How to Make Sure Your Vote-by-Mail Ballot is Counted

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(Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images)
(Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images)

Almost 8 million Californians now cast their ballots by mail instead going to the polls. A new study of three California counties found that only 0.8 percent of mailed ballots, about 30,000, are not tallied. That might seem insignificant, unless it's your ballot.

There are three main reasons vote-by-mail ballots go uncounted:

  • The ballot was mailed too late. Ballots need to be received by 8 p.m. on Election Day, not postmarked (61 percent of uncounted ballots).
  • There was no signature (20 percent).
  • The signature provided did not adequately compare with the one on file (18 percent).

The California Voter Foundation studied the vote-by-mail process for one year in Santa Cruz, Sacramento and Orange counties. The foundation estimates that about 66,000 vote-by-mail ballots went uncounted statewide in 2012.

One major challenge is that voters who incorrectly mail their ballots are never notified.


"Voters could be making the same mistakes repeatedly and never know that they're doing something wrong," said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation. "We want the state to change the law to require counties to tell voters when their ballots go uncounted and why."

Currently, voters can call their county's election office, or go online, to see if their ballot was counted. Alexander imagines a world where voting by mail could be as easy as sending in a Netflix DVD.

"In the middle of finishing this study I returned a DVD to Netflix, and in the course of 12 hours it went from my mailbox at home on my porch to a Netflix facility, and I received an email saying it had been received. And I just really envy that," Alexander said.

One major difference? Netflix pays for postage. 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 the election mandates funding be restored.

The state has a significant interest in maintaining uniformity in its elections. Many of the state’s elected officials serve districts that span multiple counties. Variation in election policies among those counties would result in voters in the same district having access to different voter programs. In a single state Senate district, for example, voters in one county might be allowed to vote absentee while voters with identical circumstances in an adjacent county may be denied an absentee ballot. Thus, suspending elections mandates could lead to inconsistencies in elections, voter confusion, and possibly lower turnout.

It can also be confusing to determine how much postage a ballot needs. Santa Cruz found that its ballot could cost anywhere from 46 to 61 cents, depending on which post office meter was used, and which postal worker did the weighing.