Taking time to count votes ‘is not a sign of misconduct or chaos’: How states prevent election fraud – USA TODAY

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Tom Vanden Brook

Jeffrey Schweers
 
| USA TODAY

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WASHINGTON – After President-elect Joe Biden was projected to win the election over President Donald Trump on Saturday, the question remained: What took so long?

The reasons the race wasn’t called on election night were not surprising and not nefarious, election experts say. They’re more simple and mostly mundane: It takes time to count more than 145 million votes, especially with an avalanche of mail-in ballots. The coronavirus pandemic, in part, prompted more than 65 million voters to drop their ballots in the mail or at secure boxes in states across the country. Somebody has to open those ballots, ensure that they’re valid and enter the result.

“We need to remember what we knew a month ago: It was going to take longer,” said Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center, a nonpartisan think tank. That it took several days “is not a sign of misconduct or chaos. It’s only a sign the election officials are carefully counting the votes.”

While most states began processing mail-in ballots before Election Day, others had laws preventing election officials from doing so. For instance, election officials in the swing states of Wisconsin and Pennsylvania requested the ability to begin processing earlier and the Republican-controlled legislatures in those states refused, all but ensuring the high volume of mail-in ballots would not be counted until after Nov. 3. 

After Trump’s yearlong crusade against mail voting, the president’s supporters were reluctant to vote that way, while Biden supporters embraced the method because of the coronavirus pandemic. Biden supporters dominated mail voting by a 2-to-1 margin nationally. That’s why Trump appeared ahead in several battleground states on election night, but the race shifted to Biden as mail-in ballots were counted.

Both sides agree: Voter fraud ‘infinitesimal’

Although Trump has repeated before and since Nov. 3 that the election is “rigged” and that there is “fraud,” neither he nor the administration has provided evidence of such. Bipartisan sources agree that voter fraud – for instance, stuffing ballot boxes or voting multiple times – is an an exceedingly rare crime with almost no chance of affecting the presidential election. 

The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, keeps a voter fraud database, which contains only 207 entries, a tiny fraction of the number of local, state and national votes tallied since 1979, which is as far back as the database goes. And even those numbers may be inflated. USA TODAY journalists, working with Columbia Journalism Investigations and the PBS series “Frontline,” investigated the examples cited in the Heritage database and found that they presented “misleading and incomplete information that overstates the number of alleged fraud instances and includes cases where no crime was committed.”

“Fraud does occur but on a very infinitesimal basis,” said Tammy Patrick, a former elections official and a senior adviser to the elections program at the Democracy Fund. “When we talk about fraud by mail or in-person voting, the real debates are how many zeroes after the decimal before you get to a number, out of tens of millions if not hundreds of millions of ballots cast over years.”

How ballots are checked

When it comes to counting votes, states have procedures for securing and processing ballots.

Pennsylvania tallied 3 million votes by mail. Voters who applied for a mail ballot had to give their name, address, date of birth, voting district and how long they have lived there, Kathy Boockvar, Pennsylvania secretary of the Commonwealth, has told the state Supreme Court. The court ruled that mail ballots could not be rejected on signature comparisons. 

Voters also had to provide their driver’s license or the last four digits of their Social Security number to verify their identity to receive a mailed ballot. Election staff compared the information in the application with the voter’s permanent registration card.

In Michigan, another pivotal state that Biden flipped into the Democrats’ column, a registered voter must fill out and sign an application that requires knowing a birth date and other personal information. Voters can mail in the application, take it in person to a clerk’s office or email a picture of the application to the clerk. The emailed picture must show the application’s signature.

Once the clerk receives the application, the signature is checked against the signature on file from when the person registered to vote. Theoretically, someone seeking to impersonate someone else to fraudulently vote would have to accurately copy that person’s signature.

“Does voter fraud happen? Yes. Does it happen as much as Donald Trump thinks it does? No,” David Dulio, a professor of political science and director of the Center for Civic Engagement at Oakland University, told the USA TODAY NETWORK earlier this year.

In Pennsylvania, Boockvar told reporters Thursday that her office hadn’t received any specific allegations of voter fraud since an incident weeks ago involving a single person. More than 6.7 million people voted in the state.

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Pa. on counting ballots: ‘the closer the race is, the longer it takes’

Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar insists her 67 counties are taking their time to thoroughly count ballots as the race narrows.

“You have probably heard some weeks ago that there was a gentleman in Luzerne County who tried to apply for a ballot for his deceased mother. That was the only incident that I am aware of in this year,” Boockvar said.  

The president’s own experience might be used as an example of the checks in place in Florida.

When Trump registered to vote in Florida last September, he put 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as his address. The Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections rejected his application, because the state requires you have an in-state address to register. A month later he submitted an application with his Mar-a-Lago address and was accepted.

That error was caught because Florida has a vast system of checks and balances to ensure that elections aren’t rigged and to detect potential voter fraud, from the secretary of state on down to county supervisors of elections and local canvassing boards.

“We have many many statutes and rules in place to ensure elections are not rigged,” said Mark Earley, Leon County’s supervisor of elections and vice president of the Florida Supervisor of Elections association.

Patricia Brigham, President of the League of Women Voters Florida, listed the following safeguards against voter fraud in the state:

  • Voter registration requires government-issued identification, proof of citizenship and proof of address
  • Vote-by-mail ballots can be requested only by registered voters and are sent to only those who request them
  • Redundancies or duplicate ballots are eliminated because the system automatically rejects a ballot if a voter has been counted as having already voted by any means
  • Voters are always entitled to request a provisional ballot if they have an issue when they go to vote. A provisional ballot can be filled out at the polling place and will be held for verification before being counted

Both sides observe

In Florida, vote counting is done either at the polling places where approved poll watchers can observe, or at the main office under the management of the canvassing board during scheduled, announced, publicly observable tabulation sessions, Earley said.

Each political party and each candidate have the right to have one watcher in each polling room or early voting area at any time during the election. Also, a political committee formed for the express purpose of advocating the passage or defeat of an issue on the ballot can have an observer for each polling location.

After the election, the public is allowed to be in the room when officials are verifying the number of vote ballots, unused ballots, provisional ballots and spoiled ballots to ensure the number corresponds with the number of ballots issued after the polls close. The public is also allowed to observe post-election audits, which are mandatory. 

In Pennsylvania, election workers tabulate the results with observers from both Republican and Democratic parties looking on. 

“It’s livestreamed,” Waldman said. “They’re not off in some hidden room. It’s in a room with a lot of Democratic and Republican lawyers and officials standing around. And that’s the normal way it is, in any election.”

Foreign observers of our election this year found that the pandemic and partisan interests may have confused voters and delayed the work of election officials.

A global election monitoring group deployed across the U.S. for the vote concluded that “measures taken to ensure that voters were able to cast their ballot during the pandemic triggered drawn-out lawsuits driven by partisan interests, negatively affecting the work of the election administration and confusing voters.”

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) noted that Election Day itself was “peaceful and took place without unrest or intimidation. Health safety measures were generally followed.”

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