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MAIL-IN VOTING: Sifting through the misinformation


As a battleground state in the 2020 presidential election, Nevada has been witnessing much politicking since the Democrat-led state legislature’s decision to opt for universal mail-in ballots. This decision has attracted national attention from the President, the spread of misinformation, passionate debates and vitriolic online trolling. 

While about 75% of Biden supporters said they intend to vote by mail-in ballot according to a Wall Street Journal Poll conducted in August, 66% of Trump supporters said they intend to vote in-person. 

The only difference between an absentee and mail-in ballot is that an absentee ballot is requested by voters when they are unable to vote in-person, whereas mail-in ballots are sent to active, registered voters without them having to request the ballot. Both are perfectly legal ballots. 

Still, Americans are receiving contrasting messages from politicians. While Democrats maintain that mail-in ballots are safe and the right thing to do during a global pandemic that has claimed more than 210,000 American lives, a majority of Republican leaders have claimed, without evidence, that mail-in ballots create election fraud. 

How can a voter figure out what is fact and what is fiction? A first step is to understand some of the main misconceptions around mail-in ballots and why they are being spread. 

False Claim 1: Mail-in ballots create voter fraud 

Historically, mail-in ballots and absentee ballots, often used as interchangeable terms, have been an established and trusted means of casting a vote. In 17th-century Massachusetts, men could vote by mail if their homes were “vulnerable to Indian attack,” according to historian Alex Keyssar’s book The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States. During the Civil War, America began experimenting with absentee voting on a large scale as a great number of men were away from their homes to fight in the war. 

This is an established practice from which President Trump himself and his family benefit as they cast their votes by mailed in absentee ballots, according to verified reports. Studies, records and investigations have not found substantial voter fraud because of mail-in voting.

Some mail-in ballots have been rejected in the past by election officials because of un-matching signatures or incorrect filling out of the ballot, but these numbers are not bigger than types of voting fraud that have happened in small numbers in both Democrat and Republican majority states. There is no evidence that mailed-in votes have “tremendous” capacity for fraud, as the president has claimed.  

Before all of the recent controversy, five states allowed all of their registered voters to vote by mail-in ballots: Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah. Absentee ballots were allowed in 30 states with anyone able to request an absentee ballot provided they had a reasonable excuse, like being away. Also, all states allow absentee voting for military members. 

In April, President Trump took to Twitter claiming that mail-in ballots create voter fraud but, since then, has not provided any evidence to support his claim. His political messaging around mail-in voting has remained confusing and inconsistent. 

A county worker checks and counts ballots in the June 2020 primary election. Image: Trevor Bexon

In early August, he said that mail-in-voting in Florida is fine because the state has a Republican governor. Kayleigh McEnany, press secretary to the president, said that Trump’s objection is against universal mail-in ballots; however, she failed to mention that Florida voted to replace “absentee” in state statutes with “vote-by-mail” in 2016. Vote-by-mail is, indeed, no-excuse universal mail-in voting. 

Recently, FBI Director Christopher Wray testified to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that there is no proof of large-scale, nationally coordinated voter fraud in the U.S., whether done in person or by mail. Fact-checking website Snopes.com, too, looked into the various claims and concluded that there is no significant amount of voter fraud in the U.S.

What’s happening here can only be described as the willful creation of confusion and chaos, a textbook definition of disinformation like the kind Russia used against America in the early 1980s when it started a conspiracy theory called Operation Infektion that blamed America for AIDS. The propaganda said U.S. labs made AIDS as a bio weapon to kill Black people. 

Both claims build outsized pictures of fear and intrigue to mislead and foment confusion. 

The important question is, why would an American do such a thing to undermine a U.S. election? Going by talking points adopted by populist leaders around the world, stoking fears of “the other”–illegals, immigrants, outsiders and anti-nationals–is quite common. This serves to energize the voter base of the leader. America is witnessing a similar trend. According to former Vice President Al Gore, Trump and his allies are preemptively “planting doubt” to “try to undermine people’s confidence in the election.”  

Experts guess he is doing so for two reasons. The first is dissuading voters who may not vote for him. 

On Oct. 1, both the Michigan attorney general and Detroit district attorney charged two conservative operatives with making a whopping 85,000 fraud robocalls to voters of color in Detroit and other Democratic-majority states to stop them from voting by mail-in ballots. The calls told the voters that they would be arrested, forcefully vaccinated and subjected to debt collection if they vote by mail in the Nov. 3 election. 

