Pinkerton: California to Mail Out 21 Million Ballots. What Could Go Wrong?

In this April 14, 2020 photo, Pam Fleming and fellow workers stuff ballots and instruction
Nati Harnik/AP Photo

Choose Your News

On May 8, web-surfing readers faced two very different accounts of California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s decision to shift his state to vote-by-mail for the coming November elections.  

The Los Angeles Times headline read, “California voters asked to vote by mail in November due to coronavirus fears.”

That same day, the headline atop Breitbart News read, “California: Gavin Newsom Orders Cheat-by-Mail for November Election.” 

Both articles agreed on this much: California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, has ordered that ballots be mailed to the state’s 20.6 million voters for the November election, even as he is restricting voting in person. In other words, the goal of Newsom, a Democrat, is to make it harder to vote in person; instead, he wants Californians to vote-by-mail (VBM).  

Beyond that, the two articles diverged: The Times was cheery about the VBM development. It quoted California’s secretary of state, Alex Padilla, the state’s chief elections officer, saying of Newsom’s decision, “It’s great for public health, it’s great for voting rights, it’s gonna be great for participation.” 

By contrast, Breitbart News quoted Tim Murtaugh, spokesman for the Trump campaign, saying, “This is a thinly veiled political tactic by Gov. Newsom to undermine election security … a wide-open opportunity for fraud. California has a bad record on ensuring that people on the voting rolls still live at the same address, still reside in California, or are even still alive.” (In fact, Breitbart News has published scores of articles on “cheat by mail.”)  

Okay, it’s clear: Just as readers faced a stark choice on what to read on May 8, so California voters will face a stark situation this November, when traditional voting will be utterly transformed.   

And of course, voting won’t just be changed in California—voting is being transformed in many states.

Voting By Mail: It’s Not Just Coming; It’s Here

In fact, VBM has been increasing in recent years. According to the Election Science Data Lab, a unit of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), in the 2018 elections, absentee ballots—almost always, mail-in ballots—accounted for 24 percent of the national total, while 61 percent of ballots were cast in person on election day and another 15 percent were cast in-person, but early.  And we might recall, of course, that Democrats had a great election in ’18, gaining 41 House seats, thus putting Nancy Pelosi in the speakership; in addition, Democrats gained seven governorships.

And according to a 2020 report from the bipartisan National Conference of State Legislatures, five states (Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington State) now vote entirely by mail, and many other states have changed their laws to make absentee balloting easier. And many counties and cities have also changed their voting procedures; our federalist nation has become a patchwork of voting variety. 

So what’s been the impact of these changes? In the words of MIT: “The expanding opportunities to cast an absentee ballot or to vote by mail have not been uncontroversial. Perhaps the most important issue has been whether expanding VBM opportunities increases voter turnout.” The report noted that turnout is in fact up, thanks to VBM: “This increase likely comes in two ways: by bringing marginal voters into the electorate and by retaining voters who might otherwise drop out of the electorate.”

As a matter of fact, the 2018 turnout surged; it jumped from 36.7 percent of the voting-eligible population in 2014 to 50.3 percent four years later—that’s a more than one-third increase. Indeed, turnout in the 2018 midterms was the highest since the 1914 midterms. One can cite many possible reasons for this spike in turnout, including Trump intensity, pro and con, and yet it seems reasonable to conclude that MIT is right: easier voting played a role.

We can observe that the MIT report was published long before the coronavirus outbreak. So today, there are obviously health concerns about the traditional system of queuing up to vote on election day. 

And here’s some recent news, factoring in the impact of the virus: A May 3 article in the Washington Post, headlined, “Unexpected outcome in Wisconsin: Tens of thousands of ballots that arrived after Election Day were counted, thanks to court decisions.” In that election—it seems quaint to say that it was held on April 7, since so much voting seems to have happened on other dates, before and perhaps after—the most notable result was that an incumbent Republican state supreme court justice was defeated by a Democrat challenger. 

So now back to California, a state boasting almost an eighth of the American population; it’s joining the VBM ranks. As of February 18, the Golden State counted 20,660,465 registered voters; quite likely, that number will grow between now and November, as parties seek to boost the number of their potential voters.  

So what’s going to happen when California mails out nearly 21 million ballots? The ballots will be sent to the mailing address of the registered voter, and according to California law, upon receipt of the ballot, the would-be voter has three options: a) fill it out and mail it back in; b) drop it off at a “voting center,” that being California’s new phrase to cover for its reduction in the number of physical polling places; or c), allow a third party, such as a partisan campaign worker, to mail it in or drop it off.  

