California politicians would never suppress voting, but they might not count all the ballots

UC Davis researcher Mindy Romero
UC Davis researcher Mindy Romero

It’s tempting to be smug in the face of other states’ fights over voter suppression. California, thankfully, isn’t Texas, where voter-ID requirements were compared to a poll tax by a federal judge last week.

Signed into law by Gov. Rick Perry in 2011, the ID requirement was just one of many ways in which the Lone Star State historically blocked participation among minority voters, said U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos, who ruled that the requirement had an “impermissible discriminatory effect against Hispanics and African Americans, and was imposed with an unconstitutional discriminatory purpose.”

And Texas, of course, isn’t the only part of the nation where voter protections aren’t, well, Californian. A year after the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision narrowing the Voting Rights Act, 15 states controlled by Republicans have imposed tighter restrictions on voting for the Nov. 4 election, the Los Angeles Times reported last week.

Democrats here and elsewhere are calling on voters to cast their ballots as an act of defiance, redoubling registration efforts, and appealing to the courts.

In Georgia, voters in a largely African American precinct will be able to cast votes on the Sunday before the election, to the dismay of a Republican state senator, who fretted that the polls would be open in an area “dominated by African American shoppers and … several large African American mega-churches.”

But Californians needn’t feel as superior as we do on this issue. A close look reveals that we don’t need voter-suppressing laws to limit participation. Here, unconscionable numbers of people make that decision on their own, by not taking the time to vote.

Even when they do take the time to fill out ballots, their vote too often ends up not being counted, because of the state’s outdated voting system and a secretary of state who has been less than engaged.

In a conference in Sacramento today, UC Davis researcher Mindy Romero will present her latest data showing that 2.9 percent of the vote-by-mail ballots cast in the June primary went uncounted. That amounts to 91,000 ballots. In the 2012 election, 1 percent of the mailed-in ballots went uncounted. That equated to 69,000 ballots.

Officials in blue California would never think to suppress the vote. They’re much too progressive for that. But the rate of vote-by-mail ballots that don’t get counted is higher in California than in any other state, says the Pew Center on the States’ Election Performance.

The problem of uncounted mail ballots is particularly perplexing because more than half of the electorate in California chooses to vote by mail, 51 percent in November 2012, and 69 percent in June.

In her latest report, Kim Alexander, head of the California Voter Foundation, details why vote-by-mail ballots aren’t counted: the signature on the envelope doesn’t match closely enough the signature on file with the elections office, the voter neglects to sign the envelope, or the ballot is mailed in too late.

Few counties bother to inform the voters that their votes weren’t counted. Disenfranchised voters may make the same mistakes year after year.

Voter education matters. A 2011 survey found that many people don’t realize that they are not obligated to vote on all races for their ballots to be counted.

On Nov. 4, voters will pick Alex Padilla or Pete Peterson as the next secretary of state, replacing the termed-out incumbent Debra Bowen. Whoever wins ought to pledge to make voting more convenient, by opening polls on Saturdays and Sundays to accommodate working people who have a hard time getting to the polls on workdays. And they should promise to make sure that every vote cast is counted.

Californians are fortunate that politicians don’t go out of their way to inhibit their right to vote. But they shouldn’t take the right for granted.