Popularity of vote-by-mail adds extra complication to counting votes accurately

150 150 Alexandra Bjerg

Are absentee ballots the new hanging chads? More than 4 million presidential votes were lost in the 2000 election which was notoriously plagued by the hanging chads fiasco.

Although voting technology has since vastly improved, the steady rise in absentee voting may undermine any gains in accuracy.

Why is this important in California?

Because last year’s presidential election was the first statewide general election in which a majority of Californians, 51 percent or 6.8 million to be exact, voted absentee. By comparison, less than 3 percent of California ballots cast in the 1962 general election were submitted by mail.

The mail-in balloting surge is attributed to the fact that California is one of 33 states that have instituted “no-fault” absentee voting; voters aren’t required to provide an excuse for not voting at the polls to request an absentee ballot.

“We have possibly gotten way ahead of ourselves in encouraging people to vote by mail,” said Charles Stewart III, a political science professor at MIT and co-director of the Caltech-MIT Voting Technology Project.

After studying two decades of elections data from California, Stewart co-authored a report concluding that all the accuracy gains California made in the in the past two decades by replacing outdated voting technology had been canceled out by an increase in lost votes due to the rise in absentee voting.

Elections officials attending a recent Future of California Elections (FOCE) meeting in Sacramento also expressed concerns about the impact of the rising popularity of mail-in voting, even though it is seen as a way to reduce costs.

“We [Contra Costa County] disqualify 0.5 percent,” said Contra Costa County Clerk Steve Weir. A significant number of which are “ballots that come in late even though they are post-marked before Election Day.” In 2010, California rejected more absentee ballots than any other state, 0.7 percent.

In response to this problem, Senator Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana) has introduced legislation that would allow absentee ballots post-marked on Election Day to be accepted up to three days after the polls close.

Another reason some ballots are disqualified results from signature irregularities. Weir, who will retire at the end of the month after administering elections in Contra Costa for nearly a quarter of a century, warns that ballots cast by millenials are 3 to 5 times more likely to be rejected because the signature on the return envelope does match the signature on their voter registration card. Millennials represent less than 10 percent of absentee voters in Contra Costa, Weir explained, but their ballots account for 30 percent of the rejections.

With elections being decided by increasingly slim majorities, it’s more important than ever to ensure every ballot cast is counted. “Youngsters aren’t understanding that their signature is really a security device,” commented Weir, speculating on the reason for a disproportionate rate of signatures discrepancies. “We have got to get that message out to them.”

California Forward with the FOCE will continue to work with partners like CA Voter Foundation and UC Davis California Civic Engagement Project to find root causes of Vote-by-mail ballot failure and address them.

“Making sure people’s ballots that have been cast are counted is essential,” said Caroline Bruister California Forward Project Director. “In order to bring new voters into the process we need to demonstrate that their vote counts.”


Alexandra Bjerg

All stories by: Alexandra Bjerg