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Californians Will Soon Have More Time to Turn in Mail-In Ballots

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Workers at the San Francisco Department of Elections sort stacks of vote-by-mail ballots by precinct during a past election. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images) (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Late voters will have more opportunity to mail in their ballots, thanks to a new law that goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2015. The law stipulates that vote-by-mail ballots will need to be postmarked by Election Day and received up to three days later, rather than the current requirement that ballots must actually be in the hands of election officials by Election Day.

Election officials hope the date change will help alleviate voters' concerns about mailing in their ballots. Kim Alexander of the California Voter Foundation, for example, says she’s seen trays of ballots go uncounted because they were mailed in too late.

"Now we've given voters more opportunity to vote, and there's a trade-off that it takes longer to tally the results," she said.

Still Counting

California voters finished casting their ballots last week, but many counties are still tallying the actual votes. That's partially because of the success of vote-by-mail.


In theory, vote-by mail gives county registrars a jump.

"That's how we can give you results at 8:05 p.m.," said Tim Dupuis, registrar of voters for Alameda County.

But most counties don't receive vote-by-mail ballots until Election Day.

In Alameda County only about 5 percent of vote-by-mail ballots arrived before Election Day. About 82,500 vote-by-mail ballots were dropped off at the polls, and about 130,000 more were delivered on Election Day.

By Monday afternoon, Dupuis said there were still about 14,000 ballots to tally countywide. With just 129 votes currently separating school board member Trish Spencer and incumbent Mayor Marie Gilmore in the Alameda mayoral election, it could still be awhile before a winner is declared.

About 100 people are still going through those ballots in Alameda County. First, workers need to match the signature on the envelope to the signature they have on file in the registration system. If it doesn't match, the vote is not counted. Next, the envelope is opened and the ballots sorted by precinct. This way, it's easy for the county to recount the ballots if needed, and for a mandatory manual tally of some votes. Finally, the ballots are scanned.

"I'd like (people) to get their vote in early. It would certainly help us get the vote out quickly. But ultimately I would just like to see people get out and vote," Dupuis said.

Almost 30 percent of San Francisco's vote-by-mail ballots were also turned in on Election Day.

"It's one of the most critical things we prepare for. It's basically like Election Day all over again," said John Arntz, director at the San Francisco Department of Elections.

Arntz said the biggest problem is getting the four-page ballot through the machines.

Statewide, there are still about 1,291,300 uncounted ballots.

"There's nothing wrong with that. The only people who dislike it are media, and some candidates. It's good for the media and candidates to remember that no one takes office the next day at 8 a.m.," said Nicole Winger, spokeswoman for the California secretary of state. "We want people to vote. The timing of a vote should not matter. It's the point of participating."

Winger turned in her vote-by-mail ballot on Election Day.

"There was a local measure I was on the fence about, and that brought me up to the last day before the election," she said.

Vote-by-Mail Ballots a Factor in Contested Races

Vote-by-mail ballots are more likely to go uncounted, though. About 1 percent of vote-by-mail ballots went uncounted during the 2012 general election, and 3 percent during the June primary, according to a study by the UC Davis California Civic Engagement Project.

"The vote-by-mail ballot has become the hanging chad of 2014," Alexander said. "It's the same as the 2012 election, where people think their vote is being counted and it's not."

It takes weeks to sort through the vote by mail ballots before election day. (Beth Willon/KQED)
It takes weeks to sort through the vote-by-mail ballots before Election Day. (Beth Willon/KQED)

One of the main reasons vote-by-mail ballots go uncounted is because they are lacking a signature on the envelope, or the signature does not match voter registration or DMV records. While some counties will try to contact voters, they're not required to.

And those uncounted votes can make a difference. The signatures on about 3,000 vote-by-mail ballots in Sacramento are being challenged. That could make a big difference between Democratic Rep. Ami Bera, who is within 530 votes of Republican challenger Doug Ose for the 7th Congressional District.

"It's the most frustrating part of this whole issue. You can tell people to get it on time and to sign the envelope. But the third question is really hard. People don't know what their signature in the registration looks like," Alexander said.

In a California Voter Foundation study of vote-by-mail in Sacramento, Orange and Santa Cruz counties, about 38 percent of disqualified ballots had either no signature or one that did not match the voting records.

The state is also not paying for extra vote-by-mail outreach to help educate Californians, or even for vote-by-mail programs themselves.

California suspended funding for vote-by-mail programs in the 2011-2012 state budget, so counties have had to absorb the cost. Santa Cruz County spent $140,000 of its election budget on vote-by-mail in the November 2012 election. The Legislative Analyst’s Office has recommended since 2013 that funding for election mandates be restored.

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