(TNS) — When it comes to mail ballots, it's not fraud that vexes election officials. It's human nature.
That's a problem as California prepares amid the COVID-19 pandemic to mail a ballot to every registered voter in the state for November's presidential election.
The ballots go out the week of Oct. 5 and have to be returned by Election Day, Nov. 3. Some people who wait until the last minute think that means they're OK if they put it in a mailbox on that date. But that's not the rule. Ballots have to be postmarked by Election Day, and they have to arrive no later than 17 days after that date at the county Registrar of Voters office or they won't get counted.
During the March primary, this was by far the most-common reason mail ballots got rejected in San Diego County and throughout the state. They arrived too late.
Out of 102,000 ballots disallowed statewide, 70,000 didn't arrive on time, according to statistics collected by the California Secretary of State. The next two most-common defects, which affected a combined 27,500 ballots, involved missing or mismatched voter signatures used to verify the identity of the person casting the ballot.
San Diego County's experience was the same: Of 6,243 ballots rejected, 4,481 were impermissibly tardy. Signature issues invalidated another 1,747.
Overall, these are small numbers. Statewide, about 98.5 percent of the nearly 7 million mail ballots cast were counted. In San Diego, it was 99 percent of the 652,000 cast.
But in close elections, every vote matters, as several recent contests have shown. In the March primary for San Diego mayor, Barbara Bry edged Scott Sherman by less than 1,200 votes to earn a run-off spot against Todd Gloria in November.
"The average rejection rate in recent elections in California has been about 1.7 percent, which doesn't sound like a lot," said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan organization based in Sacramento "But I don't think people would accept 1.7 percent of their bank transactions failing. We shouldn't accept it for voting by mail, either."
Elections officials are instituting changes for November aimed at decreasing the number of disallowed ballots. A majority of voters in the state — about 72 percent in March — already vote by mail and are familiar with the basic process. In San Diego County, 76.5 percent of the 1.8 million registered voters already get mail ballots.
But for the November election, because of COVID-19 concerns, every registered voter in the state will get one. That means thousands of people will be asked to do something new.
And they'll be asked to do it during a pandemic that is altering other familiar aspects of voting.
Even though everyone gets a mail ballot, those who prefer can still vote the old-fashioned way, in person, on Election Day. Except instead of the usual 1,600 neighborhood precincts scattered around the county, there will be 235 "super polls," and instead of being open just on Election Day, they'll be open for the three days prior, too, starting on Oct. 31.
It's a lot of moving parts.
"Voters are used to behaving in a particular way, so normally we wouldn't be introducing this kind of change in a presidential election year," said Michael Vu, the county registrar of voters. "But there's a pandemic going on, and we have to live in that world."
Because of the novel coronavirus, California isn't the only state expanding the use of mail voting, which for decades has been backed by both Republicans and Democrats as a way to make voting easier and decrease costs.
This time around, though, President Donald Trump is regularly criticizing the practice, calling it ripe for "massive fraud and abuse."
The facts say otherwise.
A recent Washington Post analysis of fraud referrals to law enforcement by election officials in three all-mail states (Oregon, Colorado and Washington) found 372 possible cases out of 14.6 million ballots cast in the 2016 and 2018 general elections. That's 0.0025 percent.
When two elections experts looked at a nationwide online election fraud database kept by the Heritage Foundation, they found 143 criminal convictions involving mail ballots out of some 250 million cast over the last 20 years.
"We are talking about an occurrence that translates to about 0.00006 percent of total votes cast," they wrote in The Hill.
Vu said his office typically comes across a few cases of apparent registration or voter fraud in every election, and they are referred to law enforcement for possible prosecution. "But the notion that there is widespread, systemic fraud — there just isn't any evidence of that, in San Diego or anywhere in the nation," he said.
All the speculation about fraud also ignores the safeguards in place to protect it, he said.