This last practice, the use of third parties to facilitate voting, is known as “vote harvesting,” or “ballot harvesting,” and it’s already legal in California. Indeed, the widespread application of the practice explains why votes—almost all of them, interestingly enough, Democrat votes—kept turning up in days after the 2018 midterm elections, when California Democrats picked up seven House seats.  

Indeed, ballot harvesting is seen as the political equivalent of a wonder-weapon—that is a weapon of victory for Democrats and a weapon of defeat for Republicans.   

The mega-question, of course, is whether or not VBM, plus ballot harvesting, will increase opportunities for vote fraud.

Vote Fraud

Here’s what MIT’s Election Lab has to say about VBM and vote fraud: 

There are two major features of VBM that raise these concerns.  First, the ballot is cast outside the public eye, and thus the opportunities for coercion and voter impersonation are greater.  Second, the transmission path for VBM ballots is not as secure as traditional in-person ballots. These concerns relate both to ballots being intercepted and ballots being requested without the voter’s permission.

Continuing, MIT allows that, “even many scholars who argue that fraud is generally rare agree that fraud with VBM voting seems to be more frequent than with in-person voting.” [emphasis added] 

The prospects of increased fraud should concern all Americans, of course—in both parties. And yet so far, it seems that only Republicans are concerned.  

As President Trump declared on March 30, speaking of Democrat efforts to put VBM provisions into the Covid-19 economic relief bill, “They had things—levels of voting that, if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.” Trump has repeated his warning about VBM many times since. 

In the meantime, a CNN “fact check” on April 10 offered this blunt headline, trashing Trump and wrapping VBM in the mantle of science: “Trump lies about voter fraud while states, CDC encourage voting-by-mail as pandemic-friendly option.” 

Many, if not most, on the right agree with Trump’s dire prognosis about the dangers of VBM. For instance, there’s the Heritage Foundation, which has published many reports on vote fraud; it has even provided a vote-fraud map.

Zeroing in on VBM, Heritage’s Hans von Spakovsky, a former commissioner at the Federal Election Commission, headlined an April 10 piece, “Potential for Fraud Is Why Mail-In Elections Should Be Dead Letter.” As von Spakovsky put it:

Absentee ballots are the tools of choice of election fraudsters because they are voted outside the supervision of election officials, making it easier to steal, forge, or alter them, as well as to intimidate voters.

Continuing, he added:

Going entirely to by-mail elections would unwisely endanger the security and integrity of the election process, particularly if officials automatically mail absentee ballots to all registered voters without a signed, authenticated request from each voter.

Voter registration rolls are notoriously inaccurate and out of date, containing the names of voters who are deceased, have moved, or otherwise have become ineligible.

Having thousands of ballots arriving in the mail for individuals who no longer reside at a registered address risks those ballots being stolen and voted.

It’s not too hard to visualize some of the scenes wherein ballots will arrive: not just to homes and apartments, but also to nursing homes, homeless shelters, military bases—even jails. And then, too, it’s not hard to visualize the role played by ballot harvesters, as well as others operating along the whole length of the ballot “supply chain.” And so in California, whom should we trust to handle security for 21 million ballots, before, during, and after election day?

Specifically, von Spakovsky pointed to California’s largest city, Los Angeles:

The problem (and opportunity for fraud) this could cause is illustrated by something the president talked about at one of his news conferences; namely, the settlement that Judicial Watch obtained from Los Angeles and the state of California over their failure to maintain the accuracy of their voter registration rolls.

The state and LA agreed to remove from the rolls 1.5 million individuals who remained registered even though they no longer were eligible to vote. Imagine what would have happened if 1.5 million ballots were simply mailed out to all of those individuals to addresses where they no longer live.

Yes, 1.5 million stray ballots makes for a lot of potential political mayhem. 

We might further note that, according to the Census Bureau, almost 12 percent of Americans change addresses every year. If that percentage of changers were to be found in California this year, that would mean that roughly 2.4 million Californians will have changed addresses in 2020. Can California handle that volume of change? Can any state?  

We might also add that, extrapolating from national mortality statistics, approximately a quarter-million Californians over the age of 18 will die this year. How many of these decedents will get ballots? 

In other words, it seems likely that the political dam is going to burst in California.  

So what should California Republicans do in the face of this flood? How should America as a whole respond? These are questions for another time, and yet in the meantime, it certainly seems vital that we use our federalized system to compartmentalize California and other VBM states. That is, our 50-state constitutional system provides a natural bulwark against the choices of some states, especially those that have proven themselves to be sloppy, deliberately or otherwise, about policing vote fraud. Specifically, as this author has argued, we should double down on our defense of the Electoral College.

Oh, and one more thing: Once VBM is established, it won’t be long before we start moving to VBA—that is, Vote By App.

Also in California, the tech moguls of Silicon Valley look forward to the prospect of helping with e-voting. And Democrats look forward to their help.


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