By: Eric Lynch
Ken Block, a two-time former gubernatorial candidate, made headlines in early October 2017 over a provocative tweet regarding voter identification (“voter-ID”) and mail-in ballots. Mr. Block claimed that mail-in ballots violated Rhode Island’s voter-ID law and are effectively a “gigantic, illegal loophole” to performing widespread voter fraud. Block implored the Rhode Island legislature to attend to this matter immediately. In response, Mr. Stephen Erickson, a Rhode Island State Board of Elections member, considered such a measure as “another effort to limit people’s ability to vote.” Mr. Erickson asserted that the Board “regularly rejects mail[-in] ballots where there is a substantial difference between the two signatures or if the witnesses does not provide enough information so that they can be identified and questioned.”
Each state manages its own elections, so naturally each state facilitates its own absentee voter process and voter-ID requirements. Rhode Island is one of twenty states which requires an accepted excuse to justify absentee voting. Additionally, Rhode Island’s voter-ID law requires voters to present one of seven possible photo identifications, or one of three identifications without photograph, to vote. But as Mr. Block highlighted, Rhode Island does not require voter-IDs to vote via mail-in ballot. This is potentially problematic because many people use mail-in ballots to vote in Rhode Island. Out of the nearly 465,000 Rhode Island votes cast in the 2016 presidential race, over 40,000 ballots were through mail-in ballots.
While voter-ID is not required to vote with a mail-in ballot, the registration process does require voter verification. According to the Help America Vote Act, first time registrants must provide a valid driver’s license number, a valid state-issued identification number, or the last four digits of her social security number. Rhode Island’s voter registration application requires this information to proceed. If the registrant does not provide this information, Rhode Island requires that the registrant present one acceptable form of identification at the polls to verify his identification.
Therefore, Mr. Block’s claim does have some merit that a person could commit voter fraud through mail-in ballot. In 2012, Verna Roehm pled guilty to misdemeanor fraud in South Carolina after submitting an absentee ballot on behalf of her deceased husband. In 2017, Christopher Billups pled to lesser charges in Idaho after originally being charged with felony voter fraud. It was alleged that Mr. Billups attempted to vote by mail in Washington and at the polls in Idaho.
But Mr. Block’s claim fails to demonstrate how adding a photo identification requirement to mail-in ballots would prevent these incidents. In Ms. Roehm’s case, her husband was already a registered voter so she could have likely included a copy of her husband’s valid photo identification with the absentee ballot. Whereas with Mr. Billups’s case, a voter-ID law attached to mail-in ballots in Washington would not have affected his ability to appear to vote in Idaho.
There is no present evidence to suggest that there is widespread voter fraud regarding mail-in ballots. Rhode Island officials insist that voter fraud, as a whole, is not pervasive in the state. This assertion is supported by various government and independent reports which continuously debunk claims about widespread voter fraud in the United States. Furthermore, in the initial aftermath of the 2016 election, there were only four documented voter fraud cases. These incidents accounted for 0.000002 percent of the total votes cast in the general election.
While there is no evidence to prove widespread, mail-in voter fraud, Mr. Block can reasonably question its potential to exist. Voters in nursing homes are reasonably susceptible to fraudulent assistance regarding mail-in ballots. In 2013, Deisy Penton de Cabrera was sentenced to one-year probation for illegally possessing 31 absentee ballots (29 more than allowed by the state). While other charges were dropped, Ms. Cabrera was allegedly seen filling out an absentee ballot for an unresponsive elderly woman suffering from a brain tumor. Additionally, absentee ballots are reasonably more likely to encourage buying ballots because the buyer can easily be assured that the vote was cast for the desired candidate. An Indiana mayoral race was invalidated in 2004 for this very reason. Hypothetical situations like these in the future are why the Commission on Federal Election Reform concluded that “[a]bsentee ballots remain the largest source of potential voter fraud.”
Although Mr. Block has identified a loophole in the Rhode Island system, there is still no evidence that mail-in ballots are being used to effect elections in this state or across the country. Certainly’, there is potential for voter fraud with mail-in ballots, but it does not appear that attaching a voter-ID hurdle would solve this problem.