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I would like to learn more about how mail-in ballots prevent fraud. This is in United States.

  1. If I receive a mail-in ballot, and sign my neighbor's name on it, and mail it back, what will happen? (Assume I successfully forge my neighbor's signature - it looks exactly like his). Also assume my neighbor voted too -- is the vote counted once, twice, or not at all?

  2. If I and my roommate receive ballots, and I sign mine then offer to sign hers in exchange for doing a chore, like the dishes, and she agrees, is there any way to prevent that? (I assume not, but just curious, since it seems this would go completely undetected).

  3. If I work for a political campaign in my neighborhood, may I walk around the town and knock on doors, reminding people to fill out their ballots. Assume they voluntarily fill it out, but I may stand and watch them as they do it.

  4. Same as above, but the person says they do not have a ballot - may I give them one (that I received from the state legally, if such a thing exists) and then they fill that out?

  5. I steal my neighbor's mail and fill out his ballot and send it back. He then votes in person. What happens? Assume that I forge signature successfully.

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    In any halfway functioning state, which I unfortunately can't vouch for being all of them, they don't just hand out blank mail-in ballots. The local election offices of the state or locality (not campaign employees) issue them with the name on them, so there only exists at most one ballot per registered voter. Impersonating someone else is another matter - it's a form of criminal fraud
    – Pete W
    Commented Jul 2 at 0:34
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    Just so it's said, the risk of being caught in voter fraud increases exponentially with the size of the fraud, while the value of voter fraud increases (at best) linearly. Small-scale fraud may or may not get caught (though it's likely that the ballots will be nullified as soon as irregularities are spotted), but it's unlikely to have any impact on anything. Electoral fraud is just not cost-effective. Commented Jul 2 at 2:21
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    Some of these questions (1, 5) are answered here: brennancenter.org/our-work/analysis-opinion/…. 4 is not possible because unless you are the government, you can't "give out" ballots. For 2, presumably if you want to sell your vote, you can; after all, you are free to vote however you see fit, including if X offers you a bribe. 3 is presumably up to the person; you are free to reveal how you voted.
    – Allure
    Commented Jul 2 at 5:17
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    The biggest issues with mail in ballots in the US recently have been changing the rules close to or during the election. In some cases (PA) by the court. It is much harder to prove identity with mail in ballots. There is no easy way around that.
    – DogBoy37
    Commented Jul 2 at 12:50
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    It's easy to imagine potentially plausible methods of subverting a process you aren't familiar with; it's much harder when you have to address the real checks and balances. Commented Jul 2 at 19:41

4 Answers 4

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Basically, if you vote illegally, and you are caught, you can be prosecuted criminally for doing so. This would usually be a felony. The more often you commit the crime, the more likely you are to be caught, but the crime is likely to produce an election result changing for the politician who is the beneficiary of the crime only if it is committed many times.

Election administration in the United States is predominantly a question of state law, so whether or not particular scenarios are crimes or not would vary. Scenarios 1 and 5 are clearly crimes in every state. The legality of scenarios 2, 3, and 4 would vary from state to state.

The question assumes a perfect forgery, but of course, in reality, election fraudsters are rarely that competent and making a perfect forgery is comparable in difficulty to successfully impersonating a voter in person at a polling place. Signature verification and confirmation that a purported ballot was indeed sent to a registered voter is common place, and there are systems in place to catch multiple ballots purportedly cast by the same voter. Many states have systems in place to catch ballots cast by deceased voters.

If your election fraud is not caught before the ballot is dumped in an anonymous pile and counted, this would not change the election result unless the election literally came down to a number of voters smaller than the number of votes that are known to be fraudulent. This happened in the 9th Congressional District race in North Carolina in 2018, which caused the election to not be certified and eventually be followed by a do-over election. This is the only case in recent memory where there was enough fraud to place the result in question.

If your fraud was discovered before that point, both mail-in ballots that were submitted would be held aside as provisional ballots, or something similar under state law, and the disposition of those ballots would be resolved in some sort of administrative or court hearing as prescribed by state law.

