With the pandemic still looming large, many voters in Massachusetts are turning to mail-in ballots to cast their votes in state and national elections. President Donald Trump, however, has continually rasied concerns about voter fraud with mail-in ballots, despite lacking concrete evidence to support those claims. GBH Morning Edition host Joe Mathieu spoke with Northeastern University law professor and GBH News legal analyst Daniel Medwed to clarify the measures Massachusetts has in place to protect the election. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.
Joe Mathieu: We're going to talk about the rules here in the state, but we've heard a lot of wild stories about voter ID requirements in other jurisdictions.
Daniel Medwed: Well, that's right. About six states have very rigid photo ID requirements where you have to provide a specific type of government-issued ID, like a driver's license. Otherwise you can cast a provisional ballot, assuming that you come back within a very short period of time and display the valid identification. In Georgia, you have to reappear within 72 hours with a valid ID, or else your provisional ballot is cast aside.
Mathieu: Wow. So what are the rules here in Mass.?
Medwed: Well, Mass. doesn't have a comprehensive general voter ID law, but you might be asked to show your ID under very particular circumstances, like [if] it's your first time voting in a federal election or you've been an inactive voter over several election cycles. A number of items of documentation would satisfy this requirement with your name and address on those items, like a rental lease agreement or a recent utility bill. Now, one thing that struck me about Massachusetts law is that poll workers have the option of asking anyone for voter ID if they arouse a reasonable suspicion that there might be a problem.
Mathieu: So what's that all about? The risk that the poll workers might not apply that test fairly to everyone?
Medwed: Yeah, I think that's right. So on the one hand, in theory, the vagueness of that language gives poll workers the leeway to apply it in an arbitrary and discriminatory manner, perhaps [to] systematically disadvantage certain groups. But on the other hand, Massachusetts courts are presumably very vigilant in interpreting that phrase "reasonable suspicion" in an objective manner to safeguard against subjective biases. Also, I think it makes sense to have a safety valve like that just in case an experienced poll worker thinks some problem is afoot.
Mathieu: Since it's primary day, we thought we'd get into some of these election laws and the safeguards put in place in Mass. to protect against the possibility of voter fraud, since we keep hearing about it. Those voter ID procedures relate to in-person voting, Daniel. Because of the pandemic, a lot of people mailed it in. Are there protections in place to protect against voter fraud for these mail-in or absentee ballots that the president keeps talking about?
Medwed: Well, yes. As you suggest, because of the virus, Massachusetts has adopted a new procedure for this 2020 election cycle, what's called no-excuse vote by mail options. We don't have to satisfy any requirements for eligibility, we just have to request a mail-in ballot. Ordinarily with absentee ballots, you have to satisfy certain qualifying requirements, minimal as they are. You have to show that you won't be in town on Election Day or that you have a religious belief or disability that makes voting in person untenable. One traditional safeguard for absentee ballots, at least, is that election officials might compare the signature on the absentee ballot against the known signature that they have on file to make sure they match.
Mathieu: If that comparison raises concerns, what then?
Medwed: Well, if the officials detect a mismatch or for some reason they can't find that original signature, then they're supposed to provide the following remedy. They're supposed to give you a new ballot, let you fill it out [and] match up the signatures again, but assuming that there's enough time to do so. That's a really important assumption [and] yet another reason to mail in your ballot early.
I don't know if we're out of time, but if we're not, I just have one last comment about President Trump's allegations of voter fraud. Almost needless to say, every credible study I've seen suggests it's infinitesimal, including a study by a law professor — and we know how credible professors are — that detected only 31 instances of impersonation fraud. Over a billion votes were cast during the time frame of that study, from 2000 to 2014.