The second reason to undermine election results is to claim victory by promoting the belief that mail-in votes cannot be trusted. “You know that I’ve been complaining very strongly about the ballots, and the ballots are a disaster,” Trump said during a highly controversial response about transfer of power if he lost the election. 

This non-stop misinformation would also pave the way for further confusion after the election. Some experts are already predicting a situation of both Biden and Trump claiming that they won the election. 

False Claim 2: There will be voter fraud in Nevada 

Historically, Nevada has been one of the most transparent of states when it comes to voting. There has been zero voter fraud in connection with use of absentee ballots, and only one case of voter fraud in 2014 when Hortencia Segura-Munoz was criminally convicted for ineligible voting or false registration. According to election laws, mail-in ballots are sent only to “active registered voters.”

But, the stellar record of Nevada did not prevent President Trump from saying that “Democrats are trying to rig this election” and mail-in ballots lead to “20% to 25%” voter fraud, during his Sept. 12 rally in Minden

This is not true. According to multiple sources in his own administration, there has not been any significant amount of voter fraud in the U.S. 

Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Minden. Image: Ty O’Neil

While misinformation coming directly from the president has its impact, the repetitiveness of the unverified claims makes a long-term dent in how people think. 

Certain types of strategic communications, including political communication, rely on a circular logic to spread a message. Trump supporters would feel that because the president says voter fraud will occur through mail-in ballots it must be true; unless voter fraud is a real thing, why would the president and other politicians say so? 

Nevada Republicans, including former Attorney General Adam Laxalt and Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, opposed the measure for mail-in ballots, Assembly Bill 4 (AB4), during the Nevada Legislature’s 32nd Special Session.

Ironically, Cegavske ordered mail-in balloting for the June 2020 primaries. In earlier testimony on the bill, Cegavske noted there were no complaints of fraud in the primary. However, following the June primaries she had a change of heart after getting mixed reviews on the practice, reported the Reno Gazette Journal

False Claim 3: People can vote twice

Since all registered voters in Nevada will receive a mail-in ballot, they must first surrender their mail-in ballot or sign an affirmation that they will not vote twice under penalty of perjury if they wish to vote in person. Also, the Election Management System (EMS) does not allow the same person to vote twice; depending on whether one casts a vote in person or by mail, the other option will be automatically invalidated.

A person cannot vote twice. Again, this misinformation has spread because people are hearing two types of misinformation on the topic. 

The first is the idea that a voter may be able to vote twice. The idea was reinforced as Trump, at a campaign rally in North Carolina, asked people to send in the mail-in ballot early and then go to the polling booth to vote a second time to check if their votes were “tabulated,” essentially planting a doubt that the EMS might not be trusted. Also, this process is not possible as a voter cannot send in a ballot and then walk inside a booth to cast another vote, as he will not be able to surrender his ballot. This process would do nothing but create confusion and delay. 

The other misinformation is that since one must surrender their mail-in ballot before casting their vote in person, if one did not receive a mail-in ballot for delivery delay or any other cause, it stops them from voting. This is simply not the case. They can vote in person after signing an affirmation under penalty of perjury stating that they have not already voted.

False Claim 4: Ballot harvesting and ‘granny farming’

In August, Nevada passed AB4, which clarifies who can collect ballots. According to language in AB4, “a person authorized by  the  voter  may  return  the  mail  ballot  on  behalf  of  the  voter  by mail or personal delivery to the county or city clerk.” There are strict regulations against any unauthorized person interfering with the return of mail-in ballots. 

Yet, there have been misleading claims from critics of mail-in ballots that this would lead to ballot harvesting. The accusation is that dishonest people will go to assisted living homes and manipulate grandmas into giving away their ballots for harvesting. 

Lately, ballot harvesting is being talked about as a malpractice. But this has been a common, legal practice of collecting and submitting the ballots by specified agents such as family members, authorized legal guardians and, in some states, paid staff where harvesting is legal, such as in California and Colorado. Some states have limitations in place on how many ballots a paid agent can collect. 

