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it is still more likely for an American to be struck by lightning than to commit mail voting fraud
Source:  The Brennan Center, a nonpartisan law and public policy institute
So, it's not impossible, but it's very unlikely .  What do we know?
How do states protect against fraud in vote by mail?

Identity verification.

This means comparing every signature on every ballot to make sure it matches the signature on the voter registration record.  Best practices rely on explicit criteria for signature matching and trained professionals in elections offices.   Time to notify voters when signatures are deemed not to match is also essential.

Bar codes on ballot envelopes.

Most states imprint envelopes with bar codes to track them.  This enables voters to know when their ballot has been received, and is used by election officials to eliminate duplicate ballots, if any slip inadvertently or deliberately.

Ballot tracking through the U.S. Postal Service.

Some states use intelligent bar codes to track ballots through the postal system.  Think of this like tracking a FedEx package from source to delivery.

Secure drop-off locations and drop boxes.

Vote by mail means your ballot arrives by mail.  It doesn't mean voters are forced to return their ballots by mail.  According to the 2016 Survey of the Performance of American Elections, 73 percent of voters in Colorado, 59 percent in Oregon, and 65 percent in Washington returned their ballots to secure drop boxes or their local election office.  Many drop boxes are drive through and available 24/7 to maximize convenience for voters.  Drop boxes ensure that ballots are received on time, especially for voters who choose to vote late in the process.


Penalties are the belt that goes with the suspenders of vote by mail security.   Voter fraud with a mail ballot is subject to civil and criminal penalties, with hefty fines and jail time.  The idea is deterrence.


Vote by mail (even absentee by mail) system rely on post-election audits to detect anomalies.  The most famous recent example of absentee ballot fraud in North Carolina was confirmed by a post-election audit.  Some states are beginning to adopt "risk limiting audits," which use statistical methods to decide on the number of ballots to audit to evaluate the accuracy of election outcomes.

If all else fails, election offices are still there.

Voters unfamiliar with vote by mail often jump to the conclusion that, once vote by mail is in place, "there is no place to go" to vote or to get help with a ballot problem.  This is simply untrue.  Election offices, county clerk's offices, polling places, voter polling and service centers (VPSCs) -- whatever the state decides to call them -- all continue to exist.  In West Virginia, it would likely work like this:

  • If your ballot doesn't arrive in the mail, you contact  your county clerk.

  • If you are going to be out of town during the period when your mail ballot would arrive and be due back, you contact your county clerk.

  • If you have a disability that prevents you from voting a paper ballot at home, your county clerk will provide assistance.

  • If you live in a place without reliable mail service, your county clerk is always there to help.

  • If you need a replacement ballot, you just have to request one from your county clerk.

  • If you simply do not believe in vote by mail and refuse to vote by mail, your county clerk still provides a place for you to vote.

We thank the League of Women Voters of West Virginia and the League of Women Voters of Morgantown-Monongalia County for their sponsorship.  The League is not responsible for content.
version 1.10, 10/28/2020
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