ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.
On April 23, during the same week that Kentucky’s Republican secretary of state said he was contemplating a “significant expansion” of vote by mail, the Public Interest Legal Foundation emailed one of his employees under the subject line “28 MILLION ballots lost.”
“Putting the election in the hands of the United States Postal Service would be a catastrophe,” wrote J. Christian Adams, president of PILF, a conservative organization that has long complained about voter fraud. His missive contended, with scant evidence, that “twice as many” mailed ballots “disappeared” in the 2016 presidential election than made up the margin of votes between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
The state worker forwarded the message to his supervisor, who ignored it, according to emails obtained through a public records request. Only days later, Kentucky finalized its plan for the biggest increase in vote by mail in the state’s history. Secretary of State Mike Adams (no relation to J. Christian) said he had little trouble persuading legislators to pass the measure. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised on social media and elsewhere,” he said. “Republicans and Democrats both have been supportive of what we did.”
Not long ago, such a rebuff in a reliably red state to a conservative outlet’s warnings of voter fraud would have been unusual. Think tanks like PILF and the Heritage Foundation; advocacy groups like True the Vote; and politicians like Kris Kobach, Kansas’ former secretary of state, have effectively lobbied Republicans for decades for voter ID laws and stricter registration rules. They generally favor measures that would reduce turnout and oppose those, like vote by mail, that could make it easier to vote. The Heritage Foundation has hosted confidential meetings with like-minded secretaries of state “to strategize on advancing their shared goal of ensuring the integrity of the elections they administer in their home states,” records show.
But now, even as Trump has joined these advocates in denouncing vote by mail, Republican election administrators are rejecting their concerns. In Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, Nebraska, Ohio, South Dakota and West Virginia, GOP officials are expanding vote by mail. Even in Alabama, where Secretary of State John Merrill has long spoken out against vote by mail, the state has added the coronavirus to the reasons for which voters can request an absentee ballot.
Election officials in these states say they have confidence in their ballot security practices. Kentucky’s expansion of vote by mail included “ballot integrity safeguards, such as an application requiring personally identifiable information in order to obtain an absentee ballot, a barcode tracking system for all outgoing and incoming absentee ballots, and proactive maintenance of the voter rolls,” said Miranda Combs, Mike Adams’ spokeswoman. Also, because they don’t see an alternative if the pandemic persists into November, many Republican officials who would otherwise oppose widening vote by mail are showing they are open to it. And they’re aware that Americans support voting by mail by a 2 to 1 margin.
“While the Washington politicians may not agree, our polling shows 70% of Georgia voters approve of the absentee ballot application process and plan on voting by mail due to the COVID-19 crisis,” said Jordan Fuchs, a Republican and Georgia’s deputy secretary of state. “As a result, Georgia has seen more than 1 million absentee ballot requests, with more than 900,000 ballots dropped into the mail system.”
David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research, said he isn’t surprised that the attacks on vote by mail have failed to sway state officials. “The facts simply don’t support” the claims, said Becker, who works directly with states to improve their election systems. “Election officials know what they are doing, and they know that mail voting has proper safeguards and that fraud is extremely rare in elections.”
Spokespeople for Trump, Heritage and PILF did not respond to requests for comment.
National election officials have noticed the states’ adoption of vote by mail. “When it comes to information on how best to administer elections, I rely on state and local election officials,” said Ben Hovland, a Democrat and chairman of the Election Assistance Commission, a national clearinghouse that offers guidance on voting procedures. “I have repeatedly heard from officials of both parties that absentee and mail ballots will be an integral part of their 2020 election response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The wide public support and the relatively smooth expansion of vote by mail on the state level contrast with the opposition of Trump and many Republicans in Congress. Trump used his formerly daily press briefings on the pandemic to cast doubt on vote by mail, often parroting the talking points used by J. Christian Adams and the Heritage Foundation’s Hans von Spakovsky, both of whom served on his now-disbanded voter fraud commission. Trump has called vote by mail “horrible” and “corrupt.” With universal vote by mail, “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again,” he said.
“Mail ballots are a very dangerous thing for this country, because they’re cheaters,” Trump said at a briefing in early April. He recently tweeted about vote by mail in connection with Tuesday’s special congressional election in California, writing: “Turn your Ballots in now and track them, watching for dishonesty. Report to Law Enforcement.”
But states that backed Trump in the 2016 presidential election are largely disregarding his warnings. In the largest expansion of vote by mail in Georgia’s history, its Republican secretary of state sent applications to every active voter, despite protests from the speaker of the Georgia house, David Ralston. There are “a multitude of reasons why vote by mail in my view is not acceptable,” Ralston said in a recent interview. “The president said it best, this will be extremely devastating to Republicans and conservatives in Georgia.”
Ohio went all absentee for its April 28 primary with limited in-person voting for individuals with disabilities. Ballots needed to be postmarked before Election Day but could be received through May 5. Nearly 2 million Ohioans requested absentee ballots, overwhelming clerks with requests.
Kobach, Kansas’ former secretary of state, became prominent by promoting unsupported claims of rampant voter fraud. Yet parts of Kansas, where he is now running for U.S. Senate, are encouraging vote by mail. Johnson County, the state’s largest county, where Kobach personally appointed the current clerk in charge of elections, will mail absentee ballot applications to all active voters ahead of the June primary. The state has allowed citizens to vote by mail up to 20 days before an election since the late 1960s, and it has in recent decades refined that process to enable voters to track their ballots online.
