Voting by mail: is fraud possible?

Mecosta County election clerk disagrees with President’s claims

One of Big Rapids’ drop box location for ballots is at 226 N. Michigan Avenue. Photo by: Ben Totten | Torch Photographer

During the first presidential debate that took place on Tuesday, Sept. 29, President Trump claimed that mail-in voting will produce “fraud like you’ve never seen.”

This year as a result of COVID-19, rates of mail-in ballots have soared. About 60% of ballots cast for the primary vote were cast by mail, and their security has been a hot topic as of late. According to the Michigan Secretary of State, over 2.3 million absentee ballots had been requested as of Sept. 21 for this Presidential Election.

With five states already encouraging most people to vote by mail even before the pandemic, Lois Brennan, Township Clerk for Mecosta Township dismissed these worries.

“It’s very safe, it’s just as safe as if you walked into the polling location on election day and cast your ballot in person, there are just a few extra steps,” Brennan said. 

Brennan explained the process in great detail from start to finish. For the 2020 election, the state of Michigan sent out applications to every resident that is registered to vote. If voters choose to vote by mail, they fill out, sign and return this application to their local clerk. 

“Once I receive applications, I check all of the info by hand, compare their signature to the data base and if everything checks out, I assign them a ballot with an accompanying UPC-like code,” Brennan said. 

Michigan has a signature matching requirement, stating “Absentee ballots will not be counted unless the voter’s signature on the return envelope matches their signature in the Qualified Voter File…,” The signature in the Qualified Voter File is the signature on your driver’s license or state issued ID.

“I have only ever had to disqualify one application in my career, and it was due to a mismatched signature,” said Brennan. “That’s the only reason I would have to throw out a ballot besides an attempt at double voting, which I would catch because to attempt to cast two, a voter would have to come into the polling location and my computer would automatically flag them as already voting absentee.”

Once all of this information is confirmed, Brennan hand packs ballots for mailing. A ballot, instructions, privacy sleeve and return mailing envelope are all loaded up and sent out within 24 hours of the clerk receiving the initial application. 

Once these ballots are dispersed and voters fill them out, they can mail them back, deliver them to their clerks office drop box, or hand deliver them to the clerk. Once Brennan gets them back, she records the receipt, and they get locked up until election day.

“I will typically not get a few ballots back, maybe 10 out of the few hundred I send out. These usually end up being from people that decide to just come into the poll. It’d be hard to put a number on what to suspect as interference,” Brennan said. 

There was a case in 2018 where a Southfield Clerk attempted to alter almost 200 absentee ballots. She was immediately caught and is being charged with six counts of “unauthorized and inaccurate changes to absentee ballots.” 

All voters whose ballots were altered were contacted and their correct vote was recorded in the official results. The Attorney General and Secretary of State both condemned these actions and called “very rare.”

On election day, at 7 a.m., the ballots are brought to another room with an inspector from the Democratic part and one from the Republican party. They then feed them into a second ballot counting machine or tabulator. They keep going until all ballots are counted, there is no deadline.

“A local group is currently petitioning that absentee ballots that are received up to 14 days after the election should be counted so long as they are postmarked the second or earlier.” Brennan said. 

After all ballots are counted, Brennan has to take the results from her tabulator, verify the quantity matches and then the ballots are packed up in a sealed container and an inspector from each party delivers them to the county clerk. They are then sent to the state commission who officially certifies them if they see no problems. 

“During the primaries, when I was uploading my results before sending out my ballots, my machine randomly jumped up by one vote. I had to go back through each individual ballot and re-run it and when that failed, I had to hand count them which took about three days,” said Brennan.

When asked about the claimed made by the president, Brennan’s tone changed.

“We clerks work very hard to protect the integrity of the system, and that’s important to know. We all feel that way. The recent news stories and the slanted views on things without actually getting into the trenches with us, are just really offensive to each of us clerks.

“Anyone is welcome to come down to my office and ask me all the questions they would like even if they are not from my district,” Brennan said. “We also have a scheduled Accuracy Test on Oct. 12 at 10 a.m. and I strongly encourage anyone that’s interested in the process to come see for themselves. I want to be as transparent as possible.”

Applications will be accepted until the Saturday before the election at 2 p.m. and as of now, ballots will be accepted until the end of polling on Tuesday, Nov. 3. Brennan strongly encouraged if you can drive your ballot to clerk’s office, to do so to ensure your voice is heard.