Vote-by-mail fraud more a fear than a reality in Georgia

State Election Board members prepare for an emergency hearing in March at the Georgia Center for Continuing Education in Athens. (Photo/Austin Steele for The Atlanta Journal Constitution)

State Election Board members prepare for an emergency hearing in March at the Georgia Center for Continuing Education in Athens. (Photo/Austin Steele for The Atlanta Journal Constitution)

When Georgia moved toward mass mail-in voting for its primary, accusations of fraud quickly followed.

President Donald Trump said mailed ballots will be used to cheat. House Speaker David Ralston said absentee ballots could compromise election integrity. Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger created a task force to investigate fraud allegations.

Fears of widespread voting fraud aren’t backed up by much evidence. There have been few cases of absentee ballot violations in Georgia since 2015, according to State Election Board records.

Fraud is rare, and when it does happen, it’s small or unintentional: a mother voting for her daughter, election officials accepting several ballots without signatures, a woman who asked her friend to turn in a ballot.

The kind of absentee ballot tampering that would swing an election hasn't surfaced in Georgia since 2006, when a Chattooga County judge used runners to help voters fill out and deliver their ballots.

The most well-known cases of voting fraud, like when the campaign of a Republican North Carolina congressional candidate collected absentee ballots from hundreds of voters in 2018, overshadow a less shocking reality: Nearly all elections are free from manipulation.

“Absentee voting fraud is almost nonexistent in this state,” said David Worley, a member of the State Election Board and a former chairman of the Democratic Party of Georgia. “We have had a very few cases, which mainly involved persons returning absentee ballots that should not have done so, or that weren't allowed by statute to do so.”

Absentee ballot packets mailed to voters include a return envelope, a ballot, instructions and a privacy sleeve. The privacy sleeve replaced the inner envelope that in previous elections enclosed absentee ballots.

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The specter of fraud arose after Raffensperger, a Republican, sent absentee ballot applications to Georgia's 6.9 million active voters for the state's June 9 primary, vastly increasing the number of ballots that will be filled out far from the watchful eyes of poll workers. More than 1.3 million voters have requested absentee ballots so far.

Concerns generally fell along party lines, with Democrats worrying that voting security restrictions discourage turnout and Republicans emphasizing the need for election safeguards.

The people who manage elections, regardless of their political parties, say allegations of fraud are overblown.

But mailed ballots are more vulnerable than in-person votes, said State Election Board member Matthew Mashburn, who worked for years as a Republican Party poll watcher.

“The more you move people away from the protection of the bubble in the precinct, the more you’re opening them up to intimidation and interference in the dark, in secret and in privacy,” Mashburn said. “I’m more worried about voter intimidation and harassment than massive efforts at widespread fraud.”

Election workers verify absentee ballots by comparing voter signatures with their signatures from when they registered to vote, said Darin McCoy, a probate judge who runs elections in Evans County in southeast Georgia. They also check the information voters wrote on the ballot envelope and ensure it matches voter registration records.

“It’s a very, very small number of ballots that are fraudulently returned,” McCoy said. “The biggest area would be a voter turning their ballot over to someone else to vote. There’s no way to ever control that.”

Absentee ballot violations are usually minor in Georgia, according to State Election Board transcripts reviewed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. It's uncommon — but not unheard of — to find allegations of double voting or ballot harvesting, which is an organized effort to collect and mail absentee ballots.

Of hundreds of cases heard by the State Election Board over the past five years, 34 of them involved absentee ballots. The most common allegations involved failures by county election officials to process absentee ballots correctly by inappropriately rejecting them.

  • Ten cases involved inappropriate assistance, such as when hospital staff mailed ballots for patients or wives helped their husbands fill out their ballots without disclosing they had done so.
  • In one case, 256 absentee ballot applications were faxed from the same phone number, prompting Raffensperger to remark, “It’s a record-breaker for me.” That case is under investigation by the attorney general’s office.
  • A Lumpkin County man moved to North Carolina and voted there, then also mailed an absentee ballot to Georgia.
  • There was one allegation of a dead person voting, when a Paulding County man cast a vote for his deceased spouse.

Violators are typically fined $100 per incident of improper absentee ballot handling. The State Election Board can levy fines up to $5,000.

Raffensperger launched his voting fraud task force after Republican leaders such as Trump and Ralston heaped skepticism on absentee ballots, which will be used by voters seeking to avoid human contact at voting precincts during the coronavirus pandemic.

The task force, mostly made up of Republican prosecutors, will investigate allegations of fraud, including mismatched signatures, multiple voters at the same address and voters who use nonresidential addresses.

“We want a strong, robust, accurate and secure absentee ballot program so both sides of the aisle feel that they know that no one’s right has been diminished,” Raffensperger said.

Former Secretary of State Cathy Cox, a Democrat, said voter fraud is so rare that the only purpose of Raffensperger’s task force will be to discourage voters from using absentee ballots to participate in the election.

“If a county official says my signature doesn’t match, is this task force going to show up with guns and badges at my office or my home?” Cox asked. “I have to believe it’s a strategy that’s being used to intimidate voters, not to really address a problem, because there is no problem.”

Voting fraud accusations have been used against people who weren’t found to have done anything wrong, as in 2010 when then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp’s office investigated an election in Quitman, in Brooks County.

