Election Day is 14 weeks away. Misinformation abounds about the security of mail-in ballots (as I learned recently reporting out a Public Editor column for NPR), at the same time that voters are requesting them at unprecedented numbers.
I asked PolitiFact editor-in-chief Angie Holan what journalists need to know about mail-in ballots, and how they can inform voters and hold local election officials accountable.
Kelly McBride: Where are you seeing misinformation around mail-in ballots?
Angie Holan: We see misinformation and plain inaccurate statements about mail-in ballots coming from many sources. We see anonymous claims on the internet, we see partisan attacks from political parties, and we see inaccurate claims from elected officials, including the president.
It seems to come from many places and shares a few common themes. Those themes include that mail-in ballots are highly susceptible to fraud (they’re not); that mail-in balloting is intended to suppress in-person voting (not generally); or that mail-in balloting access has been suddenly stopped by the courts (usually not).
There’s more interest than ever in mail-in ballots because the coronavirus pandemic makes people nervous about being in crowded public places. But that also means there are more opportunities for misinformation to spread.
McBride: How can journalists prevent this misinformation from spreading?
Holan: We need to be on guard against any assumptions we might have that everyone likes voting and wants to encourage it. That’s definitely not the case in 2020. Voting access and balloting are more contested than at any time I’ve seen in my professional career. So we need to study balloting and elections the way we would any other specialized topic that we know may be subject to spin and falsehoods.
Depending on our specific coverage areas, that could mean surveying national trends and best practices, or drilling down to the local level to see what election officials are planning for their localities and precincts. It’s important to note that states and counties set the rules and processes for voting, so what happens in one place may happen very differently in another. Finally, if we’re interviewing someone who we expect to connect mail-in balloting to fraud, we need to be ready to fact-check in real time.
McBride: How do we know that mail-in ballots are secure?
Holan: No form of voting is 100% secure. All voting processes have some vulnerability to technical issues, user errors or outright fraud. In general, though, credible studies have found that voter fraud of any kind is rare. But rare doesn’t mean nonexistent, and there’s evidence that mailed ballots pose a slightly higher risk of fraud than voting in person.
Still, mail-in ballots have some real protections, too. They’re sent via the U.S. Postal Service directly to a person’s home, typically at the voter’s request. States include different additional protections, such as requiring matching signatures. Finally, a handful of states have years of experience with all-mail elections that have happened without significant problems. Those states include Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington. Officials there say the ease and convenience of mail-in ballots greatly outweigh the relatively small risk of fraud.
McBride: What can local reporters do to scrutinize state-level expansion of mail-in balloting?
Holan: The best thing we can do is ask lots of questions in advance. Local elections officials usually operate in obscurity when things go well. Right now, local reporters could be establishing relationships in anticipation of increased scrutiny. Ask them about their process.
Key questions might include the following: How many mail-in ballots have been requested, or how many do you anticipate receiving? What is the process for receiving, storing, opening and sorting mail-in ballots? Can mail-in ballots be counted or partially counted before Election Day? Are there current laws that inhibit how you do your work?
Do your best to show that you know that they have a tough job and are trying to understand what they’re dealing with so you can communicate it to voters.
McBride: What will the impact be of an expansion of mail-in ballots on election day?
Holan: The biggest impact might be delays in determining final vote counts and the winners of elections. Some experts are cautioning that journalists should not expect results on election night but look toward an election week. And it’s critical that this expectation be conveyed to the general public in advance. Early leaders may not end up winning if only partial vote counts are available on election night. Delays can be just a normal part of handling a surge of mailed ballots. But delays are not evidence of fraud and journalists should fact-check claims to the contrary.
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McBride: Do you have any ideas about how journalists could prepare to cover a prolonged vote count?
Holan: Laying the groundwork in advance is critical. That includes setting expectations for the general public. Journalists who work in states with all-mail elections say that voters there know to expect waits for results in close races, and uncalled races on election night are not seen as a big deal. Relationships that journalists have forged with election officials in advance are also critical; creating those relationships under the pressure of an ongoing ballot count might not be possible.
Kelly McBride is Poynter’s senior vice president and the chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership at Poynter. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @kellymcb.