2020 Elections

Fact Check: Voting by Mail in the Swing States

About a quarter of ballots cast in the 2018 general elections nationwide were by mail

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President Donald Trump has repeatedly attacked mail-in voting as “fraudulent” and “corrupt,” even going so far to suggest it might be a reason to postpone the Nov. 3 election. But voters can use that option without giving a reason for doing so in six swing states that are crucial to his reelection bid.

The six — Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — are among the 34 states (plus Washington, D.C.) that have “no excuse” absentee or mail-in voting, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

About a quarter of ballots cast in the 2018 general elections nationwide were by mail, according to the Election Assistance Commission. (Our map at the bottom of the story shows the percentage of votes cast by mail for each state in the 2018 election.) And mail-in voting has soared during this year’s primaries as the nation struggles with the COVID-19 pandemic.

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The president has drawn a distinction between absentee voting, which he says is “good,” and mail-in voting. But as we have reported, it’s a distinction without a difference. Voting experts have told us verification is the same for both, and many states consider them the same thing.

As we have written, there is no evidence to support the claim that “mailed ballots are corrupt.” Voting experts say the president is exaggerating when he says mail ballots are “fraudulent in many cases.” While the instances of voter fraud via mail-in or absentee ballots are more common than in-person voting fraud, the number of known cases is relatively rare.

That said, mail-in ballots are not without problems. Ballots have been rejected because they arrive late, because voters forget to sign them or other errors. Because of a massive increase of mail-in voting, two congressional races in New York City remained undecided nearly six weeks after voters went to the polls.

While Trump has crusaded against what he decries as the evils of mail-in voting, he makes an exception for the swing state of Florida.

Why is it “Safe and Secure” in the Sunshine State, as Trump claimed in a tweet, and rife with fraud elsewhere? Because, Trump said at a White House briefing, Republicans have been in charge.

Trump, Aug. 4: So Florida has got a great Republican governor, and it had a great Republican governor. It’s got Ron DeSantis, Rick Scott — two great governors. And over a long period of time, they’ve been able to get the absentee ballots done extremely professionally. Florida is different from other states.

Trump is wrong. In fact, Florida handles mail-in ballots the same way as the other 33 states that allow mail-in voting without a reason. It doesn’t even use the term “absentee ballot” anymore.

None of the six states is sending actual ballots, as opposed to applications, to all voters. To receive mail-in ballots, voters must request them or be on a permanent mail-in voting list.

Here is the situation in those six key swing states, beginning with Florida:

President Trump is threatening social media companies with the prospect of new regulation after "fact checks" were added to two of his tweets by Twitter. Trump accused Twitter of "interfering in the 2020 presidential election" and "completely stifling free speech," stating "as president, I will not allow it to happen."

Florida

In 2002, Florida made it possible for all of the state’s registered voters to vote by mail without giving a reason. In 2016, the state replaced the term “absentee ballot” with “vote-by-mail ballot” in state statutes because it more accurately describes the phenomenon.

Voters can request a mail-in ballot by applying online on their county supervisor of elections’ website; writing, emailing or faxing the supervisor of elections; calling the supervisor; or showing up in person.

The deadline for requesting that a mail-in ballot be mailed is 5 p.m. 10 days before an election. Voters can also pick up their own mail-in ballots. Ballots must be received by 7 p.m. on Election Day. In addition to utilizing the U.S. Postal Service, ballots can be returned at secure drop boxes at supervisor of elections’ main and branch offices and early voting sites.

The ballots can’t be dropped off at polling places on Election Day. But if a voter changes his or her mind, the ballot can be cancelled at the polling place, and the voter can exercise his or her franchise the old-fashioned way.

Under Florida law, officials can begin verifying ballot signatures 22 days before the election, but the counting starts after the polls close.

In his remarks at the White House, Trump alluded to a “system” in Florida that doesn’t exist.

Trump, Aug. 4: Florida has been working on this for years. And they have a very good system of mail-in — and that would be absentee or even beyond absentee. So, in the case of Florida, there aren’t too many people that would qualify. … And the two governors, between the both of them, they’ve really got a great system of absentee ballots and even the — even in the case of mail-in ballots, the postal services have built up their — you know, it takes a long time.

The system is simply that any voter who wants to vote by mail can do so. So that’s a lot of people who can qualify. And the word “absentee” doesn’t appear in the “Vote-by-Mail” literature.

In 2018, 30.9% of Florida voters voted by mail, according to the Election Assistance Commission. A poll carried out on July 13 and 14 for AARP Florida and the website Florida Politics found that 49% of the state’s voters planned to do so this year.

