Is your absentee ballot being counted in California?

150 150 Alexandra Bjerg

(photo: Pacdog)

One person, one vote; that’s the fundamental principle of our democracy. Every vote counts. That is, unless you vote-by-mail. New research shows that absentee ballots cast by mail are twice as likely to go uncounted than those cast in person. More absentee ballots went uncounted in California than any other state in the last mid-term election.

In the years since the hanging chad-plagued 2000 presidental election, California has spent millions to replace outdated voting equipment with more secure and reliable machines in an attempt to minimize lost votes. During this same period, vote-by-mail balloting in California has surged. In fact, 51 percent of all ballots cast in last November’s election were absentee. 

Tens of thousands of Californians are being disenfranchised by the vote-by-mail sytem. “In the last election, one percent of vote-by-mail ballots weren’t counted – that’s 68,000,” said California Voter Foundation President Kim Alexander. “I went into my county elections office two days after the election and asked to see the vote-by-mail ballots that weren’t being counted.” There were more than 3,000 rejected vote-by-mail ballots in Sacramento County alone, an error rate of 1 percent. “It’s just astonishing,” said Alexander. “There were post office trays and trays of them.” 

While vote-by-mail ballots are disqualified for a variety of reasons, on average nearly half of all rejections are attributed to late arrival.  Under current law, vote-by-mail ballots must be received by 8:00 pm on Election Day to be counted in California. 

But procrastinators aren’t the only voters being disenfranchised. Recent U.S. Post Office closures have delayed processing and delivery of absentee ballots, resulting in ballots cast even days in advance arriving late. 

“Our domestic and military voters overseas who cast timely ballots should not be disenfranchised because of increasingly slow mail service,” said Senator Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana), who authored legislation to address this problem. 

Senate Bill 29 would allow vote-by-mail ballots postmarked by Election Day and received within three days after the polls closed to be counted.  More than 10 other states have adopted a similar vote-by-mail deadline.

Proponents claim extending the deadline will mitigate the negative impact of postal closures on absentee ballots. “If SB 29 is enacted it’s going to greatly reduce the number of unsuccessful vote-by-mail ballots in CA — it may cut it in half,” said Alexander. 

Vote-by-mail ballots that arrive on time must clear an additional hurdle before being counted; signature verification. Sloppy writers beware, signature irregularities is the second most common reason for rejection. If elections officials determine the signature on a voter’s absentee ballot envelope does not match the one on the voter’s registration form, the ballot is invalidated.  

Our signatures change overtime. The signature on my driver’s license doesn’t match the one I use to sign my checks. This poses a significant challenge for elections administrators who are permitted to use only a voter’s registration affidavit for signature verification. An image of the signature on file at the DMV, which is often not current and may be of poor quality, is used to verfity the signatures of voters who registered through California’s new online voter registration system. 

Legislation drafted by Assemblyman Kevin Mullin (D- South San Francisco) would help registrars capture more signature matches and ensure voters aren’t disenfranchised for poor penmanship. “In an effort to give voters the best chance possible of having their ballots counted,” explained Mullin, “AB 1135 would expand the number of allowable documents from a voter’s registration record for signature comparison.”

As the popularity of mail-in balloting soars, it’s vital that we improve the vote-by-mail process to stop the tens of thousands of California voters from being unnecessarily disenfranchised. Widespread voting equipment modernization was fueled by concern over the percentage of rejected ballots in the 2000 election. And while the error rate for absentee ballots is similar, calls for improvements have been muted. 

Ensuring every ballot cast is counted is vital to the legitimacy and health of our vibrant democracy. That’s why the California Forward Action Fund, the 501(c)(4) sister organization of California Forward, enthusiastically supports SB 29 and AB 1135 and the continuing reform efforts to restore trust in California elections. By significantly reducing the number of rejected ballots, both bills would help ensure all Californians make their voice heard through the ballot box.


Alexandra Bjerg

All stories by: Alexandra Bjerg