Of course, it is worth noting that mail-in voting fraud is vanishingly rare, and, indeed, possibly even less common than in-person voting fraud. In real life it is a one-in-a-million event.

When illegal votes are cast, this is usually either perpetrated intentionally by conservative activists or others who were complaining most loudly about voting fraud, see, e.g. in Arizona, Colorado, different Colorado case, election law violations by Colorado election official, related Colorado case, Florida, different Florida case, Georgia, Iowa, Nevada, North Carolina, and Wisconsin, or by someone who made a good faith mistake about their eligibility to vote, sometimes after receiving inaccurate information from an election official, see e.g., in Texas and Florida

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    I don't think this answer is satisfactory. Everybody understands voting fraud is a punishable crime, but how to verify the authenticity of the mail-in vote was the question. Something rarely happens can be attributed to the lack of vote verification mechanism.
    – r13
    Commented Jul 2 at 1:18
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    @r13 Most jurisdictions do signature verification, but the question assumes perfect forgeries.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Jul 2 at 1:36
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    The link doesn't show that voter fraud is rare, it shows that voter fraud is rarely detected.
    – fectin
    Commented Jul 2 at 17:19
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    @fectin There is absolutely no evidence to show that voting fraud is common but rarely detected.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Jul 2 at 17:20
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    @Hosea Yes. It fits almost every intentional voting fraud cases in the last five years at least (see, e.g. the linked case and some recent ones in FL and CO). I didn't have time to compile a list of cases with links. Almost all other cases of illegally voting or registering to vote involve good faith misunderstandings re issues like when felony DQ is in force when on parole or when citizenship becomes official when a citizenship ceremony is scheduled or clerical errors in registration addresses.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Jul 2 at 17:50
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With most things in the U.S., that apparently comes down to how the specific states handle it. Like that already starts with the fact that some states prefer mail-in ballots, some allow it without an explanation, while others require an excuse not to vote at a polling place. Here's a map.

  1. If I receive a mail-in ballot, and sign my neighbor's name on it, and mail it back, what will happen? (Assume I successfully forge my neighbor's signature – it looks exactly like his). Also assume my neighbor voted too — is the vote counted once, twice, or not at all?

According to Wikipedia:

The election office prints a unique barcode on the return envelope provided for each ballot, so processing of each envelope can be tracked, sometimes publicly

So not only would that likely invalidate your own vote and not work with regards to spoiling your neighbor's vote, because the return envelopes are personalized, but you'd also likely face legal trouble for impersonation, identity theft, forgery, or all of the above.

  1. If I and my roommate receive ballots, and I sign mine then offer to sign hers in exchange for doing a chore, like the dishes, and she agrees, is there any way to prevent that? (I assume not, but just curious, since it seems this would go completely undetected).

What do you want to sign here? Like again not an expert and that may vary by states, but afaik your ballot is supposed to be secret, so you're not supposed to sign that anywhere (again check the instructions for your state). So most likely you'd sign the envelope or a statement within the envelope that that is your vote. So are you doing chores for one signature? Now I guess an "X" for a person is hardly distinguishable and that's kind of the point (secrecy), while your signature or in that case that of your roommate can be checked against other versions of your signature that you might have provided or had to provide starting the process of receiving your ballot.

Not really the 21st century method and could cut both ways in that sloppy handwriting could be exploited to dismiss a valid signature, while sloppy checking could be used to green-light an invalid one, but yeah that layer of fraud protection is apparently in place. So (depending on state and whatnot) criminal charges for chores and not doing one signature doesn't seem worth it.

  1. If I work for a political campaign in my neighborhood, may I walk around the town and knock on doors, reminding people to fill out their ballots. Assume they voluntarily fill it out, but I may stand and watch them as they do it.

Apparently apart from the vicinity of the polling place reminding people to vote seem to be legal in the U.S.  Watching them fill out their ballot is likely illegal, though probably hard to prove. Though the more often you do that the more likely the witness accounts will pile up and get you in legal trouble, while if you're doing it scarcely, the effect will be negligible for the potential crime...

