There is less than a week remaining before election night, and there has never been more uncertainty in the most fundamental part of the democratic process. President Donald Trump has attacked the concept of mail-in voting ballots, claiming they disproportionately favor Democratic candidates at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has forced many states to expand mail-in voting. The ongoing civil unrest in the country has led to concerns of voter intimidation at the polls and ballots have even been reportedly been stolen in the Sammamish area. All of this begs the question: is your vote safe? As many of the students attending Bellevue College are eligible to vote in the presidential election for the first time, we spoke with some experts to learn more about these issues.
When asked about a peaceful transferal of power in the September 23 press briefing, President Trump stated, “Well, we’re going to have to see what happens. You know that. I’ve been complaining very strongly about the ballots. And the ballots are a disaster.” The lack of specific information supporting the nature of President Trump’s concerns leaves much room for interpretation. In fact, there is confusion between the terms “absentee ballot” and “mail-in ballot.” According to Dr. David Spataro, a political science professor at Bellevue College, the distinction boils down to how the ballot is received. “Mail-in ballots are essentially universal,” while absentee ballots “have to be requested.” This is a subtle distinction, though a potentially important one.
Washington and several other states have used universal mail-in ballots for years. Per the Washington state Secretary of State’s website, “If you are registered to vote in Washington, there is no need to request a ballot. Confirm your registration at VoteWA.gov.” According to the New York Times, 44 million Americans in nine states and the District of Columbia have adopted a universal mail-in ballot policy, while 118 million Americans in 34 states allow absentee voting for all eligible voters. Only seven states, affecting 46 million voters, require an excuse to allow absentee voting. President Trump himself, along with Vice President Mike Pence and several prominent senior officials have themselves taken advantage of absentee voting to cast their own ballots.
The controversy regarding mail-in ballots appears misplaced. According to Kendall Hodson, the chief of staff for the King County elections, Washington State is part of a 31-state consortium that uses a system called the “Electronic Registration Information Center,” or “ERIC” to monitor elections and to detect voter fraud. According to Hodson, the system can help identify anyone that attempts to vote more than once as well as other types of voter fraud and has access to statistics from elections as recent as 2016 and 2018. Hodson advised that there were 17 cases of voter fraud out of the millions of votes cast, meaning the fraud rate was at “something like .004 percent.” These 17 cases were prosecuted, and the penalties are severe: voter fraud is a felony, with violators subject to up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
Along with ERIC, states are taking additional measures this election season. According to Hodson, teams have been deployed to empty all 73 drop boxes multiple times per day, with volunteer staff and even the unusual step of contracted private security being on site. These precautions are being taken to ensure that voters feel safe while casting their ballots, as well as to deal with historically high volumes. In fact, Hodson reported that 28 percent of eligible voters have already cast their votes with a whopping 90 percent turnout of eligible voters, or 1.2 million votes expected in King County alone.
According to Dr. Spataro, this is an important element to consider, as “There are actually 50 different presidential elections going on, not one. All 50 states have their own system.” Because of this, President Trump lacks the ability to directly prevent states from allowing universal mail-in voting. Dr. Spataro further stated that mail-in voting has not given a distinct historical advantage to one political party over the other, though he believes that in this election, “it appears more Democratic voters are planning to vote by mail.”
When asked what advice she can offer for first-time voters, Hodson replied, “Vote early! It helps us get the results out timely [sic] on election night.” Additionally, she wanted to assure voters that they “are not going to get it wrong.” In fact, if the ballot is incomplete, or does not have the security sleeve, it’s no problem. That vote will be counted; and if there is a question on your signature, the election board will follow up with the voter and work with them to verify the information is correct.
If you are a U.S. citizen, a Washington resident, 18 years old by election day and are not currently under the authority of the Department of Corrections, you have the right to vote in the state of Washington. If you have any questions on the process, Hodson encourages you to call 206-296-VOTE, visit kingcounty.gov, or tweet them at @kcelections, which she called an excellent way to get your questions answered after hours. We have reached out to both the Trump campaign and Biden campaign for comment on this matter and will update the article with any response either provide.