In two fiercely contested Central Valley congressional races in November, where long-serving Republican incumbents Jeff Denham and David Valadao both ended up losing their seats by thin margins to their Democratic challengers, some voters were confused and misinformed at the polls.
Modesto attorney Lisa Battista, who coordinated a group of volunteer election observers, said polling places in Stanislaus County ran out of pink envelopes used to separate provisional ballots on election night.
And then confusion set in.
“The poll workers didn’t know what to do,” Battista said. “They turned a lot of people away and told them: 'I'm sorry you can't vote here. You have to go find another polling place.'”
In response, Battista said she made an emergency request to keep polls open past 8 p.m., but a judge turned it down.
Stanislaus County Clerk Lee Lundrigan confirmed that the envelopes ran out and had to be replaced on election night, but she said the provisional ballots were separated using alternative methods, including placing them in other envelopes.
“All provisionally voted ballots that could be counted have been counted, regardless of the method of segregation from the other ballots,” Lundrigan said.
It’s also unclear if voters who arrived at precincts other than the ones they were assigned to were told to go to the correct polling places, or if they were simply turned away and went home without casting a ballot.
“There's no way to track what individual voters did,” Battista said. “If they were told ‘You can't vote here,’ they left and we'll never know if they went and found another place to vote or if they just went home and forgot about it.”
She added: “I was getting so many phone calls about problems with provisional ballots and broken machines and not enough places to vote. My confidence in the sort of validity of the vote after Election Day was not very high, given all of the problems we saw.”
This issue underscores how widely the voting experience differs across California's 58 counties, notes Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation.
“You see counties that have lots of staff and lots of resources being able to provide early voting opportunities, voting the weekend before the election, satellite offices,” she said. “And other counties are just barely getting by.”
Case in point: Voters in Kings County were told they could register to vote on Election Day and cast their ballot at a polling place. But, it turns out, that wasn’t true.
Some poll workers seemed confused about California's new Conditional Voter Registration (CVR) system, a new rule allowing eligible voters who missed the state's Oct. 22 registration deadline to go to their county elections office or a designated satellite location and register to vote conditionally through Election Day. Ballots could then be processed after the county elections office completed the verification process.
Kings County Registrar of Voters Kristine Lee said she received calls from poll workers on Election Day asking whether voters could conditionally vote, and she instructed them to allow it.
“I don’t think whether someone registers at a polling place or inside the office should be a determining factor in counting the ballots,” Lee said.
More than 100 conditional ballots were cast at polling places in the county.
After the election, Lee said attorneys representing both candidates contacted her about the ballots. According to Lee, the attorney for Valadao’s campaign said those ballots should not be counted. The Secretary of State's Office confirmed that the ballots had indeed been cast invalidly.
A judge later decided that the registrar’s error should not prevent the 126 ballots from being counted.
“That's what's happening in these counties where we see these really tight contests, where it comes down to a very small number of ballots that is going to decide the outcome,” Alexander said. “Every vote really does count. And that's why you've got campaigns looking much more closely at what's happening administratively after the polls close and what's happening with ballots that may be in dispute.”
And, said Raul Macias with the ACLU of California Voting Rights Project, the onus certainly shouldn't be on the voters.
“I don’t know how they can be expected to be experts in election law," he said. "Even the election official was confused about what was allowed here.”
Last year Macias sent a letter to the secretary of state arguing that the new CVR system was too restrictive.
“There are a number of states that allow same-day registration at polling sites,” he said. “I think that’s what California should be doing.”
Mismatched and missing signatures were also a concern for voters in Kings County.
Paul Harris, from Hanford, said a volunteer with the Democratic Party contacted his daughter the day after the election to inform her that both of their ballots were in danger of not being counted because of missing signatures.
“They wanted to have two signatures for the ballot to count,” Harris said.
When it comes to missing or mismatched signatures, individuals who vote by mail are usually notified with a letter. Voters who cast their ballot in person, however, are not always notified.
The Secretary of State’s Office provides the opportunity for voters to file a complaint if they have concerns, said spokesman Jesse Melgar.
“The secretary of state works every day to ensure that all eligible Californians have an opportunity to vote and that their votes are counted," he said.