Some Sacramento County voters received wrong absentee ballots due to mailing vendor’s error

Due to an error by the Sacramento County Registration and Elections Office’s mailing vendor, 232 Sacramento County voters received the wrong vote-by-mail ballots.
Due to an error by the Sacramento County Registration and Elections Office’s mailing vendor, 232 Sacramento County voters received the wrong vote-by-mail ballots. The Sacramento Bee

Sacramento County Voter Registration and Elections Office employees spent Sunday hand-delivering absentee ballots to voters after elections officials discovered that the wrong ballots were mailed to 232 voters countywide.

Jill Levine, county registrar of voters, said the error was made by the mailing vendor while inserting ballots. The elections office was alerted to the problem when two voters called to report that their ballots didn’t look right.

“That’s when we started investigating and notified the vendor,” she said.

After researching the matter, the mailing vendor, Arizona-based Runbeck Election Services, advised the county Elections Office Saturday that 232 voters had received the wrong ballots.

The affected voters were scattered all over the county, “from Herald clear to Antelope and from Folsom to the Pocket area,” Levine said.

This was the latest embarrassment for the county Elections Office this election season.

Previously, the office omitted information from the sample ballot booklet sent to thousands of registered voters, an error that cost taxpayers more than $68,000 to correct and threatened to affect voting in the Nov. 4 election.

In the current mistake in the absentee ballot mailings, the vendor is to absorb the costs.

On Sunday, 22 elections employees working in 11 teams began telephoning the affected voters to tell them of the error. The teams delivered new ballots to the voters’ residences. In cases where no one was home, the team sent the new ballots by overnight mail.

In cases where residents have already voted and mailed in the wrong absentee ballot, Levine said that ballot will be flagged and replaced when the voter returns the new ballot.

Where affected voters do not send in replacement ballots, Levine said county staff members will manually transfer to new ballots any votes that voters were entitled to cast, and their old ballots will be voided. She said that means residents who do not mail in the corrected ballot will miss voting on races that weren’t on the first ballot.

Levine said costs borne by Runbeck Election Services to address the mistake will include county staff time and mileage required to deliver the new ballots. She said a representative of the firm has been assisting staff members at the county offices.

“This is a great vendor,” Levine said. “We’ve used them before and we’ve never had an issue before.”

Kevin Runbeck, the firm’s chief executive officer, said the company used to handle the insertion process for vote-by-mail ballots manually, but has switched to an automated system. He said the error resulted from a 30- to 40-second malfunction of both the inserter and a camera system designed to detect errors.

Errors also occurred in mailings for a county in Colorado and one in Arizona, he said. In all, he said, about 1,000 voters were affected.

“It’s a highly unusual event,” Runbeck said, adding that his firm is working with the engineers for the system’s German manufacturer to make sure such errors don’t occur again.

He said automation has been necessary to keep pace with the growing number of people voting by mail.

Runbeck said his firm printed about 8 million ballots for this year’s elections and mailed about 3 million.

Mindy Romero, director of the California Engagement Project at the UC Davis Center for Regional Change, has researched the vote-by-mail trend and related incidents of rejected ballots. Voting by mail topped 50 percent of votes cast in the general election in California for the first time in 2012, and in this year’s June primary, 69 percent of California voters voted by mail, she said.

Although Romero said this was the first she had heard of voters receiving the wrong absentee ballots, she said such problems are a concern as the number of people voting by mail increases. In the 2012 election, 1 percent of vote-by-mail ballots were rejected. In the 2014 primary, with much lower voter turnout, 2.9 percent of vote-by-mail ballots were rejected, she said.

The shift from voting at the polls to voting by mail has forced county elections offices to reallocate resources.

Romero said of the elections offices, “As the volume increases, we may see more of these types of errors.”

Call The Bee’s Cathy Locke, (916) 321-5287.

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