First, President Trump suggested voters in North Carolina show up at the polls after casting an absentee ballot to test the integrity of the state’s electoral system. Then the secretary of state of Georgia said he would prosecute “to the fullest extent of the law” hundreds of cases where a voter cast an absentee ballot and also voted in person.
Now one of the most fundamental pillars of voting in the country has been mired in confusion: What happens if you vote twice?
The short answer: Intentionally “voting more than once” is federally prohibited in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and territories.
But as most election law is defined at the state level, there are varying degrees of punishment, as well as safeguards, in place to prevent someone from voting twice. And there are some quirks in the law.
New York, for example, encourages voting twice. (We’ll explain this later but it has nothing to do with Tammany Hall.)
Is voting twice a felony?
At least 28 states expressly classify voting twice in the same election as a felony in their election law statute, according to a database maintained by the National Conference of State Legislatures, a nonpartisan research group. Several states make it an infraction or misdemeanor.
Even in states with no specific statute prohibiting voting twice, it is illegal, because federal law prohibits it in federal elections, stating that the penalty for “whoever votes more than once in an election” should not be “more than $10,000” and that the person should be “imprisoned not more than five years, or both.”
How much jail time will I serve?
Penalties for double voting are governed by both state and federal law and can vary from state to state, but someone caught double voting can definitely face jail time.
In Georgia, the secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, threatened this week to prosecute people to the full extent of Georgia law, which means up to 10 years of jail time and a fine of up to $100,000.
Pennsylvania law states that those found guilty of voting twice face a fine of up to $15,000, up to seven years in prison, or both.
In reality, most people caught voting twice do not face long prison terms, examples below.
What happens if I vote by mail and in person?
It’s highly likely that your vote will be diverted and not counted.
Many states have established safeguards to prevent anyone from voting in person after voting by mail, using updated poll books, provisional ballots and other systems both to protect the integrity of the vote and the voter from unwittingly or unintentionally voting twice.
In Pennsylvania, for example, more than one active ballot cannot be entered per voter into the statewide voter-registration system. When an absentee ballot is mailed to a voter, that is logged in the system. The poll books at precincts around the state are generated using the data in the statewide voter-registration system and will indicate if a voter received a mail ballot. Voters who believe that a poll book has either the wrong information, or their ballot hasn’t arrived in time, can cast a provisional ballot.
In New Jersey, which will shift to a largely vote-by-mail election in November, the only type of in-person voting on Election Day will happen through provisional ballots. As provisional ballots are processed, the names are checked against the list of people who voted using mail ballots. Provisional ballots will not be counted for any voter who already cast a ballot by mail.
In Ohio, a person marked in the poll book as having requested an absentee ballot who shows up at a polling place can cast only a provisional ballot.
New York law, however, actually encourages people who voted with an absentee ballot to cast a ballot in person if they are able. “The Election Law recognizes that plans change,” the Board of Elections says in an explainer on its website. (Only one of the votes will count, elections officials say, because absentee ballots are set aside and not counted for voters who show up.)
Why have some voted twice? Here are four examples.
To hear the president talk about it, you would think that double voting happens all the time. But while acknowledging that there are more potential opportunities for fraud with mail-in ballots than in-person voting, elections officials say mail voting fraud is rare.
In Washington, a state that is predominantly a mail voting state and sends ballots to all registered voters, the Republican secretary of state found 142 cases of suspected improper voting in the 2018 election. That accounts for only 0.004 percent of the more than 3.1 million votes that were cast. The secretary of state, Kim Wyman, attributed it to the safeguards built into the state’s system.
Here are some of the ways people have voted more than once, and their motivations.
In Norwalk, Calif., a man was charged in August with casting votes by mail in three elections on behalf of his mother, who had died in 2006. He has pleaded not guilty.
In Dothan, Ala., a woman was convicted in 2016 of collecting other people’s absentee ballots and filling them in with votes for her boyfriend, who was running for city commission. She was sentenced to six months in jail.
In Rochester, N.Y., a man admitted to voting twice in the 2004 presidential election, the second time by filing an affidavit ballot at a polling place. He said he did it to get two “I voted” stickers that entitled him to free beer and food at a local bar. He was sentenced to 36 hours of community service.
In Des Moines, a woman told the police she turned in two absentee ballots before the November 2016 election because she believed Mr. Trump’s claims that the election was rigged and that her first ballot would be changed to a vote for Hillary Clinton. She was sentenced to two years’ probation and ordered to pay a $750 fine.
Is Trump further confusing a tough election year?
Mr. Trump’s advice to voters to test the system by voting twice has greatly irritated election officials and public interest groups, who say mail voting was expanded to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and who fear that the effort will be undermined if voters follow the president’s recommendation.
The day after Mr. Trump issued the advice in Wilmington, N.C., last week, North Carolina officials released a statement saying it “strongly discourages people from showing up at the polls on Election Day to check whether their absentee ballot was counted. That is not necessary, and it would lead to longer lines and the possibility of spreading Covid-19.” Instead, the officials urged voters to check an online tool to see if their vote was recorded.
“Casting more than one ballot is a crime that undermines our free and fair elections,” said Tahesha Way, the secretary of state in New Jersey. “No voter should commit an election crime to ‘test’ our system, because the system works and they will get caught.”
And election rights groups have pushed back on Georgia’s effort to prosecute hundreds of voters who may have cast an absentee ballot and showed up in person, arguing it was a failure of the Georgia election officials, not the voters.
“There was a lot of confusion about the presidential primary, which was rescheduled after some voters had already cast mail ballots — but when those voters wanted to vote in the state primary, they received ballots that also included the race,” said Aunna Dennis, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, a nonpartisan, grass roots organization focused on voting rights. “Did that count as ‘voting twice?’ There was a lot of confusion about whether mailed ballots had been received by elections officials, because elections officials did not update the website for tracking mailed ballots.”
Ms. Dennis added: “Voters should not be penalized for the failures of elections administrators.”