STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
What makes state officials so certain that mail-in ballots are secure? President Trump's administration has repeatedly questioned them even as states prepare for extra mail-in ballots this year during the pandemic. Last week on this program, Attorney General William Barr raised the concern. Although, he admitted that ballots by mail commonly do work for people who happen to be traveling.
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WILLIAM BARR: I'm talking about a comprehensive rule where all the ballots are essentially mail-in. And there's so many occasions for fraud there that cannot be policed. I think it would be very bad. But one of the things I mentioned was the possibility of counterfeiting.
INSKEEP: Did you have evidence to raise that specific concern?
BARR: No, it's obvious.
INSKEEP: Barr's remarks come after President Trump repeatedly attacked the idea of mail-in balloting. Critics said Trump's rhetoric could undermine trust in the voting system. Now, during our interview with the attorney general, we mentioned Washington state. It is one of the states that has done mail-in balloting for years. The Republican secretary of state there, Kim Wyman, had invited the attorney general to come see that mail-in balloting is safe. So after interviewing Barr, we called her back. It turns out that Kim Wyman does have concerns about mail-in balloting. Though, they are different from Barr's.
KIM WYMAN: This is something that Washington and the other four states that do vote-by-mail elections have been dealing with for the 20 years or so we've been ramping up vote-by-mail elections. You have to inspire confidence in even your harshest critic. And that's what I'm hoping to be able to do with the White House and the Department of Justice.
INSKEEP: Well, you have a harsh critic in the Department of Justice. The attorney general flatly said he did not personally believe that voting by mail can be made secure and said that ballots by mail are primitive and can be counterfeited. Is that a true statement?
WYMAN: Well, just like the banking industry, yes, you could counterfeit $20 bills, too. And there are ways to detect it and prevent it. And if people do it, there are laws on the books to prosecute that fraud. So like I said, I invite the attorney general or members of his staff to come to any of the five states that currently do vote-by-mail elections. And let us show some of the security measures we've built in over time.
INSKEEP: Oh. Well, we put that offer of yours to the attorney general. Let's listen to what he said.
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INSKEEP: Would you take up that offer?
BARR: Well, I'm not sure I'm going to go out to...
INSKEEP: Call her up.
BARR: ...Washington state right now. Glad to call her up...
INSKEEP: Or you'd take her call if she called you?
BARR: ...I'm glad to call her up. But, you know, I don't think Washington state has much experience dealing with our adversaries' intelligence services.
INSKEEP: How do you answer that, Secretary Wyman, the idea that you may be up against a very sophisticated enemy here?
WYMAN: Oh, we're well aware that we're up against a very sophisticated enemy, we have been since well before 2016. 2016 confirmed that for Washington state when we detected Russia's attempts to get into our system. And that's what we spend every single day trying to prevent, an attack from those adversaries.
INSKEEP: Why would it not be easy for me to create my own ballot and just mail it in or mail in 50 of them?
WYMAN: So when you look across the country, there are over 10,000 election officials at the local level who actually conduct the elections. And they spend time creating all of the mailing materials - so the security envelope, the return mailing envelope, the outer mailing envelope as well as the ballots. Those are all controlled by and produced by those local county or city election officials that conduct elections. They build in security measures like barcodes and timing marks on the ballot so those ballots can be run through a reader.
The paper stock is very specific and unique to the voting system that they use. And then the envelopes have markings on them that do allow for the election officials to be able to tell what election that ballot is being returned for, what the address of the voter was and is that was issued by the county or the local election official. And all of that information is actually checked when those are processed on the return, as well as the signature that the voter signs on the outer envelope that's returned.
INSKEEP: Do you have any warnings for states that are thinking of seriously ramping up mail-in balloting this fall, just a few months from now?
WYMAN: I absolutely do. It's the thing that keeps me up every night. We took about 10 years to go from expanded absentee ballots, where we had 60% of our voters voting by mail by choice, and move to vote by mail. And that took us a 10-year period of time. And I'm very worried that the amount of time left between now and Election Day is not enough for states to be able to make that same conversion.
INSKEEP: Can a much wider use of mail-in ballots be put in place safely in time for this fall's election?
WYMAN: That is what we have to do. In the election profession, we have to respond to what the legislatures in our states - how they write the laws and the requirements that they put into law. And election officials are very adept in making that happen. I am concerned that the amount of time left is not going to be enough, however.
INSKEEP: Let me ask about a nightmare scenario that I can imagine. Suppose a million extra ballots arrived in the mail in Seattle. Would that overwhelm your system?
WYMAN: Well, it certainly would have an impact on the system. And I'm confident that the King County election officials would be able to detect those and set them aside and present them to their county canvassing board. My biggest concern right now is that you have kind of three attack points. The first one are foreign adversaries trying to do anything that could disrupt people's confidence in the election.
And now you have also the two parties trying to setup explanations for why they aren't going to be elected. You certainly have had the White House tweeting pretty regularly that the election is going to be rigged. And you have, you know, people on the other side of the aisle who are beating the drum on voter suppression before we've even had some of our primary elections, and just setting up the expectation that there's going to be rampant voter fraud or rampant voter suppression.
INSKEEP: Someone listening to you right now is surely screaming at the radio, false equivalence. Are you sure the left and the right are really just the same on this?
WYMAN: We have to find a way for voters to vote at home. So I'm not trying to call out the left for being worse or the right for being worse. What I'm trying to call out is that every time we start making this political, we are undermining voter confidence.
INSKEEP: Attorney General Barr did say he'd be happy to talk with you by phone. Do you have any plan to call him?
WYMAN: I will be happy to talk to him when he calls (laughter).
INSKEEP: Oh, he should call you? OK. That's fine.
WYMAN: Either one, either one - I'm willing to reach out to the Department of Justice and see if I can get the general on the line as well.
INSKEEP: Well, maybe we'll have some communication going here since both of you have now been on NPR. Secretary Wyman, thank you very much.
WYMAN: Oh, thank you.
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