Fact-checking President Trump’s charges about voter fraud and mail-in ballots in NJ

The system isn’t perfect, but voting by mail in New Jersey is far, far safer than the president’s ‘evidence’ suggests
Credit: (AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey)
Oct. 2, 2020: A mail-in ballot for the Nov. 3 election in a mailbox in Rutherford

In last week’s presidential debate and in numerous rallies, President Donald Trump has cherry-picked isolated incidents to contend that mail-in balloting is fraught with fraud. In a federal court filing against this year’s election in New Jersey, the Trump campaign and New Jersey State Republican Committee allege that “countless individuals have been convicted of voter fraud tied to absentee ballots over the last decade.”

Numerous studies and fact-checkers have found that tampering with mail-in ballots or cases of fraud are extraordinarily rare. And there are safeguards in the system to catch attempts at stuffing the ballot box and prevent problems.

“It’s just nonsense, utter nonsense,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, of allegations of rampant voter fraud. “You can count the number of folks who have done this. Of billions of recorded votes across the country, only a handful were obvious voter fraud.”

Minuscule percentage of problems

The Brookings Institute analyzed a Heritage Foundation database of alleged voter-fraud cases and found that in five states that used universal mail-in voting prior to this year’s COVID-19 pandemic, just 0.00006% of 52 million ballots cast over the past 20 years were related to voting by mail.

That same Heritage database lists a number of individuals involved in seven separate instances related to mail-in ballots since 2003.

In one case last year in Hoboken, a candidate sought to pay people to vote for him, which could happen in a machine vote, as well. In another in 2009, Jamel Holley — then a Roselle councilman and now a state assemblyman — entered pre-trial intervention for filling out the inside envelopes for voters, an act a superior court judge called “overzealousness” but neither criminal nor fraud.

Four of the other five cases involved local elections, while the fifth was for the state Senate seat won by Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex). Legislative reforms resulted from these that make fraud less likely.

A much higher-profile and more recent case, which Trump has cited, occurred in the May special election for city council in Paterson. A superior court judge has ordered a new election and the state has charged four men, including two councilmen, with unauthorized possession of ballots and submitting false voter registration applications. The case came to light when postal workers found hundreds of ballots bundled together.

County election officials rejected more than 1,700 ballots for problems related to the bundled ballots and to bearers, who are allowed to deliver ballots for as many three voters.  That the scheme was found and potentially fraudulent ballots were not counted are proof that the system works to catch and prevent voting fraud.

Why some voters are worried

There have been other problems with mail-in balloting in the state that have given voters pause, though are not related to fraud. Among the most recent instances:

  • Close to 7,000 voters in Teaneck received mail-in ballots for the general election printed with incorrect congressional election candidates. County officials attributed the problem to a computer glitch and say they are sending out new ballots.
  • An unknown number of ballots destined for West Orange recently were found among piles of mail in North Arlington. The U.S. Postal Service has referred the case to its inspector general for investigation.
  • In early September, 1,666 uncounted primary ballots were found in a bin at the Sussex County Board of Elections. These were tallied and did not affect the results of any election.
  • The postal service told state and county officials that more than 6,500 ballots that were mailed by primary election day were mistakenly postmarked a day later, which may have invalidated them. It is unclear whether they were counted.
  • Numerous reports have been received from individuals who have gotten ballots for people who have died or moved away or who themselves got a duplicate ballot.

Murray said some problems are to be expected, given New Jersey quickly put in place this system in which all active voters automatically receive ballots due to concerns about COVID-19. The process works more smoothly in states like Oregon and Colorado that use universal mail-in balloting because they “rolled it out over a series of years and were able to work out the kinks.”

In New Jersey, the system by which counties process and count mail-in ballots is set up to address many of these issues, as well as prevent fraud.

The all-important envelope

After completing a mail-in ballot, a voter must place it into an envelope that contains a certificate. That must be filled out, signed by the voter and left attached to the envelope. If the voter gets help, he and the person who provided help must complete and sign the assistor portion of the certificate. If any of these steps are not completed, or done improperly, the ballot may be invalidated.

When the signature on the certificate does not match the one on file for the voter, the ballot may be rejected. More than 4,000 votes in the July primary were invalidated for this reason. Advocates say many votes are wrongly discounted as a result: New Jersey now has a procedure that gives a voter the opportunity to fix signature or other ballot problems that would otherwise invalidate a vote. But the signature match also ensures that someone can’t vote using the ballot of a person who died or moved away.

The inner envelope must be placed in an outer envelope and either mailed, deposited into a secure ballot-drop box or delivered in person to the county board of elections or local polling place on Election Day. If someone other than the voter is delivering ballots, he must complete the bearer portion of the envelope. State law now allows a person to mail or deliver only three ballots in addition to his own, down from 10 prior to reform prompted by some of the fraud cases from earlier this century. If county election officials find that an individual brought more than three ballots, it can invalidate them. More than 60 primary ballots were rejected for that reason.

County election officials log the receipt of every ballot in a state database. This means a person can’t vote twice, either using a duplicate mail-in ballot received by mistake or by voting once by mail and then again in person using a paper provisional ballot.

Nothing is perfect, however, so advocates suggest voters take advantage of all the alternatives and safeguards available to ensure their vote counts.

  • Vote early. The last ballots are being delivered across the state this week. Many New Jerseyans already have received them and tens of thousands have already returned them. Voting early gives a person ample time to check on the status of his ballot and fix a problem, should officials find any.
  • Bypass the postal service. Those concerned about potentially lost or late ballots can use one of the dozen drop boxes placed around their county or deliver their ballot to their county board of elections through Election Day. Voters can also hand-deliver their ballot — and only their ballot — to the designated polling location on Nov. 3.
  • Check ballot status. Voters can track their ballots online after setting up an account. The easiest way to do so is by using the individual voter ID on the mail-in ballot, but it’s also possible to use a driver’s license or Social Security number. If the record indicates a ballot not received once it has been mailed or a problem with the ballot, call the county board of elections.
  • Promptly open mail from county officials. Clerks are going to send voters their polling location before Election Day. Anyone whose ballot is at risk of rejection will receive a letter instructing them how to fix the problem, but there is a deadline for doing so. Thus, it is important to monitor election-related mail.