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Claims of US mail-in ballot fraud threaten confidence in vote

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Oct 09, 2020 - 08:54 AM

WASHINGTON — The allegations of potential voter fraud look plausible, featuring US mail-in ballots addressed to dead people or former residents. But the claims posted on social media are inaccurate, and threaten to undermine confidence in the presidential election.

“Strange how this keeps happening,” Donald Trump Jr, son of the president, wrote in a tweet sharing a photo of eight mail-in ballots allegedly sent in error to an apartment in Washington, DC, adding: “What’s to stop someone from filling all of these out and returning them?”

The answer is straightforward. The system contains safeguards such as signature verification — done automatically by machine, or manually in some counties — that experts say are proven to work.

But problems do occasionally arise. Other social media users have echoed the president and his campaign team, who say the election will be “rigged” because of large mail-in voting numbers for Democrats.

AFP looked into several cases across the US.

Contrary to the president’s accusation, the biggest threat may be undercounting instead of overcounting, as ballots can be rejected if voters change signatures. Citizens could also be put off voting, losing faith in the system, a result that amounts to voter suppression.

Washington, DC 

The tweet shared by Donald Trump Jr refers to another account that claims a friend received eight ballots, all of which were addressed to previous tenants.

This occurred because, in response to the pandemic, the DC Board of Elections (DCBOE) decided to automatically send mail-in ballots to registered voters, including to previous tenants who did not register their change of address.

But others would not be able to submit them in their place, said Nick Jacobs, a spokesman for the DCBOE.

“The simple answer is that it can’t happen, we have a signature verification. If it’s not signed or the signatures don’t match, it’s not processed,” Jacobs told AFP.

Voters can track their ballot on the DCBOE’s website, and find out whether their signature has been accepted.

New Mexico 

“I got proof. My grandfather passed away December 31, 2014. We just got his ballot today,” text accompanying a photo of an envelope from New Mexico’s Dona Ana County Bureau of Elections said in a Facebook post.

However, according to Dona Ana County clerk Amanda Lopez Askin, the envelope actually shows a mail-in ballot application, not an actual ballot.

“It’s really unfortunate that rampant misinformation on a very innocuous application that is sent for voters’ convenience is being used as a claim of voter fraud,” Askin said.

Jack Mumby, deputy digital director for Common Cause, a watchdog group for democratic institutions, described problems such as old addresses as the expected glitches involved in any large-scale system.

“What some of this disinformation on social media has (done)… is they start a conversation that puts doubts in people’s heads about the integrity of our elections, and there are political actors who seek to exploit that for political ends,” he said.

“Mail-in ballots are safe, secure, and tested, and sadly some people see political opportunity in undermining that confidence. Once that narrative is out there, what could be a small scale bureaucratic mix up becomes confirmation of that narrative.”

Wisconsin 

Another Facebook post alleged that a woman in the Wisconsin city of Oak Creek had received two ballots for the November 3 election. The Facebook user advised everyone to “vote in person” because “this vote is going to be a scam!”

But the photo actually shows a ballot for the November general election as well as one for the August primary, Oak Creek city clerk Catherine Roeske said.

The date on the bottom envelope in the photo is from June 2020.

“We didn’t even have ballots for this (November 3) election until the 17th of September so… busted,” Roeske said. “This is how rumors get started.”

Theodore Allen, an associate professor of engineering at Ohio State University who has worked on election projects, said the main problem exposed so far was undercounting, because a voter’s signature can change over time.

“The biggest challenges to my mind relate to discouraging voters, including through making registration unnecessarily difficult, insecure voter registration rolls, and laws and practices targeting minorities,” he said.

New Jersey 

Some residents of the Garden State complained about receiving ballots not addressed to them, or to deceased relatives.

Unlike the New Mexico case, the ballots in those photos are proper mail-in ballots, not applications.

Kimberly Burnett, spokeswoman for New Jersey’s Middlesex County government, said forged signatures on returned ballots “will be flagged by Board of Elections staff when researching signatures.”

“A flagged ballot will be referred to the county prosecutor for election fraud if our office determines a voter is deceased through a post-election audit,” she said.

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