Sept. 18 (UPI) -- With 46 days left until the 2020 presidential election, a dozen states have begun voting by mail -- a method that's been around for decades and will play a much greater role this year due to COVID-19.
Mail ballots are available to any registered voters who ask for them in all but six states -- Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas. In those states, voters must have a valid reason not related to the pandemic.
North Carolina was the first state to mail ballots this month, and Wisconsin began Thursday. Friday began the process in Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Minnesota, New York, South Dakota, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming.
Because of the large leap that mail voting is taking this year -- combined with President Donald Trump and some Republicans trying to discourage the practice -- many people are confused about when, how and if they can participate in the democratic process via the U.S. Postal Service.
Most experts have sought to reassure the public that voting by mail has a long, proven track record of integrity. Multiple studies have reached the same conclusion -- instances of voter fraud are rare in mail voting.
The president -- who himself votes by mail in Florida -- and others who argue the method is compromised have yet to provide evidence to support their claims. They have, however, pointed to a database of voter fraud cases compiled by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
The group announced in May that its database had "swollen" to 1,285 proven instances of mail voter fraud since 1982.
The database, it says, "is intended to demonstrate the vulnerabilities in the election system and the many ways in which fraud is committed." Despite the low number of documented cases, the foundation contends that those are the tip of the iceberg.
The notion repeated by Trump that mail voting poses a "reasonable" suspicion of abuse is shared by James Campbell, a political science professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He has written several books on politics, including Polarized: Making Sense of a Divided America in 2016.
"Mail-in balloting is a terrible idea," he told UPI in an email. "It is far too open to abuse and to allegations of abuse.
"If one wanted to undermine the legitimacy of the election, mail-in balloting would be the route to take."
The main problem with mail ballots, he says, is the "chain of custody" from voters to the official, supervised counters is broken -- unlike traditional, in-person voting during which voters insert their ballots into a computer or physically hand them to an elections official.
The break in the chain invites possible fraud, tampering and misplaced ballots, Campbell argues.
"There are far too many stories and some convictions of abuse," he said.
During a time of hyper-polarization in the political sphere, Campbell said mail ballots simply raise "reasonable questions about the integrity" of the vote count and "threaten the acceptance" of the official results.
Despite such concerns about perceptions of fraud among the public, however, most studies show that proven cases represent a fraction of the overall mail voting picture.
The Brookings Institute, for example, examined the fraud cases cited in the Heritage Foundation database for the United States' five universal all-vote-by-mail states -- Oregon, Utah, Colorado, Washington and Hawaii, where all residents are automatically sent a ballot through the mail.
The institute compared the fraud cases to the total number of votes cast in those states since they began all-mail voting. The result -- just 29 cases of fraud out of nearly 50 million ballots. That works out to a share of 0.000058%.
An analysis by The Washington Post of data collected by universal vote-by-mail states Colorado, Oregon and Washington found that officials identified just 372 possible cases of fraud out of 14.6 million mail ballots in the 2016 and 2018 elections, or 0.0025%.
In Colorado, officials say their system is nearly tamper-proof and has played a key role in making the state No. 2 in the nation in voter turnout.
A record number of voters participated in Colorado's primary election in June, even with the climate of the pandemic. Nearly all voters chose to return their ballots by mail, according to government figures.
"Despite misleading attacks, disinformation and attempts to make vote-by-mail a partisan issue, Colorado's election proves that mail ballots are the key to accessible voting during this health crisis," Secretary of State Jena Griswold said in a statement.
A study by the Brennan Center for Justice three years ago examined several and varying cases of alleged fraud and found incident rates between 0.0003% and 0.0025%.
Given such a tiny fraction of voter impersonation fraud, the researchers concluded that it's more likely that a voter somewhere will be struck by lightning than try and assume some other identity at the polls.
Myrna Perez, director of the Brennan Center's voting rights and elections program, told House lawmakers in June that voting by mail is a necessary process to ensure that Americans don't end up risking their health during a pandemic to choose their leaders and representatives.
"Americans from all walks of life want to vote by mail. We know this because of polls and because of the increase in the amount of requests for mail ballots," she said. "Despite some incendiary and untrue rhetoric, vote by mail is a necessary, sensible and secure option -- especially now."
Perez said she has "zero dispute" with critics who insist that appropriate safeguards be put in place. She said they already have been.
"In fact, there are multiple layers of security for each ballot," she said. "That's why the instances of fraud are so rare."
The rest of the states will begin to accept mail ballots between now and Oct. 16. Eight are scheduled to begin Saturday.
Many websites have information on all states' early voting and mail voting procedures and deadlines, such as Vote.org, the largest nonprofit, nonpartisan voting registration and get-out-the-vote technology platform in the United States. Click here to request a mail ballot from your state and see deadlines, dates and rules for every state. Click here to find out if you are registered to vote in your state.