Last month, California achieved another first – first in the nation to implement statewide vote-by-mail due to the coronavirus pandemic. There will still be voting locations for those with disabilities or who need language help, but all active voters will be sent an absentee ballot for the election.
While it’s doubtful that the outcome of the presidential race will hang on California, there are key ballot initiatives that, if passed, would present a seismic shift in state policy, including the return of racial and gender preferences in college admissions, government hiring, and contracts; eliminating the tax limits on commercial property set by Prop. 13; and the employment status of independent contractors.
If the votes for these propositions turn out to be close, Californians could be waiting a long time for the results.
The mainstream media has been all but dismissive on the problems with vote-by-mail. But a 2005 bipartisan Carter-Baker Commission found that mail-in ballots “remain the largest source of potential voter fraud.” The risks, according to the commission, included blank ballots mailed to bad addresses, voter intimidation outside polling places, and vote-buying schemes.
In 2017, Judicial Watch found that registrations in Los Angeles County had not been cleaned up for two decades. According to Fitton, “There are 1.5 million inactive voters in the nation’s largest county, almost one fourth of all county registrations. Stated differently, Los Angeles County has more inactive voters than Kansas has actual voters.” Under a court settlement with Judicial Watch, Los Angeles County began cleaning up its rolls, but inactive names still remained on the lists.
Nevertheless, Gov. Newsom’s initial vote-by-mail executive order called for ballots to be sent to inactive voters. “These unsecured live ballots — unmonitored by their original owners, who have moved or died,” wrote Fitton, “constitute a significant threat to the integrity of California’s elections and to the 2020 presidential race.” Newsom subsequently issued an order that inactive voters would not be sent ballots.
If counting too many ballots could be a problem, not counting enough could be worse. According to data obtained by the Associated Press, more than 100,000 mail-in ballots were rejected by California election officials during the March presidential primary, about 1.5 percent of the nearly 7 million mail-in ballots were returned. This represents the highest percentage since the 2014 primary, and the overall highest number in a statewide election since 2010.
In the special election of California’s 25th district won by Republican Mike Garcia, a watchdog group found that more than 700 voters were mailed multiple ballots. The vote tally continued even as he was being sworn into Congress five days after election day.
Voters from other states have not fared well either. Millions of voters requested mail-in ballots during the COVID-19 pandemic, but in states such as Georgia, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, and the District of Columbia, thousands of voters said they never received them. State officials were unprepared for the record numbers of absentee ballot requests, said Hannah Fried, national campaign director of All Voting is Local, a project that helps register people of color and young people. Fried noted that election officials “lacked the training, equipment, supply chain and staff to handle the increase.”
In addition to the administrative nightmare, let’s not forget the security gaps that also leave elections vulnerable to foreign hackers. “The best-case scenario for us is that key elections are not close,” said Richard L. Hasen, professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine, “because we are going to have problems.”
On Election night 2012, I made a quick stop after work to the grocery store to stack up on snacks to get me through a long night of returns. But not long after I got home, the election was called for Barack Obama. I suspect that this November, I won’t need to rush. For election watchers, Amazon delivery will likely be working long and hard in the days and weeks after election day.
Rowena Itchon is senior vice president of the Pacific Research Institute.