Capitol Alert

Late arrival, missing signatures voided many California mail ballots, study finds

Even as voting by mail becomes increasingly common in California elections, more mail ballots are not being counted, according to a study of mail voting in three counties, including Sacramento.

The report, released Tuesday by the nonpartisan California Voter Foundation, found that 0.8 percent of the mail ballots cast in four elections in Orange, Santa Cruz and Sacramento counties were never counted. Sixty-one percent of them arrived after Election Day. Twenty percent of the ballots had not been signed, and in 18 percent of the cases, election officials concluded that the signature on the ballot did not match the voter’s signature the office had on file.

Kim Alexander, the voter foundation’s president and the main author of the report, said she she is confident that its findings also apply to the state’s 55 other counties. Government, she said, has encouraged people to vote by mail, yet its laws and procedures have not kept pace to prevent what she called “a hidden problem.”

“I’ve seen these trays of election ballots stacked up, uncounted. It’s the saddest sight. A lot of work goes into casting those ballots,” Alexander said. “We’ve been building our vote-by-mail process on a piecemeal basis.”

The foundation’s report comes as the Legislature considers a measure that would allow mail ballots to be counted if they are postmarked on Election Day and received within three days afterward. The bill, Senate Bill 29, cleared the Assembly Appropriations Committee last week and is pending in the full Assembly. According to a committee analysis of the measure, 26,000 ballots arrived too late to be counted in the November 2010 election.

Besides supporting a change to the rules on late-arriving ballots, Tuesday’s report recommends that counties should notify voters when their ballots go uncounted. In addition, the state should require counties and the secretary of state’s office to report the number of uncounted ballots and why they were not counted. The state also should pay counties what they are owed to fund vote-by-mail programs.

Alice Jarboe, Sacramento County’s assistant registrar of voters, said the office worked closely with Alexander’s group and is always trying to improve communication with voters on how to cast mail ballots.

Neal Kelley, Orange County’s registrar of voters and the president of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials, said he also agreed with many of the report’s conclusions. Voters, he added, also need to shoulder some responsibility for properly submitting their mail ballots.

“We’ve done so many different things to put that information in front of voters. At some point there may be an issue where certain individuals just aren’t paying attention,” he said.