Trump narrowly won Florida’s 29 electoral votes in 2016, but trails Biden in the polls this year.

Arizona

Mail-in voting is a widely accepted part of the political landscape in Arizona, as it is in many Western states. In the 2018 general election, 77.8% of the state’s voters voted by mail, according to the Election Assistance Commission.

There are two ways to arrange to vote by mail in the Grand Canyon State. Voters can ask the Arizona secretary of state’s office to add their names to the Permanent Early Voting List, in which case they will be mailed a ballot for each election in which they are eligible to vote. Or they can make a one-time request to the office to vote by mail.

An overwhelming majority of the state’s voters — nearly 3 million voters — are on that permanent list, according to the secretary of state’s office. That’s nearly three times as many as those who aren’t.

Voters are urged to mail their ballots back at least a week before the election. And if they miss that deadline, or don’t want to take a chance their ballots won’t be delivered in time, there are other options.

Voters can drop their ballots off at in-person early voting locations, use ballot drop boxes in some counties, or drop their ballots off on Election Day at a polling place. Those voters don’t have to wait in line; they can use the early-ballot bin.

In March, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, asked legislators to allow counties to have voting only by mail, but the proposal went nowhere.

Officials can start tallying the mail-in votes two weeks before Election Day.

Trump won Arizona’s 11 electoral votes by 4 percentage points in 2016. But presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is narrowly leading the president there in recent polls.

Michigan

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson on May 19 announced that all of the state’s registered voters would be receiving an application to vote by mail in both the August and November elections.

“By mailing applications, we have ensured that no Michigander has to choose between their health and their right to vote,” Benson said. “Voting by mail is easy, convenient, safe, and secure, and every voter in Michigan has the right to do it.”

Benson said 1.3 million of the state’s 7.7 million registered voters are on a permanent absent voter list, and their local election clerk mails them applications ahead of every election.

As we have written, Michigan’s voting was thrust into the spotlight on May 20 when Trump erroneously tweeted that Michigan’s Democratic secretary of state was “illegally” sending “absentee ballots to 7.7 million people” for this year’s primary and general elections.

About an hour after Trump sent his since-deleted tweet, Benson corrected the president with a tweet of her own, saying the state sent “applications, not ballots” and accurately noting that IowaGeorgiaNebraska and West Virginia — all with Republican governors — also mailed absentee ballot applications.

This is the first national election since Michigan voters in 2018 approved a ballot proposal that allows Michiganders to vote by mail without giving a reason. The ballots must be returned to the clerk’s office by 8 p.m. on Election Day.

In 2018, 24.3% of Michigan’s voters voted by mail, according to the Election Assistance Commission.

Counting can start before the polls close on Election Day, at the discretion of local officials.

Trump’s upset triumph in Michigan with its 16 electoral votes — he won by fewer than 11,00 votes — was a key to his victory in 2016. But the president is trailing by a significant amount in the polls this year.

North Carolina

North Carolina is on the brink of a big surge in mail-in voting, according to research by Catawba College politics and history professor Michael Bitzer.

Bitzer, who writes the Old North State Politics political blog, found that requests for mail-in ballots are way up during the year of the coronavirus pandemic. In a July 13 post, he wrote that mail-in requests at this point in 2016 stood at just 15,702. This year about 69,500 have been requested, a massive increase. By Election Day 2016, about 232,000 ballots had been requested.

“Nobody knows what the environment will be like come November, either in terms of the politics or the public health,” Bitzer writes. “But it would appear that a substantial number of North Carolina’s voters are starting to prepare for using a vote method that would keep them from having to stand in line and potentially confront COVID-19.”

While North Carolina is a “no-excuse” state that allows all voters to vote by mail, the Tarheel State has not been a big player in mail-in voting. In 2018, 2.4% of the state’s voters voted by mail, according to the Election Assistance Commission.

In June, with bipartisan support, the Republican-controlled North Carolina Legislature passed a bill designed to make voting by mail easier during the pandemic. The measure, signed into law by Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, calls on the state election board to create a portal to allow voters to request mail-in ballots online. Previously they could do so only by mail or in person. The bill also reduced from two to one the number of witnesses who must sign a completed mail-in ballot. (That provision applies only to this year’s election.)

Ballots are supposed to be returned to the county board of elections by 5 p.m. on Election Day. Ballots received after that will be counted only if they are received by mail no later than 5 p.m. on the third day following the election and postmarked on or before Election Day.

