Saturday, October 03, 2020

The Real Problem with Voting by Mail

There has been lots of talk on mail-in voting, with Trump complaining about the possibilities of fraud. The real risk, it seems to me, is not fraud but vote buying. Someone with experience in black markets could offer to buy ballots for ten or twenty dollars apiece, and there are probably places where a fair number of people would sell. 

It would also be possible, but I think more difficult, for someone in a position to pressure many other people, such as an employer, a landlord, perhaps a priest, to give him their ballots to fill out on their behalf or to have everyone fill them out together. That would be more risky, because any one person who complained to the authorities could get him in trouble.


S. F. Griffin said...

Another scenario is one spouse voting for another (and for grown up children living in the parental home). This might be more common within some ethnic groups than it is within others.

Anna said...

I remember your argument from a while ago (though I cannot find it now) that voter fraud is simply not worth the risk for ordinary people to engage in. I think you were discussing it in regards to undocumented immigrants voting. Why doesn't it apply to the mail-in voter fraud situation you are describing in this post?

I'm looking at the back of the envelope of my mail-in ballot, and it has a long text on it with a warning that giving away and selling your ballot, filling out more than one, or forging a signature on the envelope is a felony of third-degree, fined for $5000 or/and imprisonment for up to 5 years.
The signature has to match the one on file with the local supervisor of elections and the signature line has to go over the fold.
These don't sound like impossible problems to solve for someone really determined to do so, but there is still some risk, likely larger than the benefit of doing it on a small scale, especially considering how one or few votes are unlikely to influence the election.

David Friedman said...


Consider the illegal drug market. The penalties are even larger, yet lots of drugs get sold and bought.

My guess is that the signatures almost never get checked, so all you have to do is exchange an envelope for some money.

The trickier part is the interaction between the person who buys the ballots and the campaign or, more likely, one of its supporters — who the campaign can deny any connection with if he gets caught. It makes most sense at the level of a state legislator or possibly a congressman, somewhere where a few hundred, possibly a few thousand, votes have a significant chance of making a difference.

mr bitcoin said...

In Florida, Mike Bloomberg is offering to pay off the fines of black and Hispanic felons so they can vote for Biden.

SB said...

Interesting point.

In response to Anna, the relevant difference between vote-by-mail and vote-in-person is verifiable secrecy. When you vote by mail, you walk into a booth alone, or fill out a paper ballot surrounded by a shield and then feed it into a scanner without showing it to anybody else, or something like that... anyway, nobody else saw how you voted, and poll workers and other voters can see that nobody else saw how you voted.

When voting by mail, you could have filled out the ballot, sealed the envelope, sealed the other envelope, and mailed it without showing it to anybody else, but we don't know that: you could have shown it to your spouse, your boss, your clergy, whatever, and received some benefit in return for voting the way that person wanted you to. I have no idea how common that is in practice, but it's a more realistic concern than people voting multiple times.

SB said...

mr bitcoin:

More precisely, Mike Bloomberg is offering to pay off the fines of felons who have served their time, regardless of their race or political leanings, so they can vote in accordance with the apparent intent of Florida voters two years ago.

That said, he is certainly aware that those ex-felons are disproportionately black and Hispanic, and therefore somewhat more likely to vote Democratic. For that matter, Florida voters were probably aware of that when they approved the referendum by a solid 65-35 margin. said...

@David: regarding the drug market: There the potential risks are balanced by potential rewards. When it comes to vote fraud the problem remains that low scale fraud is unlikely going to change an election, and large scale fraud is going to be discovered, and land you in prison.

Where I live (Switzerland) voting is always by mail. We vote four times a year normally, but in person voting is not done, except at town hall meetings (which in my municipality take place twice a year). Me and my wife usually fill out our ballots together, so we even know what the other voted on. (We tend to agree on most issues anyway).

Both the scenarios of voter fraud you describe actually do happen here. But given that the cases that get discovered and reported are all very small scale ones, that never manage to influence an election I suspect that there are no cases where fraud stole an election here.

Eugine Nier said...

Well Project Veritas has undercover videos of just these kinds of ballot harvesting schemes.

Mr Bitcoin said...


regarding Florida, my understanding of the new law is a felon must finish their jail time and pay off any outstanding fines and restitution fees to be eligible to vote.

The Florida attorney general asked FBI to investigate Bloomberg in Florida. said...

@Eugine: Your example confirms my assertion: That it is very hard to engage in large scale vote buying without being detected.

SB said...

@Eugine: I'm not sure what you mean by "just these kinds of ballot harvesting schemes", since nobody in this discussion has previously mentioned ballot harvesting. The "scheme" under discussion was vote-buying, in which you pay somebody to vote in a certain way, and look at the person's mail-in ballot to confirm that the person is actually doing what you paid for.

Besides, Project Veritas probably has undercover videos of Kamala Harris having sex with Bigfoot; like anything else from Project Veritas, that doesn't mean it actually happened. See the New York Times on this particular video release.

SB said...

mr bitcoin:

Yes, that's what the new law says. The referendum passed 65-35 with substantial bipartisan public support. The law, which passed along party lines a few months later, appears intended as a partisan end-run around the referendum. The non-partisan Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which was formed to push the referendum, started a fund to pay off ex-felons' fees as an end-run around the apparent intent of the law (while obeying its letter), and Mike Bloomberg (who has been registered variously Republican, Independent, and Democrat at different times in his life) offered to contribute. (I don't know whether the right-wing Koch Foundation, which supported the referendum, has also contributed to the fund.) This is a possibly-partisan end-run around the partisan end-run around the bipartisan referendum, and the State Attorney General's request to the FBI is a partisan attempt to block the possibly-partisan end-run around the partisan end-run around the bipartisan referendum.

But the original topic was vote-buying, and the use of mail-in ballots to verify the votes one is buying. As far as I know, ex-felons are no more likely to use mail-in ballots than anybody else, and as far as I know, neither Bloomberg nor the Coalition conditions its aid on people voting a particular way, much less on verification of that vote. So this isn't really relevant to the topic at hand.

Eugine Nier said... No it doesn't. The way your logic seems to work is that if there are no videos then you say "see there's no evidence of vote buying" and if there are videos you say "see it is very hard to engage in large scale vote buying without being detected". Almost as if you just don't want to believe that large scale voter fraud could exist in the US no matter the evidence.

@SB I notice that neither you nor the article you linked to provided any reason to believe the videos were fake. As it stands Project Veritas has video evidence of vote buying, your comment and the article you linked to contains vague insinuations that Project Veritas is "icky", and you appear to not be able to tell the difference between evidence and vague insinuations. said...

@Eugene: My logic is that large crimes are more likely to be detected, reported, and investigated, than small crimes. So if all the reports show are a tiny amount of small crimes it is plausible that there are no large crimes.

If the police set up a speed trap and manages to catch a few cars speeding by just a few kph a very busy road one can safely assume that speeding is not an issue on that road.
If there is the occasional report of a pick pocket in a town, but nothing else one can safely assume that crime is low there.


All the evidence points towards "vote fraud is hard and the rewards are low". Hence it does not happen a lot.