Q&A: What To Know About Voting By Mail In Southern California

Postal workers deliver mail as protesters demonstrate outside a USPS location in L.A. on Aug. 22. The postmaster general ultimately backed off controversial cost-cutting measures that alarmed Democrats after comments by President Donald Trump raised fears the US Postal Service would be sabotaged to aid his chances in the November elections. (Kyle Grillot/AFP via Getty Images)

Our news is free on LAist. To make sure you get our coverage: Sign up for our daily newsletters. To support our non-profit public service journalism: Donate Now.

If news about U.S. Postal Service delays and heated political rhetoric around voting by mail has you anxious about the November election, you're not alone.

But there are important differences in how California runs elections that may ease some of those fears.

Let us explain.

CALIFORNIA IS MAILING EVERY ACTIVE REGISTERED VOTER A BALLOT FOR THE NOVEMBER ELECTION. IS THAT A BIG DEAL?

It's significant. But it's just accelerating a process that's already underway. The state — the most populous in the nation — has been moving to a primarily mail-in election for years now. In the March primary, 72% of California voters used a mail-in ballot.

And to be clear: ballots are sent not by the state, but by each county's election officials: 17 California counties had already adopted a system of sending every voter a ballot and operating fewer, consolidated in-person "vote centers" that are open for 11 days.

HOW ARE LOCAL ELECTIONS OFFICIALS GEARING UP?

For Los Angeles and many other counties, this will be new. They'll likely be dealing with a much higher volume of mail-in ballots.

Neal Kelley, Registrar of Voters for Orange County, says he's upgraded equipment to process a much larger volume of ballots.

"When COVID really exploded, I just sat back in my chair and I thought, Okay, what happens tomorrow, if we have to have a 100% vote by mail election?" Kelley said.

Orange County recently installed a second automated sorter for mail-in ballots and doubled the number of scan stations.

Orange County Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley before the March 2020 primary election. (Libby Denkmann for LAist)

"If today we had to do a 100% mail ballot election, we could do that," Kelley said.

It takes more time to process mail-in ballots because each envelope has to be opened, the barcode must be scanned, and the signature checked against the one in the voter file.

These days, much of that is done by machines and algorithms.

Los Angeles, Ventura, San Diego and Riverside counties use an automated system to sort, scan and verify voter signatures on mail-in ballots. Orange County requires a human verification step during the signature check.

County registrars are currently working to finalize their voting lists. Ballots will be sent to all active, registered voters starting Oct. 5.

WHO COUNTS AS AN "ACTIVE" VOTER?

Each county has different criteria. There's no statewide standard for removing people from voter rolls.

Inactive voters in Los Angeles County who do not respond to a notice to confirm their address, and remain inactive for two federal elections following the notice, have their records canceled.

"If an inactive voter appears at a Vote Center, or contacts our office to vote in the November 2020 General Election, they can register or activate their registration through Conditional Voter Registration," said Mike Sanchez, spokesperson for the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder's office.

In Orange County, Neal Kelley says voters will be counted "inactive" if they sat out the 2016 and 2018 federal elections.

(We've reached out to Ventura, Riverside, San Bernardino and Santa Barbara counties to get their inactive voter criteria, and will report back as soon as that information is verified.)

Counties don't send election materials to inactive voters, and political parties don't generally contact them with mailers.

The best way to ensure your status is "active" is to check with your county's registrar to make sure your voter registration information is updated.

[Want to check your voter status in L.A. County? Click here. Orange County, here. Find a list of other registrars on the Secretary of State's website here.]

Confirm your address is current — and add an email address to your file. That helps registrars contact you with updates or important information about your ballot.

WHAT'S THE DEAL WITH VOTER FRAUD?

President Trump and conservative watchdog groups have attacked universal vote-by-mail. They claim California will send out hundreds of thousands of ballots to people who aren't eligible, and this will lead to fraud.

Here are the facts:

Registrars don't send ballots out to everyone just because they live in California, as President Trump falsely tweeted. You have to be registered and eligible to vote.

And election officials say they regularly review their voter files to remove inactive voters — generally people who have died or moved. They get death records from the Department of Public Health, and change-of-address information from the DMV and unemployment offices.

But some people fall through the cracks. There are more than 20 million registered voters in California. Ballots do get sent to folks who have changed addresses, or are deceased.

Last month, a man in Norwalk was charged with using his dead mother's ballots to vote in three elections. This is a serious crime — if convicted, he could go to prison for up to three years.

But experts tell us voter fraud is extremely rare. In one study, researchers at Stanford, University of Pennsylvania and Harvard found the prevalence of "double voting" — or fraudulently voting twice in the same election — to be .02%, and they said even that was likely overestimating the frequency because of measurement errors.

The Washington Post analyzed all-mail elections in Colorado, Washington and Oregon and found less than 400 cases of fraud reported out of 14.6 million ballots cast in 2016 and '18.

