In summary

The 100,000-plus number of rejected mail ballots in California’s March primary is a helpful warning in a system with a few growing pains, not a sign of fraud.

By Garrett Jensen, Special to CalMatters

Garrett Jensen has conducted extensive interviews with elections officials across California for the Stanford Law Signature Verification Report, gjjensen@stanford.edu.

Major media around the world trumpeted the apparent flaws in California’s March primary when nearly 7 million people cast their mail ballots. 

Headlines from Al Jazeera to the Washington Post blared the news of 102,428 rejected mail ballots – about a 1.5% rejection rate. Given the state’s ambitious new law, “Every Vote Counts,” mandating that election officials give voters the opportunity to correct ballot mistakes, the rejection rate is cause for investigation, not panic. 

Importantly, rejection is almost never due to fraud. Instead typical causes are voter education, limited communications from election officials to voters, out-of-date home addresses that make a ballot undeliverable, or lags in postal service delivery. The 100,000-plus figure is a helpful warning in a system with a few growing pains.

Who can fix the growing pains? Well, you, as a registered voter, can make a big difference. The California Legislature is also doing what it can to ensure that every vote counts.

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Vote-by-mail balloting has been around for decades, with many upsides. Not only is it appealing for the time-stressed American, especially those who can’t leave work to vote, but also for voters requiring additional assistance. 

Limited mobility voters, aging voters, military voters, and voters away at college are all examples of why voters like vote-by-mail. In fact, even before the pandemic and March primary, more than 60% of Californians voted by mail. This number will certainly increase come November given Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recent excutive order that all registered voters receive a mail ballot due to COVID-19 public safety concerns. And while in-person voting will be available in November, submitting a ballot by mail is convenient, accessible and safe.

So what happened in the March primary? Late ballots comprised 70% of the total rejections. Given that the bulk of mail ballots are received in those crucial days immediately following Election Day, the Legislature has extended the timeline to 17 days after Election Day. This legislation should help ensure that delayed ballots count in the November general election. Given the importance of counting valid votes that can change results in tight races, we should be patient waiting beyond election night for results.

What about the other 30% of the rejected ballots? Knowing what’s behind those rejected ballots is critical to correcting the problem. We know that about half of the 30,000 rejected ballots were signed, but did not match the voter’s signature on file, and the other half were missing a signature altogether. Both of these challenges trigger a process to contact the voter and fix the mistake, thanks to the Every Vote Counts Act of 2018. 

Under the Every Vote Counts Act, the voter will, at a minimum, receive one letter in the mail informing them of the missing or mismatched signature and instructions to correct the ballot. They are notified at least eight days prior to election certification and the elections office must receive the verification  statement back from the voter two days before the election is certified. Just one notice by mail? That’s not enough for many voters. Plus, counties are inconsistent with their voter outreach, resulting in varying – typically  low – rates of return. 

Counties and states can do better. For example, voters receive letters and notification in English, which may be difficult to understand for voters with limited English proficiency. Yet, the aim of Section 14201 of the state elections code is to reach voters in their native languages. 

Voters seeking to protect themselves from COVID-19 may also be wary of visiting their local elections office to submit their ballot. Perhaps the state could enable voters to cast their ballots through secure digital means or require an elections office to notify the voter more than once, possibly through methods beyond the postal service. And certainly, the state can lower financial barriers for voters by simply ensuring that forms have prepaid status.

Some of the burden for fast, efficient elections is on us as voters. We must ensure we sign our ballot envelopes, mail them early and track our votes. The California Secretary of State is implementing a statewide online tracking system so voters in the November election can confirm that their ballot was counted and, if not, have a window of time to fix it. 

Overall, the 102,428 rejected ballots are a learning opportunity not only for California, but for any state expanding vote-by-mail operations. These are lessons that Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington – all 100% vote-by-mail states – have also learned over time.

What’s the good news? The Legislature is striving to ensure that our state is a leader in safe, secure and accurate elections. County offices are improving their operations and outreach. And as a voter, you can help, too. For a full picture, visit the California Voter Foundation “Online Guide.” And make sure you are registered to vote.

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Garrett Jensen is a team lead for the Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project.

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