Commentary

09/11/2013  by Alexandra Bjerg

Is your absentee ballot being counted? Californians have new ways to find out


(photo: droob)

If you voted by mail in last year’s presidential election (and the majority of Californians did), do you know if your ballot was actually counted? It’s a trick question, actually, because nobody knows for sure. To wit, 68,000, or one percent of all ballots cast by mail in California went uncounted in 2012. 

This may change soon as Gov. Jerry Brown signed two bills this week aimed at reducing the number of disqualified vote-by-mail ballots.

“The only thing worse than people not voting is people who think they voted and it turns out that they didn’t,” said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation

“And I think we’re seeing too much of that in California.” 

Even if your vote by mail ballot is, as the absentee voter anthem says, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” it might not get counted. Not only are vote-by-mail ballots twice as likely to go uncounted than those cast in person, the rejection rate for absentee ballots in California is among the highest in the country. 

In some cases, the tens of thousands of Californians whose vote-by-mail ballots were rejected were not only unnecessarily disenfranchised by problems within the vote-by-mail system, they were unaware that their votes weren’t being counted at all. One bill signed on Monday changes that, giving voters the legal right to know. 

Under SB 589, county elections officials are required to create a system allowing voters to verify whether their vote-by-mail ballot was counted and more importantly, why or why not. However, voters will bear the burden of seeking out that information.

“This legislation will ensure that voters whose ballots were rejected have the ability to fix the problem for future elections,” said Senator Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), author of the bill. 

Ballots cast by mail are rejected for a number of reasons, but the majority of disqualifications result from signature irregularities or late arrival. 

Think about it. Our signatures change over time. The signature on my drivers’ license looks nothing like the one I use to sign my checks. Sounds harmless, but this creates a significant challenge for elections officials who authenticate vote by mail ballots through signature matching. If the signature on a voter’s registration form doesn’t match the signature on the absentee ballot envelope, it’s rejected. 

In an effort to ensure sloppy writers like me aren’t punished for poor penmanship, legislation proposed by Assemblyman Kevin Mullin (D- South San Francisco) and signed by the Governor expands the number of documents permitted for signature comparison, helping registrars capture more matches. This administrative change may have a major impact on reducing the state's high rejection rate. In last year's general election, 20,000 vote-by-mail ballots were disqualified because of non-matching signatures.

“Ensuring that every vote cast in a timely fashion gets counted is a foundational responsibility of government,” said California Forward Action Fund (CFAF) executive director Kristin Connelly. 

“Assemblymember Mullin showed great leadership on AB 1135. The enactment of this legislation will help to build more confidence in the electoral process and hopefully lead to greater engagement in the political process by Californians," Connelly said.

Although these improvement to the vote-by-mail system are a step in the right direction, “we still have a long ways to go as far as vote by mail balloting problems,” Alexander said.

Voting by mail affords of-age citizens the luxury and convenience of voting in their pajamas, but last minute voters beware as the system relies on the Post Office. And there’s a reason they call it snail mail: it’s slow and getting slower. Post office closures have delayed the processing and delivery of absentee ballots in many counties. As a result, even ballots mailed days ahead of the deadline are arriving too late to be counted.  

Currently, vote-by-mail ballots must be received by 8:00 pm on Election Day to be counted. Under a bill authored by Senator Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana) and also endorsed by the CFAF, ballots postmarked by Election Day and received within three days after the polls close would be counted. Unfortunately, SB 29 has been kicked to the next legislative session which Alexander says is “very disappointing.” 

“The bill would do more to get more vote-by-mail ballots counted than either of these two bills combined,” Alexander said. Late arrival is the number one reason for ballot rejections. Reducing the vote-by-mail error rate by ensuring more ballots are counted will increase turnout, added Alexander. That’s good news for California, which ranks among the bottom states in voter participation.

Now that a majority of Californians are voting-by-mail, addressing the state’s troubling vote-by-mail error rate is more important than ever. Ensuring all ballots cast are counted is vital to the health and legitimacy of California’s vibrant democracy. As a member of the Future of California Elections coalition, California Forward will continue to support reforms aimed at removing barriers to the ballot box while safeguarding the integrity of our electoral system.

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