- - Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The congressional battle over the coronavirus relief bill is over. Efforts to federalize American elections, including by mandatory vote-by-mail and forced early voting, failed. Those who sought to preserve state control over elections won.  

Amid the war of words, not all claims made rang true. For example, former Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele was wrong when he wrote in these pages that mail voting was “essentially immune from large-scale fraud.”

Mr. Steele and his coauthor, Eli Lehrer, must never have visited places where mail ballot fraud has run epidemic. Otherwise, they would have demurred on this issue.

In the Rio Grande Valley, for example, politiquerias roam colonias, preying on the most vulnerable voters and voting their ballots for them. In Cameron County, Texas, nine politiquerias were charged with voter fraud related to mail ballots. It is most often the poor and the elderly who lose their votes to the ballot harvesters.  

It’s not just one county in Texas either. When we were at the Justice Department, we were involved in a case of systemic vote-by-mail fraud in Noxubee County, Mississippi. A federal court found that mail ballot fraud was very real, part of an organized scheme to disenfranchise voters.  

It worked like this. The harvesters snatched mail ballots from the mailboxes of people they knew. They would then knock on their doors, ballots in hand, offering to “help” them vote. The harvesters would then fill in the ballots for their candidates, regardless of what the intended voters had told them.

The court ruling contains tragic testimony from one victim, Susan Wood. When asked why she allowed a harvester to fill out her ballot, Ms. Wood answered that the harvester “knows folks” better than she did — a classic case of trust betrayed.

In 2011 in Troy, New York, a local political operative was convicted for submitting fraudulent absentee ballots. When asked why he targeted voters who lived in low-income housing, he said it was because they were a lot less likely to complain or notice their ballot had been stolen.

Those who commit mail ballot fraud are often in positions of relative power over the voter. Victims are frequently reluctant to speak with law enforcement officers because those committing the crime — the harvesters — live among them and are often politically well-connected. It took significant Justice Department resources to crack the case in Noxubee and unearth the plot. 

Vote-harvesting fraud isn’t the end of the problems with vote-by-mail. States relying on this method inevitably send piles of ballots to obsolete addresses or to registrants who have died.

That’s because voter rolls are filled with errors. California voter rolls remain tainted with thousands of deceased registrants, as well as voters who say they live at commercial addresses. In Swissvale, Pennsylvania, one man had seven simultaneous active voter registrations at the same address. Vote-by-mail would send seven ballots to this house.

Advocates of vote-by-mail don’t understand the extent of the snafus on American voter rolls. They don’t understand the hundreds of thousands duplicate registrations that exist. They don’t understand the problem of placeholder registrations — where many registrations don’t even have full addresses. And those who do understand have chosen to turn a blind eye to these and other glaring problems.

Now, add to all these problems the simple fact that vote-by-mail is entirely dependent on the postal service — the same outfit that routinely delivers you your neighbor’s mail.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell deserves enormous credit for standing strong against effort to make vote-by-mail mandatory in every state. His stance has preserved the constitutional arrangement whereby states, not the folks in D.C., get to decide how to run their own elections.  

For years we have watched deep-pocketed, liberal foundations spend hundreds of millions of dollars to change election process rules. They consistently advocate the federalization of election rules, which would allow Washington bureaucrats to dictate the terms of state elections.

Elections are decentralized because decentralization promotes liberty and stability. We will rue the day when federal bureaucrats command the rules of our elections. The Founders knew better, because they understood the incremental invasiveness of tyranny.  

We are blessed to live in a country — even during moments of crisis — that still cherishes and protects the original decentralized architecture of our electoral system. Let’s keep it.

• J. Christian Adams is president of the Public Interest Legal Foundation, and Hans von Spakovsky is a senior legal fellow at The Heritage Foundation. Both are former Justice Department lawyers.

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