After an organized absentee ballot effort helped African American candidates win a majority on the county school board, investigators questioned more than 400 voters. Of the 10 people initially arrested and two people later charged with crimes, none of the group known as the Quitman 10+2 was found guilty.

"Traditionally in the United States, and in Georgia as well, protestations of voter fraud have been used as an excuse for restricting access to the ballot box," said Wendy Weiser, the director for the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, a policy institute at New York University that focuses on democracy and criminal justice. "There's a real concern that this debate is a pretext for justifying restrictions on voting or for trying to delegitimize outcomes."

Both Democrats and Republicans agree that absentee ballots are riskier than in-person ballots.

“In-person voting fraud is very rare, and mail ballot voting fraud is also very rare, it’s just a little less rare,” said Charles Stewart III, a political science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It’s easier for your spouse to take your ballot from you and send it back than it is at a polling place.”

Voting by mail increases the potential that ballots won't be counted because of mistakes, delays or errors, said Michael Thielen, the executive director for the Republican National Lawyers Association.

“All but the most strident Democrat activists agree fraud is easiest and most common with absentee or mail ballots,” Thielen said. “Even Democrats who claim that fraud is a myth recognize that absentee ballots are extremely vulnerable to fraud and voter coercion.”

Any registered voter has been allowed to cast an absentee ballot in Georgia without having to provide an excuse since 2005. This year’s primary is different because most voters are expected to vote by mail. In past elections, about 95% of voters cast their ballots in person.

About 3% of absentee ballots were rejected in the 2018 general election, usually because they were returned after election day, voter information was missing or signatures didn't match. Voters can check the status of their absentee ballot online on the state's My Voter Page.

But the potential for fraud doesn’t necessarily mean it will happen in Georgia and other states that are relying on absentee voting because of the coronavirus, said Lorraine Minnite, who wrote “The Myth of Voter Fraud” in 2010.

“People who vote by mail don’t have any greater motive to commit fraud than those in a polling place,” said Minnite, a public policy professor at Rutgers University-Camden. “Most of the time elections are not won by one vote, so from the perspective of the individual voter there isn’t a lot to be gained by committing a crime by forging somebody’s absentee ballot or voting when you’re not eligible to vote.”

It would take a criminal conspiracy to rig most elections. Local elections with low turnout would be more vulnerable than major elections decided by tens of thousands of votes.

Still, concerns about election fixing aren’t entirely baseless given Georgia’s history of stolen and altered elections.

When Jimmy Carter ran for the state Senate in 1962, more votes were reported than people who had cast a ballot, and 117 ballots were cast in alphabetical order of voters' names. There were no absentee ballots in that race. Carter won after a judge ordered a new election.

In a more recent case in Dodge County, votes were openly bought and sold in a 1996 election, and the number of absentee ballots was much larger than normal. The case, called at the time the largest election fraud prosecution in modern history, resulted in more than two dozen convictions and jail time for a county commissioner and sheriff.

It’s illegal in Georgia for anyone to mail absentee ballots besides voters, family members or people living in their household. Voters with disabilities can use a caregiver to deliver their ballots.

Elected officials should focus on improving voting access instead of wasting energy on low numbers of fraud cases, said Cindy Battles, program coordinator for Common Cause Georgia, a government accountability organization.

“It’s not actual or real,” Battles said. “We would be lying if we said fraud never happens. All I’m trying to say is it doesn’t happen nearly as much as certain political officials try to make out like it does.”

Absentee ballot cases in Georgia

The State Election Board decides on allegations of election problems during meetings a few times a year. Transcripts of board meetings since 2015 show that absentee ballot cases are usually minor or accidental.

Election worker mistakes: County election officials accepted ballots without signatures, inappropriately rejected ballots, failed to keep records or mailed multiple ballots to the same people. 14 cases.

Ballot assistance: Wives helped their husbands vote without disclosing they did so, a hospital mailed absentee ballots via FedEx and a ballot was given to a friend. One case under investigation involves 256 absentee ballot applications submitted from the same fax number. 10 cases.

Impersonation: An election official was accused of voting for his mother, a man voted for his deceased spouse, a mother voted for her daughter. 4 cases.

Ballot harvesting: A couple in Washington County reported that a representative for a candidate picked up their unvoted ballots and allegedly said they would be filled out for them. An investigation is ongoing. 1 case.

Double voting: A man moved from Lumpkin County to North Carolina and voted there, then also mailed an absentee ballot to Georgia. 1 case.

Other: Election officials in Hancock County accepted absentee ballots without verifying signatures because voter registration records had been destroyed in a fire. Misprinted ballots in the city of Lumpkin were canceled inappropriately. There were also voter interference and ballot rejection cases. 4 cases.

Source: State Election Board transcripts

Election fraud task force

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger recently appointed a group of prosecutors and election officials to look into absentee ballot fraud allegations as record numbers of Georgia voters vote by mail in the June 9 primary.

The Absentee Ballot Fraud Task Force will be responsible for investigating mismatched voter signatures, multiple voters at the same address and voters who use nonresidential addresses.

Because fraud is rare in Georgia elections, voting rights groups say the task force will accomplish little more than intimidating voters and discouraging them from participating in the election.

The 12-person task force includes eight prosecutors, two county election supervisors, Raffensperger’s chief investigator and the state election director. The task force has seven Republicans, two Democrats and three people whose political affiliation is unknown.