form before receiving a ballot.
As with absentee voting, mail-in voters are required to sign a verification that they are who they say they are, and a separate witness (who must be a current or prior registered voter in Minnesota or a notary) must sign as well to verify the identity of the person casting the ballot.
Falsely attesting to the identity of a voter constitutes a felony. Prosecutions are rare, however, since, according to Chapman, there’s been little to no evidence of any voter fraud during his time as elections supervisor for the county. “Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any issue we’ve had,” he said.
That’s consistent with the experiences of elections officials throughout the country. Despite the casting of approximately 250 million ballots by mail nationwide in recent years, fewer than 1,000 instances of verified voter fraud were documented over the past 20 years by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. That’s one instance of alleged fraud for every 250,000 votes cast. According to a May 27 story by NBC News, elections officials from both political parties generally agree that mail-in voting has been successful, with minimal evidence of fraud.
In St. Louis County, Chapman notes that many layers of protection help to discourage fraud. He notes that the state’s voting lists are all electronic and are updated frequently to ensure that deceased voters are cleared from the rolls and no longer receive ballots. And every mail-in ballot that comes back to county offices is reviewed by an independent board to ensure that all the signatures are in place and are consistent throughout. At the same time, said Chapman, the county tracks all voters to ensure that a voter who submits a mail-in ballot doesn’t try to vote a second time on Election Day. “From my experience, I don’t believe there’s any more fraud taking place with mail balloting than at the polling place,” said Chapman.
So why all the pushback against mail-in balloting? President Trump may have made his real fear clear back in March when he told Fox and Friends that if the country allowed more mail-in balloting, it would hurt Republicans because it would increase the level of voting.
While Chapman said he hasn’t yet crunched the numbers, he suspects that voter participation is generally higher under mail-in voting. “I’m pretty confident of that,” he said.
While mail-in voting in Minnesota is currently limited to rural areas and small towns, voters and election officials in such places will likely face the lowest risk from the COVID-19 virus in upcoming elections, since the numbers of voters are much lower. Rural and small town voters rarely have to stand in long lines to vote, whereas voters in many urban areas often must wait for hours to cast a ballot. Urban voters tend to tilt heavily toward support of Democratic candidates, which is another reason that GOP political leaders may be wary of any change that makes voting more convenient or safe for big city residents.