By Hannah Claussen
On Nov. 6, 2012, Ruth Thomasine Robinson, 70, lost her reelection bid against Sam Howell for mayor of Martin, a small Floyd County community in eastern Kentucky.
Robinson’s three-vote loss must have come as a surprise. She and her family spent a lot of time rigging the election results.
Two years later Robinson received a 90-month sentence to federal prison on charges of conspiracy to violate civil rights, conspiracy to defraud the Social Security Administration, federal program fraud, aggravated identity theft and vote-buying.
Thomasine Robinson was a longtime member of the Martin Church of Christ, Mayor of the City of Martin for 19 years, owner and operator of Jan’s Florist for over 40 years, a member of the Disabled American Veterans Auxiliary, as well as a member of Eastern Star, American Red Cross and the Floyd County Democratic Women’s Club.
A model citizen, by all accounts — until she went to trial.
Her husband, James “Red” Robinson, 64, got 40 months in prison — an above-guidelines sentence — for vote-buying. He was later convicted in state court of terroristic threatening and menacing after he threatened to kill Howell, the winning candidate, before he took office, according to court documents.
His son, Steven Robinson, was convicted on charges of conspiracy to violate civil rights and got a 21-month sentence in prison.
Thomasine Robinson and her co-conspirators intimidated tenants living in their rental property, as well as poor and disabled citizens living in city public housing. They forced tenants to complete absentee ballots under Robinson’s supervision, according to trial evidence. If they refused, they would lose priority for public housing. Her tenants faced eviction threats or were promised better living arrangements if they complied.
Trial testimony also established that the conspirators offered to pay several residents to vote for Thomasine Robinson. She secretly paid one of her co-conspirators, Ginger Marie Halbert, with federal funds intended for an after-school program for city children.
Thomasine Robinson died Oct. 26, 2016, at 72. Federal records indicate that her release date was scheduled for Sept. 14, 2021, so it is likely she died while in jail.
Now nine years later, voter and election fraud have become central issues driving election reform throughout the states, including Kentucky.
The Robinson case is not the only instance of someone using absentee ballots to pad vote totals.
The Heritage Foundation’s database records more, including a case against the former mayor of Eatonville, Florida. Anthony Grant was convicted in 2017 of voter fraud for coercing absentee voters to vote for him. The absentee ballots won the mayoral election for him.
Instances like these combined with the push for increased absentee ballot usage during the 2020 pandemic election have brought voter and election fraud to the national forefront. Though most of the debate centers on voter ID laws, research shows that the majority of significant voter fraud instances involve absentee ballots, due to the difficulty of verifying who filled out the ballot and ensuring no one was forced to cast a vote for a particular candidate.
It is important to note the difference between voter fraud and election fraud. Voter fraud is a conspiracy among voters, while election fraud is a conspiracy among officials.
On Election Day, 2020, America went to bed believing President Donald Trump would be a two-term president, only to wake up to Joe Biden leading by a sizable margin, though the certified results were unofficial for weeks. The reversal was largely credited to mail-in ballots counted overnight, enough to swing the election. This reversal fueled doubt about results that remains a year late
Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams, the man responsible for the state’s first major election reform since 1891, said the Commonwealth enjoyed record-high voter turnout in 2020 — around 2.2 million voters. In previous years, only 2% voted absentee, compared with 60% during the pandemic election.
Adams believes absentee voting is less secure than in-person voting because it is the only voting method where ballots are cast outside the purview of election officials.
“With in-person voting, it’s monitored,” Adams said. “You’ve got people around. You’ve got law enforcement. You’ve got poll workers of both parties, Democrats and Republicans, monitoring the polls. In person, just by definition, is going to be more secure than absentee voting.”
Kentucky has multiple structures in place to enhance public confidence in the mail-in voting system, Adams said.
“We’re one of only two or three states that verify the voter’s identity both before and after the fact,” Adams said. “We verify electronically when they request a ballot, but we also verify it after the fact when the voter signs the absentee ballot envelopes.”
