In recent weeks, President Donald Trump has resurrected a long-standing falsehood that U.S. elections are rife with voter fraud—this time as the basis to launch a full-scale attack on voting by mail. Given the deadly effects of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it is vital that states give all voters an option to vote by mail so that they can safely exercise their constitutional right in upcoming primary elections and the November general election. In the United States, the virus has already infected more than 650,000 people and resulted in more than 30,000 deaths, prompting states across the nation to enact stay-at-home orders in order to limit its spread. In light of the recent primary election in Wisconsin, where many voters faced no viable option other than to vote in person and risk their health, Trump’s vote-by-mail falsehoods are downright dangerous—and firmly rooted in Republicans’ long-standing voter suppression efforts.
States already securely conduct voting by mail
On April 7, 2020, Trump falsely alleged: “Mail ballots are a very dangerous thing for this country, because they’re cheaters … They’re fraudulent in many cases.” He called voting by mail “horrible” and “corrupt” and demanded that states instead focus on requiring voter identification. Trump also admitted his concern that expanding vote-by-mail options would lead to electoral losses for Republicans. These statements are particularly ironic given that Trump himself requested a mail-in ballot for Florida’s Republican primary in March 2020 and has voted absentee by mail in previous elections. Similarly, Vice President Mike Pence and several Cabinet secretaries, as well as Trump’s family members, have voted by mail.
Indeed, voting by mail is not a recent phenomenon. A long track record exists to prove that it is a safe, effective, and popular option for Americans to fulfill their constitutional right to vote, especially during a pandemic that makes in-person voting risky to people’s health.
Since 2000, approximately 250 million votes have been cast via mailed ballots in all 50 states combined. In 2018, more than 31 million Americans, nearly 26 percent of election participants, voted by mail. In the 2016 presidential election, 23 percent of Americans voted by mail. Moreover, military personnel serving overseas rely on vote-by-mail options, with hundreds of thousands casting their ballots by mail in recent elections.
Every state allows at least some voters to vote by mail. Five states—Oregon, Washington, Utah, Colorado, and Hawaii—vote almost completely by mail, meaning that voters are automatically mailed a ballot. An additional 29 states and Washington, D.C., allow people to request a mailed ballot to vote absentee without an excuse.
Perhaps because it is so widespread, voting by mail is extremely popular across the political spectrum. An April 2020 Reuters/Ipsos poll found that 72 percent of Americans, including 65 percent of Republicans, support voting by mail to help protect their safety during the pandemic. Other recent national polls found overall support to be at 73 percent and 65 percent, with a majority of Republicans supporting voting by mail in both polls. And in the election battleground state of Ohio, 79 percent of voters support voting by mail, including 67 percent of Republicans.
States use several effective tools to address security concerns and ensure the accuracy of elections. These tools include carefully tracking mail ballots with bar codes and ensuring that any ballot signature matches the voter’s signature on file with the state. States and localities also manage risks by using qualified vendors to print ballots and envelopes; establish procedures to prevent voters from voting in-person when they already received or sent in their mail-in ballots; and set up ballot drop boxes to eliminate the need for voters to give their ballots to a third party.
Moreover, there are harsh federal criminal and civil penalties for using a mail ballot to commit voter fraud, in addition to penalties imposed by states.
There is no evidence of wide-scale voter fraud
Trump’s prediction that expanding vote-by-mail options would lead to fraudulent election results is directly refuted by the facts.
Over the past few decades, voting by mail has been implemented to varying degrees in every state and Washington, D.C, with some states having voted almost completely by mail for many years. During this time, studies have repeatedly shown that voter fraud is exceptionally rare. Notably, none of the five states that conduct their elections primarily by mail have had any voter fraud scandals since making that change.
