One of the many ways that this 2020 election is unprecedented is the surge of mail-in and absentee voting. Because of this, many Missourians have already voted. This increase in mail-in voting has made voter fraud a central talking point in this year’s election. But, while there’s not much evidence of voter fraud, mail-in voting – which provides Americans more opportunities and access to voting – can also lead to more uncounted votes than in-person voting.
Because of the increase in mail-in voting - voter fraud has become a central talking point in the 2020 election. President Trump and other Republican politicians have argued that encouraging and allowing more mail-in voting will increase voter fraud. Missouri is one of several states that requires notarized ballots to reduce voter fraud.
Yet, while election data doesn’t point to voter fraud being a big problem, lost votes could be a much bigger problem in this year’s election. Lost votes are instances where a voter attempts to cast a vote, but their vote is not counted in the election for a number of reasons. Mail-in voting presents more opportunities for lost votes and mistakes. For instance, the ballot could get lost in the mail, it could arrive too late or it could lack a signature.
Charles Stewart III is the founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Election Data and Science Lab. He said lost mail-in votes are a much more serious problem than voter fraud.
“You know there’s a greater chance of being struck by lightning than encountering a fraudulent mail vote,” he said. “Yet, we know that around 1-2% of everyone who tries to vote by mail will have their efforts thwarted one way or the other.”
And, Stewart said, the increased risk of having your vote not counted in the election with mail-in voting is around 4%. With this election turning into a possible predominately mail-in election, lost votes are more likely to be a factor.
Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft was sued by five civil rights and voting organizations for making it harder for voters to cast mail-in ballots. The suit claimed that the state is discouraging mail-in voting by requiring notarized mail-in ballots that puts voters at risk for contracting the coronavirus at notaries. A Cole County circuit judge ruled in favor of the state of Missouri in this case on Oct. 9. Ashcroft said he still supports in-person voting as the preferred voting method because there is less likelihood for the vote to be lost.
“For every 50 people that instead of voting in person they send their ballot by mail, history tells us at least one of them will have their vote not count,” he said.
Ashcroft said he supports safe, social-distancing in-person voting because it will ensure more votes are counted than a predominately mail-in election.
“I want to be the secretary of state that is not only making sure that it’s easy for you to vote,” he said. “That’s only half of it. I want to make sure it’s not only easy for you to vote but that your vote counts.”
But Stewart said measures aimed at reducing fraud like requiring notarized ballots leads to more lost votes- the primaryeffect of notary requirements is that - instead of eliminating voter fraud - more ballots are rejected and turn into lost votes.
“It’s not a matter of evidence in that case; I think it’s a matter of values,” he said. “It indicates that a majority in the legislature is more worried about one fraudulent vote coming in than thousands of legitimate votes being kept out.”
Another risk for lost mail-in votes is down to inconsistency in county clerks’ resources. Boone County Clerk Brianna Lennon said her office has the staff and resources to contact voters when they don’t fill out their mail-in envelope correctly. But she said not all counties have those resources to limit lost mail-in votes.
“A lot of clerk offices especially in smaller counties have one or two staff,” she said. “And having a huge influx of absentees really is an overwhelming thing.”
The absentee and mail-in ballot must be received by the local county clerk’s office by November 3 to be counted.