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It isn’t just high-profile Republican officials who have utilized mail voting. It’s San Diego’s Republican voters — and they’ve done so in no small part because GOP campaigns have long seen it as an opportunity.
Last week, San Diego County Republican Party Chairman Tony Krvaric sent a press release with a warning: Mail ballot voting is “fraught with danger.”
He sent the message two hours after Voice of San Diego asked him to reconcile the fact that he has voted by mail in 22 consecutive elections dating back to 2004 with a May 3 tweet in which he said vote-by-mail is “fraught with danger, from millions of ballots floating around, some delivered to wrong people, some not delivered at all, and much more.”
Krvaric acknowledged his lengthy record of voting by mail, but said that was different because he was diligent.
“The voter file is notoriously poor with incomplete or inaccurate information,” he wrote in an email. “The problem is not my ballot, which I know to expect and usually drop off at the polling place but have mailed in a few times but would make sure to track that my ballot was received.”
In his press release, Krvaric argued against the security of mail voting before concluding with a section labeled “background” that described his own history voting by mail.
“Voter integrity is of the highest importance and the safest way is with voter ID and voting in person with absentee ballots requested on a case-by-case basis,” Krvaric wrote. “Anyone who claims different is plain lying.”
Krvaric’s position is now common among Republicans, after President Donald Trump ramped up attacks on vote-by-mail as election officials have sought to expand its use amid the COVID-19 pandemic, during which health officials have argued against congregating in public.
He’s not alone in voting by mail while opposing efforts to expand vote-by-mail opportunities. Former Rep. Darrell Issa, now running for Congress in the 50th District, for instance, in May sued over a state decision to send every registered voter a mail ballot. Issa has voted by mail in 16 of the last 24 elections in which he’s voted, going back to 2000, according to Registrar of Voters records.
But it isn’t just high-profile Republican officials who have happily adopted mail voting in recent years. It’s San Diego’s Republican voters — and they’ve done so in no small part because Republican candidates and campaigns have long seen it as an opportunity.
In 2012, for instance, then-Rep. Bob Filner was vying to become San Diego’s first Democrat to be elected mayor in 20 years, against then-Councilman Carl DeMaio, a Republican.
On election night, when the registrar announced the first chunk of results — all mail ballots received before Election Day – DeMaio led by nearly 2 points.
Filner went to bed that night believing he had lost the race, said Tom Shepard, his political consultant in that race, and a longtime Republican who shifted parties that cycle.
As results from Election Day voters came in, and Filner closed the gap, Shepard finally went to wake him up.
“I said, ‘Bob, I think you might want to get up and take a look at this,’” Shepard said.
Filner went on to win by nearly 5 points. In that election, 59 percent of San Diego County Republicans who voted did so by mail, compared with 56 percent of county Democrats who voted.
It wasn’t an anomaly. Republicans voted by mail in higher percentages than Democrats in every general election from 2004 through 2016, with an edge that averaged 3.5 points and capped out over 7. Comparable data is not available for 2018.
San Diego itself has played a key role in the development of mail voting. In 1981, under Republican Mayor Pete Wilson – later a governor and senator – San Diego conducted what was at that point the largest mail ballot election ever attempted, over whether to build and operate the Convention Center. That election produced the most voters to ever participate in a city election at that point, and at 40 percent the estimated cost of a regular special election. Four states – Utah, Colorado, Washington and Oregon – now vote entirely by mail.
Absentee voting grew steadily in California through the ‘80s, and crossed 20 percent of all votes in the mid-‘90s and 40 percent by the early-2000s.
Republicans gained an advantage among early mail voters, Shepard said, in part because their demographic tendencies, especially age, aligned with those to whom mail voting appealed. But Republican campaigns had also picked up earlier on the value of the ballot chase – and timed their ads and voter outreach efforts to the arrival of mail ballots.
That process got even more sophisticated, he said, in the early 2000s when political data operations began categorizing voters by how early they tended to send in their ballots. Campaigns could then specifically target mail to people who tended to vote right away when they received their ballots, and hold back money to reach late voters weeks later, when they were ready to make a decision.
“My sense is, Republicans were more proactive to adjusting tactics to acknowledge the existence of early voters,” he said. “The perception was that most absentee voters were Republicans, so Democrats focused on Election Day voters, and getting them to the polls. That’s still a part of the playbook but so many of them are absentee now that they’ve had to adjust, and I would say they’re now outpacing with tactics like harvesting ballots,” referring to when campaign workers collect completed ballots that have already been signed and sealed directly from voters.
Shepard said he’s always dismissed allegations of voter fraud through mail voting as ridiculous, based on the validation steps followed by registrars in California, and by San Diego Registrar Michael Vu in particular.
“It’s a hell of a lot more secure than filing taxes, or other things we do by mail,” Shepard said. “The lengths they go through – I mean they manually scan every signature and match it to the voter file. That’s why it takes so long to count the last absentees. It’s a darn full-proof process. For there to be mass fraud in that process, I don’t think it would be possible.”
In his press release, Krvaric echoed a previous criticism raised by Trump, about hypothetical foreign interference in an election.
“What happens when a sophisticated foreign power decides to create high tech forgeries of mail ballots and sends a couple hundred thousand to battleground states?” he posited in the press release. “At best they are caught but the results would be in question. At worst they make it through the system and we have an illegitimate outcome.”
Vu said the worst-case result in that situation would be like what’s called a denial of service attack, a cyber threat that overwhelms a system and locks out legitimate users.
“Every ballot is tracked and every ballot is verified against the signature on it; no foreign body could just print ballots and flood the system of it,” Vu said. Likewise, since every person’s ballot has a unique bar code, the system catches any attempt to vote twice by requesting additional ballots.
Krvaric also criticized the voter file as “riddled with incomplete and inaccurate information,” which leads to ballots going to people who are “dead, have moved or potentially non-existent.”
Vu agrees that the voter file is imperfect. To be perfect, it would have to be static, and since people are constantly moving, dying, turning 18 and registering to vote, it is an ever-evolving set of information. In response, registrars need to search for duplicate entries that are usually mistakes – someone named Mike is registered in one county, moves and re-registers in another county as Michael, for example. Registrars are commonly combing for that information and merging people who are inadvertently registered twice, but they need to be careful, he said, “because the flip side of a duplicate voter is a disenfranchised voter.”
“That’s the social science of elections,” Vu said. “If it was pure science, everyone’s last dying wish would be, ‘Please take me off the voter roll.’”
There is often a lag, but through its regular process or new information, Vu said the registrar eventually identifies abnormalities, and the voter roll is tighter than it’s ever been.
“If a dead person voted, we’d send that to the district attorney for prosecution,” he said. “I haven’t seen that in my 20 years at any systematic level, and if it was happening we would see it and we would see it every year.”
Evidence of mail voter fraud is exceedingly rare. An analysis by the Washington Post and the Electronic Registration, for instance, found 372 possible cases of double voting or voting on behalf of deceased people out of 14.6 million votes cast in three vote-by-mail states in 2016 and 2018, or 0.0025 percent. A study from UCLA’s Voting Rights Project similarly found most allegations of voter fraud come from typos, clerical errors, voter mistakes and people jumping to unwarranted conclusions – and that while voter fraud is “not widespread and occurs only rarely,” that “this is particularly true of mail-based voting.”
“The safeguards are equivalent for vote-by-mail and poll voting,” Vu said. “No one way is any better than the other and both are safe options.”