With the upcoming election being conducted solely by mail, questions about the potential for voter fraud have been keeping Registrar of Voters Donna Linder busy answering questions about vote integrity.
But Lee and Shelia Brandt of Ceres aren’t convinced every ballot will be legitimate. They received from Linder’s office four blue notification cards when there are only two registered voters living there. Two were mailed to Lee and wife Shelia, who are registered to vote, and two addressed to their grown adult children who have not been at that address in years. Their son is registered to vote in Florida where he is serving in the Air Force since 2003, yet he received a blue card, probably because he uses his parents’ Ceres home address on his driver’s license. Another was addressed to their daughter, who married and changed her name five years ago, and no longer at their address.
Lee fears that many other households will be receiving ballots that should not be sent out because of outdated mailing lists. He said any dishonest person in any household could open up their ballots, cast votes fraudulently, and forge their kids’ signatures on the envelope.
“If I was a bad guy I could vote using them and could copy their signatures because we must have hundreds of their signatures somewhere in our house,” said Brandt. “If we get ballots it’s really going to be interesting.”
Linder was made aware of the situation and phoned the Brandts on Friday, to clear up the situation and assuring them that two extra ballots won’t be going to their children at their address.
Linder said every signature on every ballot envelope is checked against the handwriting on the voter’s registration card on file to prevent fraud. She said a person would have to be a good forger to make it past the eyes of county elections staff.
The county Elections Division sends out the blue cards to educate voters about how the all mail balloting will work; and to find out what addresses are outdated and undeliverable.
Like in the Brandt’s case, she said if families don’t notify her office that voters have moved elsewhere, it’s possible that ballots will be sent to an old address. But she insisted that if the ballot is used illegally by someone else and the signature looks funny “we’re going to contact the voter.”
The same holds true of envelopes that are not signed where indicated.
“We go through signature verification training throughout the state.”
Ballots are not opened and counted until the signature has been checked, Linder said. She also said ballots remain secret.
“It’s a very intensive process that we have perfected over the years of developing a more hearty vote-by-mail system,” said Linder.
She added that in her 17 years of working in elections, claims Stanislaus County has not seen a confirmed case of voter fraud over the years.
Linder said while examples of voter fraud could occur in theory, she feels the all-mail ballot is more secure than in-person polling where signatures were not nearly as scrutinized.
Linder said it’s not likely that Stanislaus County will ever go back to in-person voting.
On June 18, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 860 into law, which requires all counties to send a ballot to eligible voters in advance of the general election. Voting by mail is nothing new in Stanislaus County as about 77 percent of registered voters cast their ballots by mail here.
Linder feels that jumping from 77 percent to 100 percent of voters participating in the election by mail won’t jeopardize the integrity of the vote, adding the process is secure and that social media is only contributing to the misinformation about voting by mail.
“I think voting by mail is impacting the election more because of the social media attention on it,” Linder said, pointing out that several states already vote only by mail, like Washington, Colorado and Oregon. “There was kind of a push for our state to move to vote by mail years ago. Stanislaus County just has not done it yet, so it’s just different for some of our voters.”
Critics of the motor-voter bill pushed by Democrat lawmakers, which now sign up any new driver as a registered voter, say it can easily lead to voter fraud. The California Motor Voter program makes registering to vote at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) more convenient. Eligible applicants completing a driver license, identification (ID) card or change of address transaction online, by mail or in person at the DMV will be automatically registered to vote by the California Secretary of State, unless they choose to opt out. Individuals who are in the country illegally but can become a licensed driver through AB 60 are not eligible to participate in the California Motor Voter program and not eligible to vote.
Linder admitted that the DMV system of voter registration is “confusing. Unless you hit the right button it does register you (to vote) automatically. And if you don’t say no in the right way it registers you and people were being registered as No Party Preference because they were thinking they weren’t registered. So it has created some confusion.”
Postage-paid ballots do not need to be dropped in the mail and still can be dropped off in-person at locations yet to be determined. There will be one voting center for every 10,000 voters where those who don’t want to send in their ballots can drop them off. Voters can also receive device or language assistance at these locations, or replace a misplaced ballot.
The county is working with locations where ballots can also be deposited. These drop boxes will be in plain sight of the business where they are located and contain bags that are sealed when the drop box is opened by elections staff.
Linder stated that employees are currently being hired and undergoing background checks so that they can assist voters at the satellite offices and responsibly deliver ballots from the boxes to the Elections Office.
“The ballots are never left alone with just one person,” Linder said. “In essence, it goes directly from the voter’s hands to our hands. There’s no middle man.”
Ballots dropped off at the satellite offices are not mailed to the county Elections Office, but are picked up by staff who always travel together, two at a time. This ensures no one is ever left alone with the ballots, and there is also a chain of custody process in place so that Linder can see who the ballots were with at any given time.
“The convenience of receiving your ballot, voting whenever you want and either dropping it off or mailing it in has just grown and grown and grown,” Linder said. “You’ve seen that trend in California where people just like the convenience, and as it’s grown, we’ve made our processes more secure. We have learned to adapt to this style of voting and have put all of these securities and processes in place to secure people’s mail-in votes.”
For Linder, whose elected position is nonpartisan, it has been a unique experience to see the voting process so politicized. For example, many have pointed out the recent cost-cutting changes to the Postal Service as a direct attempt to impact the election. Locally, Linder said, it’s nothing new; in 2012, the Stockton USPS processing facility was shut down. This has forced the county’s Elections Office to wait longer for mail-in ballots over the last eight years, since mail now has to travel to Sacramento before being distributed.
“A lot of what is happening isn’t related to the election, but people are relating it to the election because it’s coming up.”
The Elections Office maintains a close relationship with USPS throughout election years, Linder added, with the two organizations exchanging info on envelope appearances, handling instructions and delivery schedules.
“Our job is to count the votes. Your ballot’s envelope does not distinguish what party you are affiliated with,” Linder said. “We do not know how voters vote until it has been scanned through our scanner.”
There is no way to tell how many, if any, ballots are lost in the mail each election, since the Elections Office cannot determine if a voter misplaced it on their own or if it was lost by USPS. But voters will be able to track their ballot’s location and arrival by visitinh www.california.ballottrax.net/voter/.
Ballots will be mailed beginning Oct. 5 and information regarding satellite offices is to be announced. Linder encourages anyone with questions to call her at 525-5200.
“I call every voter back who wants to talk to me personally because we want them to understand what our process is and feel comfortable with our office and the integrity we bring to elections. There are many steps in place to make this a very safe, secure and fair election in the mail.”
Angelina Martin contributed to this report.