  1. Same as above, but the person says they do not have a ballot – may I give them one (that I received from the state legally, if such a thing exists) and then they fill that out?

Where would the ballot come from that you'd give them? Like, you're not supposed to have more than one in the first place. Also, why not just direct them to the authorities? Usually there are methods in place to either exchange a damaged ballot for a new one, to invalidate the old one in favor of a new one (for example the barcode envelope number that refers to you could be changed in the registry invalidating the old one), and so on.

But even if you report yours missing, receive a new one and later find it again, so that you have two, where would you want to cast them (if it wouldn't already be invalid)? Like I'd assume there is some registry that checks if you're eligible and if you have voted already (no matter the method or the place), so if you stuff two votes in one envelope that is immediately invalid and likely criminal. The polling places are also likely to be watched and giving the ballot to an ineligible voter would cause the same problems just for a different person.

  1. I steal my neighbor's mail and fill out his ballot and send it back. He then votes in person. What happens? Assume that I forge signature successfully.

There are so many things wrong with that. First of all, in order for your neighbor to receive his postal voting stuff, that would either be a place with all-mail voting, or they'd have needed to request that and would thus be checking their mail and potentially complain that it isn't there yet. Also (depending on the state) they would either vote with the ballot received in the mail or need to exchange it at the institutions to be able to vote in person. So the in-person voting should fail as they are not eligible upon which the registry could be checked, whether the mail-in-ballot is already or still present and un-opened, the signature could be checked and depending on where in the process that became apparent this could all be reversed and he could get a new ballot, while the mail-in-ballot would be destroyed or kept as evidence for a fraud case.

So that would again be a lot of ifs and a high risk of criminal cases, for a rather low chance of successfully casting 1 additional vote.

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    As someone who's voted by mail, this is a pretty good answer, although maybe could be clarified a tiny bit. You can't just go somewhere and pickup a basket full of mail in ballots (which seems to be a point of confusion). Barcodes are used to track which voter the ballot was issued to. I had to sign an intermediary envelop stating I was the voter, not the actual ballot.
    – Robert
    Commented Jul 2 at 21:08
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For number 5, I can answer as to what would happen in Pennsylvania at the polls courtesy of being a poll worker. Your neighbor, when they arrived, would be informed that they are on the list of people who have received a mail-in ballot and that they must surrender their ballot to vote in person. If they are unable to (which they likely would be, since you have stolen their ballot), they can fill out a provisional ballot, whereupon the county board of elections would investigate the situation within 7 days after the election and determine whether they were, in fact, eligible to vote. The process there is slightly opaque, probably in part due to desire to avoid informing people on how to subvert it, but likely, they would review the mail-in ballot for discrepancies, and would be slightly inclined to consider the in-person ballot as more likely to either be the voter's genuine ballot or an attempt to fix a prior mistake.

I have occasionally had people tell me that provisional ballots are only counted if they might change election results (if you have 2,000 provisional ballots and no race on the ballot has a candidate winning by less than that number, expending the resources on verifying those ballots wouldn't actually change the results), but the policy is that all provisional ballots are to be examined, although votes on them may only be partially counted, particularly for people who lodge a provisional ballot in the wrong voting district, as their votes for local races cannot be considered since they would not be eligible to vote in that district.

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  • That's interesting. So even if the ballot was sent to someone unsolicited, they must surrender it in order to vote in person?
    – ineedahero
    Commented Jul 3 at 14:46
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    @ineedahero: In Pennsylvania, you have to request the mail-in ballot (although currently you do not need to provide a reason), so the only way it could be unsolicited is if someone fraudulently requested it for you. Commented Jul 3 at 14:48
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As far as 4 is concerned, if you receive one ballot from the state, and you give it to someone else, that is largely the same as 2. If you somehow get your hands on two ballots, you almost certainly would have to have committed a crime to do so. In addition, mail ballots come with an envelope with the voter's name on it. Just giving someone a ballot doesn't do much. If a ballot is returned without the envelope, at best it's going to go in the provisional pile.

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