After the last statewide election, I visited the Sacramento County registrar of voters’ office to view the vote-by-mail ballots that would not be counted. There were over three thousand of them.
One came all the way from China. One had an October 21 postmark from Los Angeles. Another was sent from New York via (supposedly) one-day mail the Friday before the election. None of these ballots were counted because all three arrived one day after Election Day.
Voting by mail is a popular option among California voters, but the rise in its use has also resulted in a large number of ballots going uncounted every statewide election, numbering in the hundreds in small counties to the thousands in bigger ones. They are a tiny fraction of all the ballots cast (roughly half of a percent of the total in November 2012), yet they still represent tens of thousands of disenfranchised voters.
According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, California’s uncounted vote-by-mail ballot rate is among the highest in the nation. What are voters getting wrong? One of the biggest reasons VBM ballots don’t get counted, as shown through the above anecdotes, is because they arrive too late. Under current California state law, ballots must be received by 8 p.m. on Election Day to be counted. Postmarks don’t count.
Voters have no control over the movement of mail through the US Postal Service. Perhaps recognizing this, a growing number of vote-by-mail voters are not actually putting their ballots in the mail, but rather returning them in person to an election office, designated drop site, or a polling place.
If you do choose to mail your ballot in, mail it early. USPS facility closures have slowed down mail delivery in recent years. If it’s the last week of the election, return your ballot in person at an official drop-off site or any polling place in your county.
If you are going to entrust your ballot to the USPS, make sure you have enough postage. Although postal employees are required to send election mail through even with insufficient postage, your ballot will more likely arrive on time if it has proper first class postage. Ballots are big, so put an extra stamp on it or have it weighed at the post office.
Whether you send your ballot through the mail or return it in person, be sure to sign the envelope. Lack of a signature is another big reason why some VBM ballots don’t get counted. Again, that’s the envelope, not the ballot itself. If your county doesn’t use a signature secrecy sleeve on its envelope and you don’t want your signature exposed, you can put the envelope with the ballot inside it into another plain envelope and mail it that way.
Sign your name the same way did when you registered to vote. If your name has changed you need to re-register.
Don’t get your ballot envelope mixed up with someone else’s in your household. They are often barcoded to match an individual voter. Counties will probably still count ballots if two voters who switched envelopes (usually spouses) both return ballots, but don’t take the chance. Be sure to use the envelope provided for the ballot you are returning.
If you lose your ballot, or make a mistake, you can get a new one from your county election office or at your polling place on Election Day. Voters who are issued vote-by-mail ballots can still vote at the polls if they “surrender” their VBM ballot to pollworkers. Voters who have lost their VBM ballot can still vote a provisional ballot at their polling place on Election Day.
Check your status online. Most counties offer online lookup tools where voters can check if they are registered as a vote-by-mail voter, if their ballot has been issued, or if their voted ballot has been received. Starting this year, voters have the right to know if their VBM ballot was counted and if not, they are owed a reason as to why.
Improving voter education and changing state law to allow postmarks to count can help dramatically reduce the number of unsuccessful vote-by-mail ballots cast in California and in the process, reduce disenfranchisement and increase voter turnout. If you choose to cast a vote-by-mail ballot, follow the instructions and be sure to make it count.
Kim Alexander is president and founder of the California Voter Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization working to improve the voting process to better serve voters, online at www.calvoter.org.