A security feature meant to protect your vote by mail ballot may actually get it thrown out. State law requires election officials to discard vote by mail and provisional ballots if they suspect someone is trying to commit fraud by double voting or posing as someone else. It’s a system designed to keep elections fair and honest, but NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit reviewed election records from counties across the state and discovered that many of these rejected ballots may in fact be legitimate votes.
NBC Bay Area obtained voting data from 13 counties for the 2018 Gubernatorial Election. Those records show at least 160,000 ballots were rejected for various reasons ranging from “arrived too late” to voting in the “wrong county.”
NBC Bay Area learned that one of the most common reasons why election officials challenged a ballot was due to a questionable signature. As part of the vetting process, county workers must compare a voter’s signature on the back of their vote by mail ballot with the signature on the voter’s registration form. If the signatures do not match, the ballot will not count.
While 160,000 accounts for only about 2 percent of the total votes cast in those counties, experts say those numbers could impact a smaller election and the fact the votes were thrown out causes concern for those whose votes weren’t counted.
NBC Bay Area reached out to dozens of voters who had their ballot rejected. Many of them had no idea there was an issue with their signature.
“It takes a lot of time out of your day [to vote],” tattoo artist Johnny Trevino told NBC Bay Area after the Investigative Unit shared data with him showing his ballot didn’t count in 2018. “To know that it just gets thrown out, it's kind of disheartening.”
“I'm a tattoo artist and sometimes I write beautiful and sometimes I just sign it quick, so it depends. They might have two different [signatures] for me, and I bet you a lot of people do that.”
Sacramento voter James Epishin did receive a notice after the election that his vote didn’t count, but it was too late to confirm his signature.
“I came out to a couple board meetings to figure out exactly who I wanted to vote for when it comes to the educational board, so my vote not counting kind of felt like a waste of time,” Epishin said.
Stopping Voter Fraud
However, not all rejected ballots are the result of a mistake. NBC Bay Area spoke to one San Francisco voter who admitted that she tried to forge her niece’s signature.
“That’s why people have a sense that voter fraud is infrequent, because there are these safeguards in place,” San Francisco’s Department of Elections Director, John Arntz told NBC Bay Area.
Four years ago, Arntz’s office revamped its process for rejecting ballots by developing a computerized system that matches different styles of signatures from the same voter gathered over the years.
“Over time we’ve captured every signature that we’ve received from voters into our database. So even if we’re looking at your signature today and its changed,” said Arntz. “We’ll have all the signatures from five years ago through today to see if the signatures match any of those samples.”
Those efforts helped reduce the number of signature issues requiring the ballot to be thrown out in San Francisco from more than 2,000 in 2015, to just under 200 ballots in 2018.
“We actually move those ballots to a team that actively manages getting the word out to the voters. So, the voters can respond and cure the issue,” Arntz said.
Now, most of the rejected ballots in San Francisco are challenged because they arrived too late to count.
While San Francisco has developed a process to reduce the number of ballots with signature issues in their county, not every election office in California utilizes the same aggressive, proactive measures.
Officials in Contra Costa County told NBC Bay Area their elections management database did not track whose ballot they rejected in 2018 because they weren’t required to keep those details under state law. Alameda County and Santa Cruz County didn’t respond to our records request at all.
California Secretary of State Alex Padilla told NBC Bay Area he’s working to address this problem by giving counties more time to contact voters when there’s an issue with their ballot.
“Every election cycle we’re constantly learning, constantly trying to improve the process,” Secretary Padilla said.
“In the past, those ballots would be discarded. Now there is an opportunity, and the county will attempt to contact the voter to give that voter an opportunity to rectify the issue, before the results are finalized and the election results certified.”
Padilla’s office recently launched a new tool on the Secretary of State’s website called “Where’s My Ballot,” which will allow voters in certain counties to sign up to receive a text message or email if there’s a problem with their vote.
Election officials in Contra Costa County told NBC Bay Area that they will also be making changes this year and start tracking exactly whose vote they challenge as part of a new statewide reporting requirement.
Click on your county below to track your ballot this election.
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