Before 2020, the unassuming “I Voted” sticker was enough to satisfy most voters that their ballot had passed into trusted hands. But this past election, amid California’s plunge into mail-in voting and the Trump administration’s baseless claims of election fraud, the state offered higher-tech assurance: ballot updates sent to voters’ phone and email by BallotTrax, a tracking service hired by the state to communicate directly with the electorate across all 58 counties.

BallotTrax’s mission is to let voters know the whereabouts of their ballot “before they ask,” as its marketing slogan proclaims. In theory, voters could relax and county registrars would get fewer calls seeking confirmation that their ballots had been recorded. But while the state, and many registrars and voters, said they’d use BallotTrax again, it didn’t seem to have its intended effect. In ten of the 52 counties surveyed by CalMatters, including Humboldt, Imperial and Mendocino, registrars were surprised by the number of queries from agitated voters about the BallotTrax messages themselves.  

To a degree, BallotTrax was a victim of high expectations. Five million voters — roughly 23 percent of the electorate — signed up for tracking alerts, said BallotTrax’s president, Steve Olsen. That’s more than twice the usual signup rate for states new to the service. “It was so easy to sign up that I don’t remember much of the process,” said Bob Ippolito, who works for a computer science education nonprofit and votes in San Francisco County. “I was impressed by how smoothly it all worked.”

Yet, as with the wide-scale implementation of any new system, human error was often to blame. And for some voters, spoiled by next-day delivery service from the likes of Amazon, say, or GrubHub, the BallotTrax messages only exacerbated anxiety about the integrity of the election.  “Your ballot is not being transmitted up to [a] satellite and back down to us,” said Rose Gallo-Vasquez, the registrar for Colusa County. “We’re not Amazon.”

Much of the confusion involved a disconnect between the theoretical progress of a ballot and on-the-ground reality. For example, some counties sent out ballots a few days after the official mailing date that the state and BallotTrax used. As a result, some voters who were advised that their ballots had been sent had a disconcertingly long wait before the ballots actually landed in their mailboxes. That was particularly disturbing at a time when people were already worried about the reliability  of the U.S. Postal Service. 

A similar lag led to concerns at the other end of the voting process. In some cases, counties didn’t immediately inform the state after receiving a batch of ballots. Accordingly, BallotTrax may have told those voters that their ballot was accepted later than they expected.

“Your ballot is not being transmitted up to [a] satellite and back down to us. We’re not Amazon.”

rose gallo-vasquez, colusa county registrar

In reality, BallotTrax’s data indicates California didn’t see the type of postal service delays many voters feared, Olsen said. BallotTrax provides a dashboard to county elections officials that tracks ballot flows down to the zip-code level.

Some voters read ambiguity between the lines of phone or email alerts that stated, for example, that “Your ballot has been received and will be counted.” Inyo County registrar Kammi Foote said, “I cannot tell you how many voters angrily reached back out to me saying, ‘I never got an affirmation that it actually was counted.’” Placer County officials also received calls about the “will be counted” message, registrar Ryan Ronco said.

In other cases, the messages didn’t match up with election practices in a given county, CalMatters found. In Plumas County, BallotTrax messages referred to polling places, even though Plumas has long used vote-by-mail and has no traditional polling locations, said registrar Kathy Williams.

While BallotTrax delivered the messages, the Secretary of State’s office dictated the language in most cases and has plans to review it, said spokesman Sam Mahood.

In Solano County, which had launched its own tracking system in 2013, voters were suspicious of the fresh wave of ballot-tracking signup messages that didn’t appear to come from the county, said John Gardner, the assistant registrar. Many opted out of using BallotTrax, and the county ended up with a patchwork of two systems, Gardner said. Orange County also received questions about BallotTrax’s relationship with its existing service, registrar Neal Kelly said in a statement.

Still, both BallotTrax and the Secretary of State’s office seem confident that such problems can be resolved. Olsen said he’s hoping to sign a new contract with the state by January. Currently, BallotTrax is the only service available that can satisfy the ballot-tracking requirements of California law. The cost to taxpayers is a few cents per ballot tracked.

Voters opt in to use BallotTrax, providing the company with their contact and other information. BallotTrax says that voters’ information is encrypted, and the company works with private security experts and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to keep its system safe.

Based in Denver, BallotTrax is also used by Nevada, Colorado, North Carolina and Georgia, as well as individual counties in ten other states.

Aaron Leathley is a reporter at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. VoteBeat reporters Lewis Griswold and Michael Lozano, along with Freddy Brewster and Katie Licari of UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, contributed reporting.

This coverage is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. In California, CalMatters is hosting the collaboration with the Fresno Bee, the Long Beach Post and the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

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Aaron Leathley

Aaron is a reporter at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.