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Trump says voting by mail isn’t reliable. What does the evidence show?

President Trump’s refusal to commit to a peaceful transition of power is tied to his criticism and false statements about voting by mail, which is expected to reach record levels in this election. Trump insists it can't be trusted -- but many state and local election officials disagree. Miles O’Brien reports on how voting by mail works -- and what past experience indicates about its reliability.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The president's outright refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power ties directly to his criticism and false statements about mail-in voting.

    Mail-in ballots are expected to hit a record level in this election. The president insists that they can't be trusted. But many state officials say otherwise.

    We're going to discuss President Trump's unprecedented statements shortly.

    But, first, Miles O'Brien has a report on how mail-in voting really works and what past experience shows.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    It's August 14 in Ocala, Florida, four days until a primary election, and most of the ballots have been cast.

    They roll in every day in bins from the post office, right past the office of Wesley Wilcox…

  • Wesley Wilcox:

    What is today? Good deal.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Supervisor of elections for Marion County.

  • Wesley Wilcox:

    If you would have asked me 10 years ago, if you would have asked me five years ago, or if you had asked me five minutes ago, am I a proponent of vote-by-mail, I am. I like vote-by-mail.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    And so do most Floridians. The state that became infamous for antiquated, ambiguous punch card voting during the disputed Bush-vs.-Gore presidential contest 20 years ago has fully embraced early voting and absentee ballots for anyone who asks, including Palm Beach resident Donald Trump…

  • President Donald Trump:

    Thank you very much.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    … who votes by mail, while repeatedly trashing the process, suggesting it is rigged and rife with fraud.

  • President Donald Trump:

    All these ballots come in. These mailed ballots come in. The mail ballots are corrupt, in my opinion. And they collect them, and they get people to go in and sign them. And then they — they're forgeries, in many cases. It's a horrible thing.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    The rhetoric is not supported by reality.

    The conservative Heritage Foundation maintains an online database of documented election fraud cases in the United States. It lists 204 cases of absentee ballot fraud, with 143 criminal convictions over the past 20 years. On average, that's one case per state every seven years, representing about 0.00006 percent of total votes cast.

  • Wesley Wilcox:

    A lot of the things that people talk about vote-by-mail just aren't reality. You know, you can't run down to the Wawa or the Circle K and pick up a handful of vote-by-mail ballots. It's just not there.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Amber McReynolds is CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute and Coalition.

  • Amber McReynolds:

    The reason it's exceedingly rare is that there's multiple steps and checks in the system that prevent it and would identify it if it were to occur.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    McReynolds was director of elections in Denver when the state of Colorado left traditional Election Day polling behind in 2013.

    In Colorado, every active registered voter gets a ballot in the mail automatically. They can return ballots by mail, at drop boxes, and a few choose to vote in person.

    Jocelyn Bucaro is Amber McReynolds' successor.

  • Jocelyn Bucaro:

    We only had about 1 percent of our voters in the state primary vote in-person. So, that tells us that — and we hope — will be repeated in November, that voters will vote that ballot at home and use one of our secure methods to return it.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Bucaro and her team showed me how they do it. Ballot envelopes here are imprinted with an intelligent mail bar code, a number unique to each voter, which allows tracking through the mail.

    The envelopes are run through a customized mail sorter that is connected to the registration database.

    Drake Rambke is a project coordinator here.

  • Drake Rambke:

    So, any time I run this machine, it's got the most up-to-date information. So, if somebody voted in person an hour ago, and then we get their mail ballot that comes through, it's going to be kicked out as void, because they voted in person.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    So, it's real time?

    Signatures are initially checked with software. About 20 percent are automatically accepted that way. The rest are verified, along with 2 percent of the machine choices, to double-check its performance.

  • Drake Rambke:

    We do extensive training, both internally, and then we bring in a handwriting expert that has worked with the FBI prior to every election to give more tips.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    The envelopes are opened by machines to maintain the secrecy of ballots. Then they are fed into high-speed scanners to be tallied. Voters are instructed to carefully fill in the ovals.

    But, on some ballots, 1.6 percent in the last election, they don't fill them in completely or use X's, checks or other markings.

  • Jocelyn Bucaro:

    And in that case, the software will ask humans to take a look at that and say, is this a mark or not? And we have bipartisan teams of election judges who do that ballot adjudication.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Colorado is among six states that vote almost entirely by mail. But the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted others to consider ways for people to vote without spending a lot of time in line with strangers.

  • Amber McReynolds:

    I started getting a lot of calls. Like, what would this look like? Could we scale this nationally?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    She says yes, but not without difficulty.

    The June 9 primary in Georgia was a case in point. More than a million people voted by mail. The previous record was 35,000. This created chaos and confusion. Many voters didn't get their ballots in time, and were uncertain that their votes were received and counted.

    That prompted Waunda Hayes to try a belt-and-suspenders approach. I met her waiting in a long line to vote in person.

    Did you try to vote absentee?

  • Waunda Hayes:

    I sure did.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    What happened?

  • Waunda Hayes:

    Well, I received my ballot, and I sent it in, but I don't know if it was received or not.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Oh. So, you want to make sure?

  • Waunda Hayes:

    Yes, right.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger says 1,000 Georgians double-voted in the June primary and August run-off.

    The announcement gave some traction to President Trump's critique of mail-in voting, and his suggestion to supporters to try and vote twice.

    But Raffensperger warned the public that what the president is encouraging people to do is a crime.

  • Brad Raffensperger:

    Double-voting is a felony that is a minimum of one year in prison, up to 10 years, up to a $100,000 fine. And we will prosecute.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Back in Florida, Wesley Wilcox's team is taking this unprecedented election year in stride. They didn't break a sweat sorting, processing and scanning ballots in the August primary.

    By Election Day, they only needed to push a button to tally the votes. But, elsewhere, things are not running so smoothly. In Tennessee, the law prevents election workers from even opening envelopes containing ballots until Election Day.

    Several other states, including Michigan and Pennsylvania, have similar constraints. Wilcox is hearing a lot from his counterparts in places where they are struggling to answer the mail.

    This is an extraordinary election. Are they all kind of freaking out?

  • Wesley Wilcox:

    You know, the short answer, probably yes. But there's the election administrator prayer: Lord, I don't care who wins as long, as they win big. And that's a reality.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    The reality is, election night will likely be more like election week, while we all wait for the envelopes, please.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Miles O'Brien in Ocala, Florida.

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