Counting the ballots starts two weeks before Election Day.

In 2016, Trump won North Carolina’s 15 electoral votes by 3.6%. This time around, he is trailing Biden in the polls.

Pennsylvania

On Oct. 31, 2019, Gov. Tom Wolf signed legislation allowing Pennsylvanians for the first time to vote by mail without a specific reason. The ballot must be received by 8 p.m. on Election Day in order to be counted, regardless of when it was postmarked. Voters can either mail their ballots or drop them off at the county election office. Voters can ask to be placed on a permanent mail-in voter list. Pennsylvania also still allows traditional absentee ballots for those who will be out of town or are sick or disabled.

Philadelphia Inquirer analysis found that the Keystone State may have experienced some challenges when the new approach went into effect during the primary in June. The analysis suggested that snagging that mail-in ballot early was crucial in making sure your vote was counted.

The paper found that almost 90% of voters who requested their ballots before May 12, three weeks before the June 2 primary, cast ballots and had their votes recorded. But nearly 40% of the mail-in ballot applications were processed within three weeks of the election. And in that group, just 76% ended up voting and having their votes counted. Without that drop-off, about 92,000 more Pennsylvanians who requested ballots in time could have voted in the primary, the paper’s analysis showed.

The Inquirer said it was impossible to know what caused the difference, but suggested one reason might have been the tight turnaround for ballots received closer to the election.

In an Aug. 1 report on what happened during the primary, the Pennsylvania Department of State, which oversees elections, asked the Legislature to require counties to distribute mail-in ballots earlier. The law requires county election offices to begin mailing ballots to voters no later than 14 days before an election, but the Pennsylvania State Department report recommended delivering ballots no more than 28 days in advance.

The department announced on July 31 that it would provide postage-paid envelopes for mail-in voters. Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar said she expects as many as half of the state’s voters to vote by mail in November. In 2018, just 3.7% of the state’s voters voted by mail, according to the Election Assistance Commission.

Counting the ballots begins at 7 a.m. on Election Day.

Trump narrowly won Pennsylvania in 2016, and its 20 electoral votes were crucial for his victory. It was the first time since 1988 that a Republican won the state. Thus far in the campaign Biden is leading in the state, according to the polls.

Wisconsin

Wisconsin is also a no-excuse ballot state. And on June 17, the Wisconsin Elections Commission voted to make mail-in voting far more convenient in the midst of a pandemic.

The three Republicans and three Democrats on the commission voted unanimously to send mail-in ballot applications to the state’s registered voters. The ballots themselves will be mailed only to voters who request them. The applications are scheduled to go out before Sept. 1.

Even before the change, mail-in voting in Wisconsin increased dramatically during the pandemic. Mail-in voting set a record in the state in balloting in April for the state Supreme Court. (In 2018, just 5.5% of the state’s voters voted by mail, according to the Election Assistance Commission.)

“Absentee voting in the April 2020 election reached unprecedented levels,” the Wisconsin Elections Commission said in a report.

Wisconsin Elections Commission: Absentee ballots cast for the April 2020 election also represented a far greater percentage of the ballots cast than is typical. More than three-quarters of the ballots cast were absentee and more than 60% were delivered by mail. Historically, over 80% of ballots in Wisconsin are cast in person on election day and only 6% are cast as by mail absentee ballots. Wisconsin has seen a steady rise in absentee voting percentages in recent years, but those gains could be attributed to an increase in in-person absentee voting, commonly referred to as early voting.

But the high volume underscored one of the pitfalls of mail-in voting: rejected ballots. An analysis by American Public Media and Wisconsin Watch found that “more than 23,000 ballots were thrown out, mostly because those voters or their witnesses missed at least one line on a form.”

That, their report said, foreshadowed potential problems in the fall.

APM Reports: While there is no way of knowing who those voters will choose in November, the figure is nearly equivalent to Trump’s 2016 margin of victory in Wisconsin of 22,748 votes. And with voter turnout expected to double from April to more than 3 million in November, a proportionate volume of ballot rejections could be the difference in who wins the swing state and possibly the presidency.

In addition, the United States Postal Service is investigating complaints of requested mail-in ballots that were never delivered or were delivered too late.

Tallying the mail-in ballots begins after the polls open on Election Day.

Trump narrowly won Wisconsin in 2016, another key to his victory. He was the first Republican to carry the state since Ronald Reagan in 1984. This year, Biden is leading in the polls.

Editor’s note: Swing State Watch is an occasional series about false and misleading political messages in key states that will help decide the 2020 presidential election.

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