Fact-checking William Barr: Is your vote no longer secret with mail-in ballots?

“There’s no more secret vote, there’s no secret vote,” Barr said. “Your name is associated with a particular ballot. The government and the people involved can find out and know how you voted. And it opens up the door to coercion.”

Facts First: Elections experts say Barr is wrongly suggesting that mail-in ballots somehow violate people’s privacy and that he is ignoring safeguards that are in place to ensure the security of people’s ballots when they vote by mail.

Rick Hasen, a University of California-Irvine, professor and one of the nation’s top experts in election law, told CNN, “There is no validity to this claim and it shows once again that either AG Barr has not done even a rudimentary amount of research into how mail-in balloting actually works or he’s deliberately obfuscating.”

Of Barr’s claim that “governments and the people involved” can find out how someone voted, Charles Stewart, a political science professor at MIT, said “that’s just incorrect, if people follow the law.”

As he has done on many previous occasions, Barr is questioning the validity of mail-in balloting, even though millions of Americans, including Barr, have used this method to vote. Hasen told CNN that while “absentee ballot fraud happens at relatively higher rates than other kinds of election fraud,” that overall rate is still “quite low.”

Privacy Safeguards

Several states require mail-in ballots come with a second envelope, sometimes known as a “secrecy sleeve,” an envelope devoid of any personally identifying information in which the voter places the ballot. This secrecy sleeve is then placed inside a larger envelope containing the voter’s signature and other identifying information, like an individualized barcode, for verification purposes. One of the primary ways voter ID is verified is through the ballot envelope.
About a third of states verify signatures as well and match voter information from ballots to existing voter registration records to confirm that the person who voted aligns with the person whose ballot it is. When the election official receives the ballot, after confirming the signature matches what’s on file for the voter, the second envelope containing the ballot is removed and sent to be tabulated without any information that could identify the voter associated with it.

In states where voters aren’t given a second envelope, local election officials take steps to ensure the voter’s identity is still kept separate from their vote. For example, in Wisconsin when an absentee ballot arrives, a municipal clerk puts the whole unopened envelope into a carrier envelope which is securely sealed. On election day, an election inspector will open the carrier envelope in a public place, in the same room where votes are being cast if there’s still in person voting, then verify the identity of the voter, confirming that they are qualified to vote in the district and have not already done so.

Next, the inspectors open the envelope containing the ballot and take it out “without unfolding it or permitting it to be unfolded or examined,” per state statute. The unopened ballot is then placed into the proper ballot box. The ballot is then tallied, anonymously, either by hand or through a vote-scanner. There is often video surveillance of these procedures to ensure compliance with the law.

‘Ballot harvesting’

While vulnerable populations such as people in nursing homes could be susceptible to outside influence, experts say there’s no evidence that this is a widespread occurrence. What Barr was describing echoes the President’s rhetoric about a practice legal in states like California where non-family members are allowed to submit other people’s vote-by-mail ballots, which is referred to by some as “ballot harvesting.”

In Barr’s hypothetical, if an elderly voter, for example, gave their ballot to someone to put in the mail or deliver to a drop box, that person would have to illegally break the seal on one, maybe two envelopes, to see how the voter voted and alter it if so desired. However, most states have policies in place to reject ballots if there’s any issue with the seal, so it’s unlikely the fraudulent ballot would be counted.

Additionally, some states, like Arizona, have taken steps to alert voters if an election official identifies an issue with their ballot, so they can take steps to remedy it if possible, instead of rejecting the ballot out right.

Though voting by mail is anticipated to reach unprecedented levels this election, the practice is not new, which Barr’s comments seem to ignore. In both 2016 and 2018, approximately 25% of US voters cast mail-in ballots without widespread fraud. The Brennan Center notes “[n]one of the five states that hold their elections primarily by mail has had any voter fraud scandals since making that change.”

Ultimately, “The attorney general of the United States should not be spreading disinformation about voting,” Hasen said.

CNN’s Marshall Cohen contributed to this report.

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