Election officials say it's nearly impossible to commit voter fraud by mail. Getting people to doubt the legitimacy of the whole process is much easier.This story is part of Elections 2020, CNET's coverage of the run-up to voting in November.
How to get away with vote-by-mail fraud
- Figure out every registered voter who requested a mail-in ballot
Not everyone's going to have a ballot automatically sent to their mailbox. For starters, you need to be registered to vote to receive one, and in some states, you need to have requested an absentee ballot to get it.Election officials aren't going to count votes for people who aren't registered voters, so any nation-state looking to print fake ballots would have to make sure they're for people who actually exist.Absentee ballot requests are confidential in states like North Carolina, so depending on where you are, you'd have to get access to an election county's voter registration records illegally. That's not impossible, as Russian hackers had stolen data from two Florida counties' voter registration databases in 2016, but the next steps make committing fraud even more difficult.
- Intercept the ballot
Now that you know who you're looking to defraud, you have to actually get their ballot to vote in their name.You can intercept the ballots by either racing to every mailbox and snatching the envelope out before the voters receive them while hoping they don't notice it's gone, or changing the voters' address so that they all send to your inbox instead."You have to get into the voter registration system, get their address changed and go undetected doing that," Vote at Home's McReynolds said. "If you're in a state that offers ballot tracking, you have to avoid voters getting a text saying 'your ballot is on its way to you' or seeing that it went to the wrong address. You have to assume they're not going to vote or pay attention in a presidential year where we're going to have the highest turnout on record."Counties across the US use ballot tracking, including Virginia, Florida, Kansas, South Carolina, Michigan and Illinois. BallotScout, an app from the organization Democracy Works, offers online tracking services for ballots where voters can see the status of their ballot the same way you'd track a package shipping.Ballot envelopes have specific barcodes on them that let the US Postal Service know that the package is a vote, with unique serial numbers on them tied to individual voter records. If you're trying to intercept a ballot, you'll need to overcome this tracking system too."A voter would be able to see their ballot move through the mail stream, and they can advocate for themselves now," said Jessenia Elia, Democracy Works' director of government initiatives. "They can say they sent this ballot five days ago, it should've been received, and call the office themselves."
- Get good at forging signatures and really good at guessing
Nearly every state requires a signature on the ballot to verify a voter's identity when it's mailed in. The signatures need to match the ones logged on the voter's registration file, and is required for both issuing ballots and counting the vote."Forging someone else's signature on an application and submitting it to receive a ballot is both extremely difficult, and a crime," Michigan's Department of State said in a statement. "It is rarely attempted."Some states require multiple signatures, like a notary or a witness to sign off on the mail-in ballot. In North Carolina, voters have to sign their ballots in front of a witness, who also signs the envelope the vote is sent in.When you register to vote in Minnesota, Simon said, you also have to provide your driver's license number, your state ID number and the last four digits of your Social Security number. The state uses that to verify votes also.So once you intercept the ballot, you'd need to be able to account for all of these details too."Unless the mailbox thief knows not only the person's personal identifying information, or which specific form they used, the joke is on the would-be thief," Simon said.Assuming you try your luck at forging signatures, some counties also have machines scanning for accuracy on the votes to make sure they match up. If it's not a good enough match, it often gets flagged to a person to check, and if enough anomalies pop up, election officials said they would investigate further.
Laying the groundwork for disinformation
The threat to vote by mail isn't fraud. It's disinformation and sabotage - CNET