Adams was elected as Kentucky’s secretary of state in 2019 on an “Easy to vote, hard to cheat” platform. In 2020, the Kentucky State Legislature passed a bipartisan election reform bill, Senate Bill 2. Its partner, House Bill 574, passed in 2021.
University of Kentucky law professor and election expert Joshua Douglas believes HB 574 achieves integrity and access simultaneously. He added these shouldn’t be mutually exclusive.
Douglas advocates for unrestricted mail-in voting, combined with laws ensuring security, to better benefit voters.
Douglas wrote the book “Vote for US: How to Take Back Our Elections and Change the Future of Voting,” as well as articles appearing in many major news and law publications. He worked with Adams on his transition team and helped shape Kentucky’s election reform bills.
“I think ballot tracking for mail-in voting is really important, as well as having good training on signature matching,” Douglas said. He added that the state can now track ballots through the mail, further enhancing integrity.
Oregon brings in forensic experts to examine and match the signatures on mail-in ballots, whereas most county clerks “eyeball” it, Douglas said. He would like to see signature matching training become more commonplace.
Unlike in-person voting, mail-in voting has a variable — the postal service.
Mailing runs the risk of ballots getting lost in transit, even with tracking services. Ever wonder what happens to mail trucks that catch on fire? Since May 2014, more than 407 Postal Service Grumman Long Life Vehicles, those iconic boxy mail trucks, have been damaged or destroyed in fires. Approximately one every five days, according to documents obtained in a Freedom of Information Act request. Though an extreme example, ballots can easily get lost in the system, disenfranchising a voter unintentionally.
Charles Stewart III, the Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, conducted a study on ballots lost in the mail. By his count, mail-in ballots are lost at twice the rate of in-person ballots. As for ballots headed to the voter, Stewart estimates 21% never reach their destination. Additionally, another study found that absentee ballots may be counted unevenly across different electorate groups.
Florida’s 2018 general election is a particularly troubling incident of absentee voting going awry.
Voters from several counties failed to receive their ballots in the mail despite abiding by the deadline. Others received theirs too late to return them before the deadline. Some submitted their ballots on time, but they went uncounted for unexplained reasons. After the election, 266 absentee ballots were discovered in a United States Postal Service facility.
Adams advocates for drop boxes as a safer way to return absentee ballots.
“If you’re providing your ballot to a third party, you’re going to sweat a little bit about whether it ever gets to the people you’re trying to get it to,” Adams said. “With a drop box, it’s just direct from voter to county clerk to count the ballot.”
Western Kentucky University history professor and state Rep. Patti Minter, D-Bowling Green, said HB 574 was necessary, as it wrote into law measures used in the 2020 pandemic election, such as early voting and an expansion of absentee voting. During the state of emergency, no-excuses absentee voting was done by executive order.
“That was something that had to be written into law, and House Bill 574, which I voted for, and most people did — it passed 91-3 in my body (the House) and 33-3 in the Senate — kept mail-in ballots,” Minter said.
“The part I don’t like about it, and the part many of us objected to in committee and tried to omit, is that it’s not no excuses anymore. It is absentee vote by mail, but you have to have a reason for it, and your reason can’t be, ‘Because it’s easier.’”
Adams believes balancing access and security is the key to Kentucky’s election success.
“If all you focus on is so-called ‘ballot integrity measures,’ which I agree with, then people on the other side (politically) think you’re trying to make it hard to vote unnecessarily,” Adams said. “On the Democratic side, most of the messaging and policy proposals are about making it easy to vote. I support that too, but if all you have is access, you don’t have guarantees in there of security, then it looks like you’re trying to make it too easy to vote.”
He added that while making it hard to vote can result in low voter turnout, insecure elections can have the same result.
“If you don’t persuade voters that your system is secure, they won’t vote because they think it’s all rigged and fraudulent,” Adams said. “Part of how I’ve gotten significant changes in ease of access to the ballot was by pairing it with security to make sure we had everything covered.”