Election officials regularly comb and update the voter rolls, removing the names of those who have died, updating the information of those who have moved, and adding the newly registered. That's why registered voters in the county have been receiving postcards lately, asking them to make sure the information on file is correct.
Every ballot is mailed with a return envelope that has a bar code unique to that voter. Only that envelope can be used. That prevents anyone from voting twice, either on purpose or accidentally, Vu said. The system knows if someone asks for a second ballot by claiming the first one was lost or damaged. It knows if someone votes by mail, and then shows up on Election Day to cast a ballot again.
The tracking system would also seem to render impossible one of Trump's claims: That someone could print thousands of counterfeit ballots, fill them out, and get them counted.
In theory, someone could steal real ballots before they reach voters and fill them out. But each voter is required to sign the back of the envelope, and Vu said every signature is checked by computers and humans against a signature on file at the registrar's office.
Any mismatch gets further scrutinized by workers trained in analyzing signatures. If the John Hancock still doesn't pass muster, an attempt is made to contact the voter to validate the ballot. If that doesn't work, the ballot isn't counted.
California law allows "harvesting," which means third parties can collect completed ballots in signed, sealed envelopes from voters and turn them in to be counted. The law is aimed at making sure that elderly, disabled, home-bound and rural voters have a way to return their ballots, but critics say it invites fraud.
Someone in theory could collect uncompleted ballots and fill them out, but they would also have to get voters to sign the envelopes or forge them in a convincing way. Election experts said there is scant evidence of that happening in a coordinated or widespread way, and instances of it — most recently by a Republican political operative in a North Carolina congressional race in 2018 — got detected.
"People who worry about fraud aren't aware of all that happens on the administrative end to prevent it," Alexander said. "And people worry that we're making mail-voting too easy, but the fact is thousands of mail ballots get rejected every election. The rejections are evidence of the security precautions."
Timing Is Key
The expanding use of mail ballots is tempting a shift in terminology, too. Some experts say it makes more sense to drop the "mail" or "absentee" name and call it "voting at home."
That's because the mail is no longer the only way to return the ballots. It's still the most commonly used, past elections show, but with ongoing concerns about the U.S. Postal Service's financial health, and with recent overtime and equipment cutbacks raising questions about its ability to handle the pandemic-fueled onslaught of election mail, officials are encouraging voters to remember the other options.
In San Diego County, that will include about 125 "drop-off" locations staffed by elections workers at libraries, recreation centers, and other facilities. That's about double the number available in the March primary. Officials expect to finalize the list and begin publicizing it soon.
Ballots will go into the mail to voters starting the week of Oct. 5. Vu is encouraging people to fill them out and return them via the postal service, provided it can be done by Oct. 27, seven days before Election Day. The return envelopes have the postage already paid.
After that date, he said, people should use the drop-off sites.
The 235 "super polls" will also be an option for returning ballots, from Oct. 31 through Nov. 3, but those sites are likely to have lines of people who prefer to vote in person. Vu said social-distancing and face-mask rules will be in place, but he's encouraging older residents and those with underlying medical conditions to use the mail or drop-off options.
By voting early, people can avoid the most common reason mail ballots get rejected: late arrival. There is no remedy for that after it happens.
Issues with signatures can be corrected. Changes in state law enacted in recent years require registrars to contact voters if their ballots arrive without signatures, or if the signatures don't match what's on file. Voters can then file affidavits verifying the validity of the ballots.
In about half of the signature cases, that process leads to the disputed ballots being counted, based on anecdotal evidence Alexander's group has collected. She said uniform signature-verification rules planned by the state for the November election could increase that "cure rate."
Another new development: Voters can track their ballots by signing up for notifications through the county registrar's website, sdvote.com. The "Where's My Ballot?" system will send text, email or voice alerts at each step of the process. Officials will use the system to let voters know when there is a missing signature or other problem.
The registrar's website also has information on how to check the status of your voter registration, update your mailing address, and cancel the registration of someone who has died, as well as instructions on how to register for the first time.
©2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.