Trust Index: Fact-checking 6 things you’ve heard about mail-in voting

File photo. (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – With voters casting ballots by mail amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic on track to set records, News4Jax thought it was particularly important this election season to check some claims being widely circulated about mail-in voting.

Bottom line: mail-in voting is a safe way to vote.

But let’s dig in to these common claims one by one.

Claim: Fraud is rampant in mail-in voting

President Donald Trump has made the claim that universal mail-in voting could lead to an inaccurate and fraudulent election and that “mailed ballots are corrupt” and “fraudulent in many cases.”

Others in his administration have echoed those claims and made others about the potential for fraud. White House senior adviser Stephen Miller claimed in August that “nobody who mails in a ballot has their identity confirmed.”

But that’s not true.

Not True

It may vary by state but there are measures in place to verify the identity of voters who mail in ballots.

In Florida and Georgia, the signature on the ballot must match the signature on file with the county supervisor of elections office. And both states have strict rules about who can apply for and pick up absentee ballots on behalf of another voter.

And while experts admit fraud with voting-by-mail is more common than with in-person voting, they say it is still rare. News21, a national investigative reporting project that tracks cases of election fraud, found 24% of reported election fraud prosecutions from 2000 to 2012 involved mail-in ballots. But the total number out of billions of votes was just 491.

And the conservative Heritage Foundation think-tank found just 1,298 instances of voter fraud out of more than 250 million ballots cast over 20 years. About 200 of those cases involved mail-in ballots.

In the five states that have universal mail-in elections -- Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington -- The Brookings Institution analyzed data and found only a small number of voter fraud cases overall and almost all of those involved individuals and not organized fraud attempts.

And U.S. elections officials said in August that there was “no information or intelligence” that foreign countries, including Russia, are attempting to undermine any part of the mail-in voting process.

The Brennan Center for Justice also found no evidence for the president’s claims in 2016 that millions voted illegally. In a nationwide study involving local election officials, only 30 incidents of suspected non-citizen voting were found out of 23.5 million votes in 42 jurisdictions.

And pointed out that the president himself voted by mail for the 2018 mid-term elections because he’s registered in Florida and sent his ballot from the White House. When asked about that, Trump claimed that voting from out of state is different than sending an in-state mail-in ballot. But elections experts explained that the same rules and processes apply for both.

Claim: Mail-in voting is not secure

We know the USPS has had its share of troubles lately (see below), but state and local clerks have strict protocols to ensure election security with mail-in ballots, including in Florida and Georgia.

Not True

In Florida’s recent primary, more than 35,500 vote-by-mail ballots didn’t count, Politico reports. They were rejected because of missed deadlines or technical flaws.

“Nearly 66% of the rejected absentee ballots were disqualified because they arrived after Florida’s 7 p.m. Election Day deadline," Politico said. "The rest didn’t meet signature match requirements used by county election supervisors to verify voters identities, the analysis from University of Florida political science professor Dan Smith showed.”

Click here for a step-by-step guide to ensure your Florida ballot makes it on time and counts.

And here’s info on how to track your absentee ballot in Georgia.

Claim: Mail-in voting allows you to vote twice

You can try to vote twice, but we don’t recommend it, since it’s a felony. Both Florida and Georgia explicitly deem voting more than once in the same election to be a crime, as does the federal Voting Rights Act.

Not True

In Florida, you could be subject to a $5,000 fine and/or no more than five years in prison if convicted of the third-degree felony. In Georgia, the penalty could be as many as 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $100,000.

In its analysis of more than 250 million ballots nationwide over 20 years, the conservative Heritage Foundation think-tank found only eight instances of fraudulent use of absentee ballots in Florida and 10 in Georgia -- and none involved a mail-in voter trying to vote two times.

Every state, including Florida and Georgia, has a system in place to prevent double voting. Most involve voters who have been issued mail-in ballots being flagged if they show up to vote in person. Vote-by-mail ballots are also verified before they are counted, and one check is whether the voter already voted.

Florida has electronic poll books, which mean if you requested a mail-in ballot and then showed up in person, the poll worker could check the system to see if your mail-in ballot has been accepted for counting. If it has, you wouldn’t be allowed to vote in person. If it hasn’t yet been accepted, the poll worker can update the system in real-time to show that you voted in person instead, and the mail-in ballot will be voided.

According to the state elections website, if you think the supervisor of elections' office is wrong about receiving your vote-by-mail ballot or if the supervisor of elections' office is unable to confirm whether or not it has received your vote-by-mail ballot, you will be allowed to vote a provisional ballot.

In Georgia, the system relies on poll workers to call the county elections office to check on the status of a mail-in ballot if a person who shows up to vote is flagged as having requested one.

If the county election office says an absentee ballot has been received, the person should not be allowed to vote in person. If there’s no record of an absentee ballot having been received, the voter is allowed to cast a ballot in person and the county election office is supposed to cancel the absentee ballot request so that the absentee ballot won’t be counted if it comes in.

