Compton’s trashed absentee ballots call attention to voting policy

150 150 Cheryl Getuiza

Some Compton ballots ended up in one of these. (Photo Credit: Wayne Wilkinson)

In Los Angeles County, it’s that time again–time to do some research on candidates running for public office.  That’s right, in the coming weeks, voters will head to the polls to decide their next leaders as many cities are holding primary elections.

The city of Compton is one of them. In fact, registered voters will pick a mayor, two city councilmembers, a city attorney, a city clerk and a city treasurer on April 16. But with the primaries just weeks away, the city is making headlines, and not in a good way.

The L.A. Times reads “Five absentee ballots sent to recycling bins in Compton.” Here’s the Los Angeles Wave’s headline: “Voting materials in post office trash may point to Compton election hanky-panky.”

After reading both articles, I got to thinking, what is the law regarding absentee ballots? I sought the answers from Kim Alexander, President and Founder of the California Voter Foundation.

“There are state statutes of what the vote by mail procedures are but they don’t describe every single detail, so a lot of the details are left to the counties or cities. There is no standardization in their practices,” said Alexander.

That’s why the California Voter Foundation, as well as other member organizations in the Future of California Elections (FoCE), is discussing analyzing the vote by mail programs for three counties: a small county, a medium county and a large one, to “compare and contrast the different procedures they have in place.”

“Some might have a standing agreement with the post office that they’ll cover postage if inadequate postage is provided, some might set up drop sites where people can drop off ballots or open up their elections offices on weekends to receive ballots and let people drop off ballots there. When you get to the city level, things are even more different because whatever procedures the county has in place, the city doesn’t necessarily have to follow, for their election,” said Alexander.

“So L.A. county can have their own procedures, some things are a matter of law and you have to follow the law, but when you say, what’s the procedure for processing ballots in this whole area, it varies quite a bit.”

Alexander, and other FoCE organizations, is making it a mission to “advance more standardization across jurisdictions.”

“From the voters perspective it’s utterly confusing. It makes absolutely no sense why federal and state elections are administered by their county election office, but their municipal election is administered by their municipal elections office. One of the reasons we want standardization is because we want voters to know their rights. Everybody has a right to early voting and the right to conveniences, not just on a spotty basis,” said Alexander.

According to both L.A. articles, candidates and city officials found absentee ballots in recycle bins and trash cans. I asked Alexander, what gives?

“They do destroy absentee ballots at county elections offices. Those are the ones that get sent back because they had the wrong addresses or there were signature problems or they arrived later than the mail in deadline.”

“People think that when they change their address with the post office, it changes their voting address, that’s not the case, so their ballots end up going to their old place. Ballots don’t get forwarded.”

FoCE members realize this has become a serious problem in California—that vote by mail ballots are not being counted.

“To me, the only thing worse than people not voting, is people trying to vote and not getting to,” said Alexander.

According to the National Association of Secretaries of State, each state has its own deadline for absentee ballots. In three states, absentee ballots must be returned prior to Election Day. In 36 states, they must be returned by Election Day and in 11 states, ballots arriving after Election Day is okay as long as they are postmarked by Election Day.

It would appear our state legislators believe this is an important issue too.

During the last legislative session, leaders in California’s Assembly passed AB 1466, allowing any ballot to be counted if it arrived at the post office three days after the deadline. The bill died in the Senate.

However, Senator Lou Correa introduced SB 29. Right now, the bill is in Senate Appropriations. A hearing is set for April 8.

“Thousands of ballots, at the end of every election, are not counted because of voter error or because they arrived too late. The FoCE is working on examining reasons why they aren’t being counted and then we’ll be crafting an outreach campaign for the 2014 election to educate voters about how to get it right because we want their ballots to count,” said Alexander.

“It’s really heartbreaking, to me, when votes aren’t counted.” 


Cheryl Getuiza

All stories by: Cheryl Getuiza