President Donald Trump’s campaign is embarking on a series of legal challenges in several states, pursuing allegations of voter fraud and process violations. Any campaign or political party is certainly right to challenge legitimate, suspicious activity. Election integrity is critical, no matter the outcomes this year. The question is, what are the real problems we need to watch for?
Republicans have focused much attention on Dominion Voting Systems, a leading purveyor of voting equipment across the country. Given accusations of political bias against the company’s leadership and counting “glitches” in various states that use Dominion’s voting machines, such concerns are understandable, but Dominion is largely peripheral. Problems with its equipment appear to be, and have historically been, a result of human error, not software — and there are other, more viable irregularities to examine.
Anyone concerned about election integrity should focus on the systemic processes and procedures in states such as Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, all of which dramatically changed their election systems just this year. Our experience in Colorado, where one of us helped transition to statewide vote-by-mail in 2013, is instructive for comparison.
Following the passage of HB 13-1303 in 2012, Colorado became the third state to implement statewide vote-by-mail. It took more than a decade to become sufficiently equipped to make the switch, and over the five years after switching, Colorado tweaked and improved the system. This extensive experience allowed the Centennial State to widely tout its election security and reliability.
Understanding Colorado’s election model is critical to evaluating other states that moved to vote-by-mail in 2020. Proper safeguards and controls must include three keys: well-maintained voter lists, secure ballot returns with a reliable chain of custody, and a robust signature verification and cure process.
1. Voter Registration Database
Accurate and updated voter databases are fundamental, lest ballots go to the wrong houses or to the deceased. Colorado regularly runs voter lists against the state’s Department of Public Health and Environment, the Social Security Death Index (for deaths in other states), departments of corrections and sheriffs’ offices (for felony convicts), the U.S. Postal Service, and more. Election officials also run a citizenship check to remove noncitizens.
Failing to maintain accurate voter registration lists, of which many states are accused, can lead to disastrous consequences, especially with vote-by-mail, which provides ample opportunity for ballots to be cast fraudulently. Inaccurate voting lists also make voter identity verification more fraught later.
2. Secure Ballot Returns and Chains of Custody
Successful vote-by-mail requires secure ballot returns with strict and bipartisan chains of custody. While drop boxes are not mentioned in the statutes of states such as Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, these states still provided boxes. This means the security level is incumbent upon each county — a questionable practice, especially when many were funded by outside and dubious organizations financed by the likes of Mark Zuckerberg.
Arizona statute expressly authorizes drop boxes but merely mandates that they be “secure.” Contrast these with Colorado, where each county has drop boxes and statute mandates that they are lit, locked, and monitored 24/7 by camera surveillance.
Moreover, in Colorado, a bipartisan team of election judges collects ballots and takes them to counting rooms with additional cameras and bipartisan teams of judges. Every step of the way includes surveillance and bipartisan judges who have passed criminal background checks, ensuring a consistent chain of custody. Colorado voters can also track their ballot online throughout its life cycle.
The parties appoint the election judges to guarantee authentic representation. If not enough Republicans or Democrats are available in a county to serve as judges, parties can appoint from outside the county to ensure bipartisanship.
Pennsylvania, for example, doesn’t guarantee this kind of confidence, so if enough Republicans in your county haven’t signed up as judges, you are out of luck. In a Denver radio interview Saturday, former Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams called this “atrocious. You need that bipartisan process throughout the system.”
Voters in other states are right to be skeptical of drop boxes and to ask officials if theirs had 24/7 video surveillance and if ballots were picked up with bipartisan judges. Accusations of tens of thousands of “unsecured, irregular” ballots dropped in Detroit underscore the necessity for such security measures.
3. Robust Signature Verification and Cure Process
Vote-by-mail must include a robust signature verification system. In Colorado, after a voter’s ID is verified the first time, ballot signatures endure multiple stages of verification during subsequent elections. Some counties first put them through a machine, but in every county, an election judge reviews them, and then a bipartisan team evaluates each signature. If one is rejected, a cure letter is created and immediately sent to the voter. Voters are notified electronically when a ballot is received, counted, or rejected.
In Pennsylvania, the Democrat majority of the state’s partisan-elected Supreme Court threw out signature verification requirements for mail-ballots only. Asked about Pennsylvania, Williams didn’t mince words, saying, “That to me undermines the entire legitimacy of that process.”
Trump campaign lawsuits challenging voter eligibility seem to have merit. Importantly, voters must be able to rely upon verification systems to guarantee only legal votes are counted. As Williams put it, “The process is first and foremost, make sure it’s a valid vote before you count it.”
Last week, Georgia Republican Party Chairman David Shafer noted: “In 2018, when 230,000 absentee ballots were cast, 3.5% were rejected for signature mismatches or other reasons. In 2020, when more than 1.2 million absentee ballots were cast, the rejection rate fell to 0.3%.” In Colorado, where database maintenance is strong, the average ballot rejection rate is 0.5 percent.
It’s hard to believe that Georgia’s number, after the state massively expanded mail-ballots, is suddenly even better than Colorado’s average. A well-designed, experienced system will catch these things, and it is a feature of the system when it does. A poorly designed, untested system will not catch these issues, a bug which casts integrity doubts.
There is ample reason to question Georgia’s signature verification data while conducting the statewide hand-audit. In Georgia and other states with sudden and significant improvement, we must ascertain what is different and why.
Election Integrity Demands Investigations
Colorado also excels at effectively and efficiently auditing elections with rigorous, randomized risk-limiting audits, a procedure Georgia is test-driving right now but is worth exploring elsewhere.
Each of these election integrity mechanisms and controls helps to bolster voters’ confidence in the process and to legitimize results. It is just not enough that voters receive and cast ballots. They must be confident in the process and the results.
Regardless of who wins the presidential election in the end, election integrity demands we thoroughly evaluate what happened, including faulty systems and all legitimate allegations of voter fraud and constitutional violations. States that expanded vote-by-mail had a duty to ensure proper controls and safeguards to catch corrupt acts and real mistakes when they happened. Those states that did not do an adequate job ought to concern every American, regardless of party.
Concerns over the 2020 election are not just about Trump versus Joe Biden. They envelope numerous other races, and, even more, set a precedent for the future. Let’s take the time and diligence to ensure accurate results and verifiable election integrity.