Admittedly, the system relies on humans and isn’t perfect.

Georgia’s top elections official said in September that his office had identified about 1,000 cases of “potential double voting” in the June primary election. They represented less than a tenth of a percent of all 1.1 million absentee ballots cast by Georgians in that election.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said the voters submitted absentee ballots but also voted in person, a problem that happened across 100 Georgia counties. Election officials didn’t catch them in time to keep the second votes from being tallied, he said, adding that he was determined to prosecute the double voting felonies.

If you’re concerned about whether your mail-in ballot was received, there are easier ways to check than showing up at a polling place. Your county’s Supervisor of Elections Office website has an online option to check the status of your mail-in ballot.

For information on double voting rules in other states, check out the data from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Claim: Mail-in voting benefits Democrats

While Democrats had mailed in more ballots (612,982) than Republicans (337,927) in Florida as of Thursday morning, according to the state Division of Elections, research actually shows mail-in voting does not appear to benefit one political party over the other.

Not True

A study, which was conducted by Stanford University researchers and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, looked at data from 1996 to 2018 in three states that implemented universal vote-by-mail systems and found:

  1. Universal vote-by-mail does not appear to affect either party’s share of turnout.
  2. Universal vote-by-mail does not appear to increase either party’s vote share.
  3. Universal vote-by-mail modestly increases overall average turnout rates, in line with previous estimates.

“Our paper has a clear takeaway: claims that VBM (vote-by-mail) fundamentally advantages one party over the other appear overblown,” the article states.

Research published in Science Advances found similar results.

“Mandatory vote-by-mail ensures that citizens are given a safe means of casting their ballot while simultaneously not advantaging one political party over the other,” wrote the authors, a political scientist from Brigham Young University and a political scientist from the University of Virginia.

Claim: USPS can’t handle the increase of mail-in ballots

In August, the U.S. Postal Service sent letters to 46 states and D.C. warning that it cannot guarantee all ballots cast by mail for the November election will arrive in time to be counted.

Be Careful

Some states anticipate 10 times the normal volume of election mail. That’s why the Postal Service gave 40 states — including Florida — a serious warning that their long-standing deadlines for requesting, returning or counting ballots were “incongruous” with mail service and that voters who send ballots in close to those deadlines may become disenfranchised.

But new Postmaster General Louis DeJoy has also said ensuring ballots arrive was his “No. 1 priority between now and Election Day" and that the Postal Service “is fully capable and committed to delivering the nation’s election mail securely and on-time.”

Many county elections supervisors took the USPS warning to heart and have been actively encouraging voters to turn in their vote-by-mail ballots as early as possible.

RELATED: Will your ballot arrive on time? I-TEAM puts USPS to the test before Election Day

Now, just because there are projected delays, doesn’t mean your ballot won’t make it in time and won’t count, but it’s probably best to heed the urging of your local SOE and turn it in early. Any voter who has requested a vote-by-mail ballot can track online the status of his or her ballot through a link within the Division of Elections' Voter Information Lookup or through their county Supervisor of Elections' website.

And if you’re just not sure about dropping the ballot in the nearest mail slot, there are other options to turn in vote-by-mail ballots:

  • Drop off at the Supervisor of Elections Office in the county where you live
  • Once early voting begins, drop your ballot off in a drop box at an early-voting site during voting hours
  • On Election Day, no vote-by-mail ballots can be dropped off. However, if you’ve changed your mind you can vote in person at your assigned precinct and your mail-in ballot will be voided.

Claim: More mail-in ballots could delay presidential election results

Although election officials in some states have reportedly cautioned it may take more time to count an expected surge of mail-in ballots amid the coronavirus pandemic, a presidential outcome will be known one way or another by mid-December, according to federal law.

So while it’s possible results could be delayed, they wouldn’t be delayed for months.

Be Careful

And they likely won’t be delayed much, if at all, in Florida. Gov. Ron DeSantis has expressed optimism that the majority of mail-in ballots in the state will be tabulated without causing a delay in results.

“Fortunately, in Florida, we’re allowed to process the ballots as they come in, once the window starts,” DeSantis said Oct. 6. “Some of these states, they’re not allowed to even start that until the polls close. Well, that’s going to take forever to be able to count that. If we had to wait, man, we’d have millions of ballots that would just be sitting there.”

DeSantis also said that the only mail-in ballots that won’t be verified and counted before polls close are those submitted late on Election Day.

The Associated Press and News Service of Florida contributed to this report.

About the Authors:

A Jacksonville native and proud University of North Florida alum, Francine Frazier has been with News4Jax since 2014 after spending nine years at The Florida Times-Union.

Carianne Luter is a social media producer for News4Jax and has worked at Channel 4 since December 2015. She graduated from the University of North Florida with a communication degree.