The aftermath of the 2020 presidential election led many to weigh the costs of convenience with absentee/mail-in voting.
A study in the Election Law Journal, “Presidential Commission on Election Administration: Absentee and Early Voting,” asked that very question. The authors concluded that it is more advantageous for the United States to permit early voting to some degree, rather than allow for widespread mail-in voting.
The study cited many reasons for this conclusion. Voting by absentee separates the voter from his ballot before it is submitted, so if there is an error in how it was filled out these cannot be corrected by the voter, resulting in many ballots being thrown out. Kentucky’s new rules mandate the voter be contacted about signature discrepancies before the ballot is discarded.
With early voting, the voter is present when their vote is cast, and if there are issues, they can be resolved with the poll worker.
“When voters ‘over vote’ by choosing too many options for a given contest, many jurisdictions use machines that automatically alert the in-person voter to this problem,” the authors state. “Without the voter present, none of these corrections can take place.”
Early voting is not without its issues.
The authors of the same study stated that allowing early voting makes correcting errors or revising ballots to reflect late-breaking events, such as a candidate dropping out or a campaign news bombshell, much more difficult. Adams said he’s received calls from people who voted early and wanted to change their votes after a development occurred in a race, which isn’t possible.
“A longer voting period probably also increases instances of the difficult problem of some voters seeming to submit multiple ballots,” the study states. “Many states employ provisional ballots when someone believed to have submitted an early or absentee ballot appears on Election Day, but it can often prove difficult to separate intentional voting crimes from voter confusion or administrative mistakes.”
Adams said the single incident of attempted voter fraud in the 2020 election was an individual who mailed in an absentee ballot and then voted in-person on Election Day, claiming he never received the ballot. Officials canceled his ballot and let him vote, then received his absentee ballot in the mail a few days later. The man was apprehended by authorities, Adams said.
Kentucky’s election reform included three days of early voting as the new standard. Adams credited early voting with increasing overall turnout by around 20% in 2020. He believes it is more secure than widespread mail-in voting, while still increasing access.
Minter argues that early voting doesn’t discriminate against one side of the aisle or the other, but Adams believes it works against the underdog anywhere on the political spectrum. The example he uses is from the June 2020 election where Amy McGrath beat Charles Booker in the U.S. Senate Democratic primary race in Kentucky.
“Charles Booker would have been the nominee for the U.S. Senate of the Democratic party last year if just Election Day votes were counted,” Adams said. “He won the late deciders comfortably. What he lost were the early votes that were cast weeks before the election when no one knew who Charles Booker was.”
McGrath won the race by about 2 percentage points after Booker picked up steam from endorsements toward the end of the race. Because the race was during the height of the pandemic, early voting was extended to a three-week window.
“If you have periods that are too long, you distort the process in favor of candidates who have a lot of money, or are very wealthy with their own money, or that raise a lot of money or they’re celebrities,” Adams said. “Gosh, I would have lost under that kind of system.”
SB 2 requires voters to present a photo ID at the polls, a controversial move passed in a party-line vote. Minter voted against SB 2 because she believes it’s “a law in search of a problem.”
“There’s absolutely no examples in Kentucky of in-person voter fraud,” Minter said. “Because voter fraud means you are impersonating someone else, you are saying you’re someone you’re not or you’re not eligible to vote. There’s zero evidence.”
Minter said a lot of people don’t have a valid state ID, and Kentucky law does not accept out-of-state identification.
“That is a very big barrier, particularly in large urban areas where people move in and out a lot,” Minter said. “People are jumping back and forth across the Tennessee-Kentucky line all the time.”
She argues that the new requirement creates an undue burden, especially for people who are homeless or don’t have access to transportation.
“Whereas the old requirement you can have a credit card or just your electric bill, it can be anything, it can be a copy of the lease, it just had to be current, and it had to show that you did actually live there,” Minter said.
