President Donald Trump insists there's "NO WAY" an election with increased mail-in voting will be legitimate.
But both Democratic and Republican officials overseeing that process say he's dead wrong and in interviews with NBC News they outlined the steps they take — most importantly, signature verification — to ensure the integrity of the system, which is coming into more widespread use because of the coronavirus.
Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman, a Republican, oversees the elections in one of the nation's leading vote-by-mail states.
"I think it's good when the public questions any form of a voting system, but people should have confidence in it because election administrators are always trying to build in security measures that balance out that access," she said.
Like other states, Washington requires that voters sign their absentee ballot and that the signature matches the one on file with a voter's registration. If the signatures don't match, the voter will be contacted and alerted to the discrepancy.
Election officials receive annual training from the Washington state police on the best practices for signature verification and how to spot differences. The ballots, Wyman said, go through multiple levels of verification — meaning three or more checks from "our more experienced signature verifiers."
Fraud have been almost nonexistent. She pointed to the 2018 election, where her office detected about 140 instances of fraudulent voting out of roughly 3.2 million ballots cast.
"Is it perfect? No," Wyman said. "Is that rampant fraud? No, it's not."
The subject has garnered increased attention as Trump has repeatedly attacked states for seeking to increase mail-in voting amid the COVID-19 pandemic. His claims of voter fraud are not backed by the historical record, as officials noted, and Twitter attached a fact-check to the president's Twitter commentary for the first time, labeling his Tuesday posts as "unsubstantiated" and linking to articles debunking the claims.
"There is NO WAY (ZERO!) that Mail-In Ballots will be anything less than substantially fraudulent," Trump tweeted. "Mail boxes will be robbed, ballots will be forged & even illegally printed out & fraudulently signed. The Governor of California is sending Ballots to millions of people, anyone living in the state, no matter who they are or how they got there, will get one. "
He added, "This will be a Rigged Election. No way!"
Speaking later at the White House on Tuesday, Trump doubled down, saying of mail-in ballots, "Nobody has any idea whether they're crooked or not."
"We can't do that," the president said of expanded mail-in voting. "Absentee is okay: You're sick. You're away. As an example, I have to do an absentee because I'm voting in Florida, and I happen to be president. I live in that very beautiful house over there that's painted white. So that's okay. And it's okay for people that are sick and they can't get up."
Responding to Trump's claims, California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, a Democrat, pointed to vote by mail's success across the West Coast and said his state also requires signature verification and enables voters to track their mail-in ballots.
"Voting by mail is secure," Padilla said. "And unfortunately, not only is the accusation that it isn't baseless, but frankly, hypocritical. You look at Trump himself. He is a absentee voter. He's the first one to try to undermine people's confidence in vote by mail and elections in general. I mean, I think what's really going on here is they're setting the stage to call into question results from the November election that they may not like."
California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, said Wednesday on MSNBC's "Morning Joe": "The reality is mail-in ballots, absentee ballots, are well utilized all across the spectrum, all across this country and have been done so thoughtfully and safely for a generation...We want to prepare to keep people safe and allow them to have their constitutional rights protected, constitutional right to vote, without putting their health at risk."
Documented voter fraud cases in the U.S. are few — and nothing close to the level that would constitute a "rampant" fraud, officials said. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, has tracked documented cases of fraud for the past 20 years and found more than 1,200 instances, about 200 of which involve misuse of absentee ballots. In that time, about 250 million mail-in votes have been cast.
Tom Ridge, the former Republican governor of Pennsylvania and Homeland Security secretary under former President George W. Bush, told NBC News the legitimacy of mail-in voting has "been pretty well validated by history."
"My disappointment with the president is that he creates doubts about the legitimacy of the forthcoming election," said Ridge, who co-chairs VoteSafe, a group of bipartisan election officials and organizations calling for safe voting during the coronavirus pandemic. "The reality is that (Trump is) sowing seeds of doubt in distaste of recorded history. And that's sad."
Researchers at UCLA and the University of New Mexico, in conjunction with the Union of Concerned Scientists, concluded that voter fraud is "not widespread" and that mail-in ballot fraud is "very rare."
In Washington, Wyman said each county election office has a "myriad of electronic and physical security controls," adding there is never a time when someone is alone with ballots. Officials also check registrations against the national death index. Penalties for fraud is a felony that could lead to time behind bars.
Voters are also able to track their ballot through the mail — and Wyman said election officials are currently building out a more detailed system for voters to improve that experience. In Nevada, election officials also use barcode tracking on the ballots. Voters can even drop off the ballots at a polling location if they are concerned about using the mail.
Many states have taken steps to try and boost mail in voting amid the coronavirus outbreak as Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines "encourage mail-in methods of voting if allowed in the jurisdiction." Congressional Democrats have pushed for additional funding for mail-in voting and have called for the practice to be put into use nationally.
In Ohio, Secretary of State Frank LaRose, a Republican, has pushed to make mail-in voting easier and said his state's security measures ensure the integrity of such voting.
Republicans have sued over increased mail-in efforts elsewhere, including in California and Texas. Conservatives have pointed to past commentary from Democrats such as Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., who questioned the legitimacy of paper ballots in 2004, though that was in regard to in-person voting, and they have cited a 2005 report authored by a commission chaired by former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James Baker saying that absentee ballots "remain the largest source of" possible fraud. This month, Carter embraced vote-by-mail, calling for its expanded use amid the pandemic.
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On Tuesday, West Virginia officials announced criminal charges against a mail carrier who they alleged "fraudulently altered eight absentee ballot requests" and "fraudulently changed the party affiliation on five from Democrat to Republican."
Pointing to his state's safeguards, which also include signature verification, Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford, a Democrat, told NBC News his state "has a very sparse history of voter fraud."
"To the extent we've had any experience with that, it's been maybe a half a dozen cases," he said. "Interestingly, it's been from the Republican side of the aisle, not the Democratic side of the aisle. And some of those cases involved individuals who were literally intently trying to test the system to see if they could get away with it. They were caught. And so it shows that there's an efficacy in our system that protects against voter fraud."
As to what's behind Trump's tweets, several of those who spoke with NBC News said it seems as if the president is concerned about how he will fare in November.
"What's to worry?" Ridge said. "He's got five months to win."