In the current political climate, politicians have painted a picture of an agent running off with someone else’s ballot or “one of the post guys” delivering a “handful of” ballots “to some Democratic political operative,” as President Trump claimed at his September rally in Minden. Comments like these create an image of lawlessness, incompetency and chaos and can scare law-abiding citizens. However, the checks and balances embedded in AB4 make it nearly impossible for anyone to collect ballots without authorization.

In parts of rural and frontier Nevada, some voters have said ballot collection is a lifeline.

False Claim 5: The signature requirement is watered down in AB4 

The rules around who can add the signature to a mail-in ballot and how a signature is verified are stringent under AB4. Contrary to what people like Laxalt have said–that “paid Democrat operatives or Republicans” can sign for old people–this is untrue. 

Only in a scenario when a voter has a “physical disability,” or is 65 years or older, or illiterate, can they designate someone else to add a signature on their behalf or help them in the process. The signatory will then need to furnish documents, their signature, their contact details and an attestation of the fact that the voter authorized them to do so and enclose it with the ballot before handing them over to the county or city clerk or mailing or dropping them off at the ballot drop box placed inside the office of the county or city clerk or a polling place. In the case of an absentee ballot, an almost identical rule for signatures applies if an elderly or disabled voter authorizes another person to return the ballot. 

Frederick Douglass and his dog, MAGA Maggie, joined protesters who gathered in downtown Reno Aug. 4, 2020 to rally against AB4 and mail-in voting. Image: Trevor Bexon

In Washoe County, completed ballots may be returned by mail or in person to any polling location or ballot drop off location or to the Registrar of Voters Office, located at the Washoe County Administration complex at Ninth and Wells Avenue, Building A, Room 135.

Likewise, signatures are checked diligently against previous records by multiple people. In case of doubt, a voter will get a call from the county clerk who will initiate a procedure to verify their signature. 

Why do I keep seeing that the election is not safe?

From the point of view of a layperson a common question would be, if mail-in ballots don’t cause voter fraud, why is the topic reappearing in the news?

The lifecycle of news depends on the most recent news–a constant update of information. News of ballots in favor of President Trump being discarded made headlines in both mainstream and alternative media outlets, especially right-leaning websites and channels. 

The media releases that quickly followed announced, “Democrats are trying to steal the election,” but did not mention that Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, where the incident happened, is a Republican-majority local government and the worker who discarded the ballots, potentially in error, was being trained by the county. 

Likewise, a recent sensationalized video by Project Veritas, a conservative outlet with a history of making manipulated and misleading videos and interviews for which it had to pay fines, claimed that there has been voter fraud in Minnesota with involvement of Rep. Ilhan Omar. 

In the video, one cannot see some of the interviewees alleging voter fraud, there is lack of attribution and a failure to establish credibility per journalistic standards. Minneapolis Tribune did an in-depth investigation and found no evidence of the alleged voter fraud, and fact-checking website Snopes.com ran a fact-check on the videos and could not find any factual evidence to the claims of voter fraud. 

Different actors spreading similar types of lies intentionally or otherwise, create what is called a disinformation ecosystem. Internet users unwittingly become a part of this system as social media, websites and messaging apps show the users similar types of content with the help of algorithms to amplify such false information. 

The result can be devastating for a democracy. According to a survey by Pew Research Center, about 50% of Amricans feel that voting in 2020 will be difficult even though there is no fact-based reason for concern. 

Recognizing the onslaught of misinformation, Nevada’s Secretary of State has also published a comprehensive list of what is fact and what is false. It’s a useful tool for voters.  

What is not being highlighted enough amid the kerfuffle of partisan politics is that there are provisions for both in-person and mail-in voting in Nevada, providing for freedom of choice in how voters want to vote.

Let that knowledge sink in.

Sudhiti Naskar
Sudhiti Naskar
Sudhiti (Shu) Naskar is a multimedia journalist and researcher who has years of experience covering international issues. In the role of a journalist, she has covered gender, culture, society, environment, and economy. Her works have appeared on BBC, The National, The Wall Street Journal, Marie Claire, Reno Gazette-Journal, Caravan and more. Her interests lie in the intersection of art, politics, social justice, education, tech, and culture. She took a sabbatical from media to attend graduate school at the University of Nevada Reno in 2017. In this period, she has won awards, represented her school at an international conference and successfully defended her thesis on political disinformation at the Reynolds School of Journalism where she earned her Master's in Media Innovation.