This is why The Washington Post’s fact-checker debunked Trump’s claims about voter fraud, concluding that he has waged a “persistent effort to advance a false narrative.” Exhaustive analyses by experts, courts, and the government—compiled by the Brennan Center for Justice—confirm that voter fraud is virtually nonexistent, and a recently released study looking at data from 1996 through 2018 concluded that voting by mail has no discernible effect on party vote shares or the partisan share of the electorate. Additionally, a comprehensive study from 2014 found only 31 credible instances of voter impersonation out of more than 1 billion ballots cast between 2000 and 2014. It is little wonder that noted experts observed, “It is still more likely for an American to be struck by lightning than to commit mail voting fraud.”
Despite the reality that voter fraud is incredibly rare, after the 2016 election, Trump falsely claimed that several million people voted illegally, and he even set up a so-called voter fraud commission. The commission quickly disbanded without presenting any cogent evidence of fraud, including fraud via mail-in ballots. At that time, the National Association of Secretaries of State—a nonpartisan organization comprised of most states’ top election officials—said it knew of no evidence to support Trump’s voter fraud claims. Years earlier, the George W. Bush administration conducted a five-year investigation that similarly found “virtually no evidence” of fraudulent voting.
Vote-by-mail states often elect Republicans
Instead of supporting necessary reforms that would allow Americans the option to vote safely during this pandemic, Trump has caved to fears that expanding vote-by-mail options would hurt Republicans’ election chances. Not only is it dangerous for Trump to continue making life-or-death decisions based on politics, but his fears are also misplaced.
Researchers have found that voting by mail does not meaningfully benefit either major political party. Recent history bears this out, as Republicans have regularly won elections in states that have moved almost completely to voting by mail. For example, in recent years, Utah has elected Republican Sens. Mike Lee and Mitt Romney, as well as a Republican governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general. In Colorado, Republican Cory Gardner was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2014, and Republicans were elected to three of the top four other statewide offices. Meanwhile, voters in Arizona, which overwhelmingly votes absentee by mail, traditionally elect Republicans to office.
Top Republican officeholders disagree with Trump’s claims of voter fraud
Not only do Republican voters support an option to mail their ballots during the pandemic, many Republican elected officials do as well.
For example, on April 11, 2020, Gov. Chris Sununu (R-NH) decided to expand his state’s absentee mail-in ballot system while Trump was urging for the opposite measures. Similarly, Gov. Pete Ricketts (R-NE) recently urged people to vote by mail. And Gov. Mike DeWine (R-OH) continues to support expanded voting by mail, as do the top election officials—who are Republicans—in Washington, Utah, Iowa, and Georgia, among other states. Many Republicans serving at the local level agree: For example, the chair of the Berks County, Pennsylvania, Board of Commissioners, who calls himself a “conservative Republican,” wants his community to have the option to vote entirely by mail.
Meanwhile, in the state of Washington, Secretary of State Kim Wyman (R) criticized political leaders for spreading falsehoods about voting by mail, saying that it causes the public to “[lose] confidence in the foundational pillar of our system.” And just three years ago, the Republican chair of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission disputed the myth of widespread voting fraud, stating that the American voting process is well-administered and leads to accurate results.
Trump’s falsehoods are part of a broader, long-standing effort to suppress votes
U.S. elections are not threatened by mail-in ballots. The actual threat to elections comes from the well-designed attempts by Republican political leaders to suppress the votes of Americans who they fear may not vote for them. Such efforts have regularly targeted historically underrepresented groups, disadvantaged communities, urban residents, young people, and others. The harmful effects of this targeting are made even more problematic by the COVID-19 pandemic, during which people of color are becoming sick and dying at disproportionately high rates.
As the Center for American Progress has previously discussed, Republican political leaders often employ baseless claims of voter fraud as a smokescreen, giving them the cover they need to adopt strict voter ID laws and other suppressive measures that prevent Americans from casting ballots. For example, the Republican-controlled Kentucky Legislature just overrode the governor’s veto in an effort to impose voter ID requirements.
These attempts to disenfranchise voters have no place in American democracy, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. We need to protect Americans’ health by giving them the option to safely vote by mail in the remaining primary elections and the November general election.
Michael Sozan is a senior fellow on the Democracy and Government Reform team at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.