Douglas doesn’t believe voter ID laws serve a purpose because the only fraud they eliminate “really doesn’t happen.” He said they don’t increase confidence in elections. However, nearly 80% of Americans poll respondents across the political spectrum support voter ID laws, the Pew Research Center reported.
In SB 2, Adams included $300,000 in the bill to allow free state-issued IDs for those that can’t afford them, because requiring $23 IDs would constitute a poll tax, he said. He also said that the state needed to pay return postage on mail-in ballots.
“Something else we did is we built in a mechanism as a bypass that’s called the ‘reasonable impediment’ approach where if you don’t have a photo ID, and you can’t get a photo ID, you’re offered several other ways to vote to prove your identity,” Adams said.
One method is to be recognized by a poll worker, and the worker must sign an oath that the worker knows the person. Another method is for the voter to sign a note that they are not able to get a photo ID.
“We went out of our way to make sure that we were humane in the implementation,” Adams said. “Ultimately, most of our voters, 99% of them, voted with a photo ID. I think voters on both sides, whatever the politics, felt like the election was secure and legitimate.”
Adams said in the 2020 general election, a few thousand people were recognized by poll workers out of 2.2 million voters. Only 879 people utilized the reasonable impediment provision, he said.
When discussing election laws on a national or state-wide stage, it can be easy to forget that these laws are applied in cities and counties that vary drastically in size. Los Angeles County is the largest voting district in the United States with 4.8 million registered voters. The county is so vast that helicopters transported ballots from the more distant precincts. In contrast, some election offices in Wisconsin operate out of the home of the local elections official.
Larger metropolitan jurisdictions have greater resources, such as more poll workers and better funding for elections. Meanwhile, rural counties have smaller polling places, smaller staff and less funding. Rural areas also average a higher cost per voter.
Traditionally, where your voting booth is located varies by where you live, resulting in confusion and frustration when voters get turned away at the polls. Adams said this is the most common form of disenfranchisement, though unintentional.
In his book, Douglas described “vote centers” in lieu of precincts — residents can vote at any center regardless of where in the county they live. This more cost-effective option utilizes electronically connected poll books to ensure no one votes multiple times.
Adams proposed vote centers prior to the pandemic, after reading Douglas’ book. As part of Kentucky’s HB 574, vote centers are now an option for every county. However, Adams noted that vote centers are not feasible for some counties, due to geographical challenges.
Carmen Finley knows how rural voting works at the ground level.
She is the county clerk for Trigg County. The 481-square-mile with a county holds a population of roughly 14,600. She is beginning the process of addressing the new state law in her rural community.
Trigg County previously used 15 voting precincts, but with vote centers, there will be five or six, she said.
“We want to make it convenient for everybody as much as we can,” Finley said. “We want everybody to have an opportunity to vote.”
For the 2020 presidential election, Finley said the county had a month of early voting and “mass amounts” of mail-in ballots. Signatures were checked on every absentee ballot, she said.
In the November 2020 election, Finley said they came close to throwing out a ballot because the signature didn’t quite match, but instead they contacted the man and asked if it was his signature.
“He said, ‘I signed it different because I was afraid you couldn’t read it.’ So, I said, ‘Well, you’re gonna have to prove it to me if you want your vote to count,’” Finley said. The man came to the county clerk’s office with his driver’s license, they verified his identity, and his vote was counted, she said.
“We take it very seriously when it comes to that,” she said.
Absentee ballots are kept under lock and key as soon as they arrive, Finley said. Staff checks the signatures as soon as the ballots come in, allowing time to contact the individual if something doesn’t match up.
“We look at every single ballot envelope, the inner envelope, the outer envelope, and the little flap,” Finley said. “We look at every single thing to make sure it’s properly done.”
The ballot drop box in Trigg County is kept inside the clerk’s office with constant surveillance.
“I have security cameras throughout my office, and they can zoom in all the way to a signature if we had to,” Finley said. “We have a very secure process.”