In an April column for Breitbart, Kobach told readers that fraud occurs “in the vast majority of states” that vote by mail. “All except Kansas, that is,” he wrote, where most problems “have been solved by the security reforms that I drafted and the Kansas Legislature enacted in 2011.” Kobach was referring to voter identification requirements, signature verification and prevention of ballot harvesting, in which political operatives round up and cast absentee ballots. These measures, though, aren’t unique to Kansas; 31 states have signature verification, and nearly a dozen others require a witness or a notary. Several states require ID verification to vote by mail, and all but 13 states have laws to deter ballot harvesting.
Kobach did not respond to requests for comment.
In Louisiana, the Republican secretary of state, Kyle Ardoin, worked with the Democratic governor on a plan to let anyone worried about health risks vote by mail. After Republican legislators rejected the proposal, saying it increased the risk of fraud, a scaled-down version passed a few days later. It enables voters to seek absentee ballots if they are at higher risk for the coronavirus.
“This is a great result for Louisiana’s voters and election workers, especially those most susceptible to the COVID-19 virus,” Ardoin said in a statement. “Our plan serves as a temporary and pragmatic response to the COVID-19 pandemic ravaging our nation.”
Texas is responding to the pandemic by lengthening the early voting period, rather than by expanding vote by mail. On Monday night, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott announced that early voting for a state special election on July 14 would begin on June 29 instead of July 6. Still, a federal court may impose an incremental extension of vote by mail in Texas. Over the objections of the Texas attorney general, Ken Paxton, who threatened “criminal sanctions” for voters who apply for an absentee ballot for fear of COVID-19, a U.S. district court issued a temporary injunction expanding the definition of “disability” for purposes of voting by mail to include voters concerned about contracting the disease. Across the state, election administrators say they are prepared to allow people to seek absentee ballots for this reason. “It will make everything so much easier,” said one, who declined to be named.
As in Texas, courts in other states have generally been unsympathetic to allegations that vote by mail increases fraud. Last Tuesday, a federal court in Virginia rejected arguments by the state Republican Party and PILF that removing a requirement that absentee ballots be notarized would increase fraud. The governor had waived the requirement for those who did not feel safe obtaining a notary signature because of the pandemic.
Similarly, a federal judge in Reno, Nevada, in April rejected True the Vote’s lawsuit challenging the state’s plan to hold its June primary largely by mail. “Their claim of voter fraud is without any factual basis,” the judge wrote. “Plaintiffs cannot demonstrate a burden upon their voting rights, only an imposition upon their preference for in-person voting.”
Some red states remain holdouts. In Missouri, Republican Gov. Mike Parson has declined to expand vote by mail, calling it “inappropriate” to change election procedures. The secretary of state has stayed largely silent on the practice.
Von Spakovsky and J. Christian Adams have been pushing voter fraud claims since they both served in the U.S. Department of Justice’s civil rights division during the administration of President George W. Bush. As early as 2010, von Spakovsky called universal vote by mail “a terrible idea whose time should never come,” and he predicted an array of bad outcomes: rampant fraud, voter intimidation, even that the secret ballot would be “under siege.” He has made a habit of calling mailed ballots the “vote thieves’ tool of choice.”
To back up his claims, the Heritage Foundation has compiled a database of vote by mail fraud. But Amber McReynolds, chief executive of Vote at Home, and Charles Stewart, an MIT political scientist who studies election administration, contend that the database actually shows how rare fraud is. In late April, the pair wrote for The Hill that, of the 1,200 cases in the database, “204 involved the fraudulent use of absentee ballots; 143 resulted in criminal convictions.”
“One hundred forty-three cases of fraud using mailed ballots over the course of 20 years comes out to seven to eight cases per year, nationally. It also means that across the 50 states, there has been an average of three cases per state over the 20-year span. That is just one case per state every six or seven years. We are talking about an occurrence that translates to about 0.00006 percent of total votes cast,” they wrote.
For the last three years, von Spakovsky has pressed Republican election officials on election security and voter fraud in private, off-the-record meetings. These get-togethers take place during the National Association of Secretaries of State conferences twice a year, in January in Washington, D.C., and in the summer at a rotating location.
The half-day meetings gather secretaries and election officials on an invitation-only basis. Correspondence obtained by ProPublica through public records requests shows that the meetings’ purpose has been “to have in-depth discussions of these issues and to share strategy and tactics on achieving long-term goals and objectives shared by the secretaries.” Guest speakers, such as Ed Meese, attorney general under President Ronald Reagan, occasionally make appearances.
“I mean, you always know when the meetings are happening, because all of the most conservative secretaries are just gone” from the regular conference events, said one secretary of state whom the Heritage Foundation has not invited. “What would actually be helpful is if these secretaries were present” at the NASS trainings and briefings.
As the pandemic has raged, and states have rejected their attacks on vote by mail, von Spakovsky and Adams have slightly modified their position. Like Kobach, von Spakovsky has touted his home state as an island of responsible practices. He, Adams and Cleta Mitchell wrote on Fox News’ website that Georgia — where von Spakovsky lives and speaks frequently with the secretary of state’s staff, according to email records — will “cut down” on fraud by sending absentee ballot applications only to registered and active voters.
The authors didn’t point out that similar procedures have become the norm in other states. Instead, they warned, “No one should forget that absentee-ballot voting is vulnerable to intimidation, fraud and chaos as all-mail elections move behind closed doors beyond the oversight of election officials.”
May 12, 2020: This story originally misstated the political party of Ben Hovland. He is a Democrat, not a Republican.