And despite the expansion of mail-in voting in recent years, there is zero evidence of systematic voter fraud in California — the kind that could swing an election, like we saw in North Carolina in 2018, where a Republican consultant was charged with paying operatives to collect unsealed, incomplete mail-in ballots to use them to help a GOP candidate win. That case resulted in a new election in the district.

It's also important to point out that President Trump has claimed mail-in voting helps Democrats at the polls. But that's not supported by evidence — Stanford researchers have found the partisan effect is actually neutral.

A conservative group was recently successful in a lawsuit that forced Los Angeles County to contact up to 1.5 million inactive voters to check their status. That case was settled in Jan. 2019 — with no mention of voter fraud.

Brigid LaBonge, the daughter of a mail carrier, helped to organize Saturday's protest outside the post office in Atwater Village. (Josie Huang/LAist)

WILL MAIL DELAYS MEAN BALLOTS WON'T BE COUNTED?

After he was appointed in June, the new Postmaster General, Louis DeJoy, began instituting cost-cutting measures such as limiting overtime for postal workers and instructing mail carriers to leave mail undelivered when they reach the end of their shifts.

President Trump said on Fox Business Network recently that he opposes a $25 billion U.S. Postal Service funding bill supported by Democrats because it would allow expanded mail-in voting.

Last month, USPS sent letters to 46 states warning that mail-in ballots could arrive late to election officials because of service delays.

That set off alarm bells among Democrats. California's Xavier Becerra was among the attorneys general lining up to sue over the problems.

But in California, the danger to election administration is minimal.

Mail-in ballots are counted here as long as they are postmarked on or before Election Day. And, anticipating problems because of COVID-19, the state legislature already extended the deadline for ballots to arrive at county registrar offices to 17 days.

Issues could crop up for a relatively small number of California voters who may receive their mail-in ballots late if they register shortly before the Nov. 3 election.

Last week, the Postmaster General backed off most of the controversial policy changes. DeJoy affirmed that the USPS can handle any volume of election mail coming its way.

California Secretary of State Alex Padilla says he still doesn't entirely trust the Trump Administration to follow through, however, so he's monitoring service disruptions that could hurt voting.

HOW CAN I MAKE SURE TO GET MY BALLOT IN THE MAIL IN TIME?

Double check your registration now. We can't say it enough.

One clue: have you received any mail so far this year from your county elections office? The Los Angeles County Registrar has sent out material to let voters know they'll be receiving a ballot this year, whether they signed up as a mail-in voter or not. And ballots can be requested in 18 foreign languages.

The library at California State University, Northridge hosts a ballot drop-off box. (Andrew Cullen for LAist)

After Oct. 5, start looking for that ballot to show up in the mail. If you don't see it in a week-to-10 days, contact your registrar's office.

[NOTE: October 19 is the last day to register online for the general election. This is the fastest way to register and update your voter information.

If you miss this deadline, you can still register at any polling place or vote center statewide all the way up to and including Election Day.]

L.A. County will also mail sample ballots 30-40 days before the election. You should receive yours around the same time, or slightly before, your official ballot. The sample ballot can also be accessed online.

As a last-resort, remember that in California, you can register and vote same day, up to and including Election Day.

If you decide to vote in-person after all, in Voter's Choice Act counties such as O.C. and Los Angeles, you don't need to turn in your unused mail-in ballot. It will be voided by the e-pollbook system.

Other counties will require you to vote provisionally if you go in last-minute, without your mail-in ballot. But the vast majority of provisional ballots are counted after an extra verification step.

And mailing back your ballot isn't the only way to cast your vote. Registrars provide secure drop boxes at vote centers and at various other locations in L.A. and Orange Counties. It's a handy option that lets you fill out your ballot in the comfort and safety of your home, and it cuts out the worry about anything getting lost in the mail.

WILL MY MAIL-IN BALLOT BE COUNTED?

You've mailed your ballot in, or dropped it in a drop-box. But your job isn't done.

Mail-in ballots do get rejected — and there are a few main reasons:

  • The signature on the ballot envelope doesn't match the signature on file at the Registrar's office
  • The voter forgot to sign the ballot envelope
  • The ballot arrives too late to be counted, or it was sent too late (it's postmarked after Election Day)

In a study of three counties, the California Voter Foundation found an average of 1.7 percent of vote-by-mail ballots have been rejected since 2010 — and younger voters were more likely to have their ballots rejected.

In the March 3rd primary, about 1.5% were rejected, representing more than 100,000 ballots.

In California you have a chance to "cure" your ballot if it's flagged for a signature mismatch. That means your county registrar has to alert you to the problem.

And for peace of mind, there's a handy online Ballot Tracker service from the California Secretary of State's office.

The "Where's My Ballot" feature will tell you if your ballot has arrived at your county election office and whether it's been counted. You can even get text message alerts.

A voter chooses a language on the new L.A. County ballot marking devices during a mock election at Salazar Park in East L.A. on Sept. 28, 2019. (Al Kamalizad for LAist)

WHAT IF I STILL PREFER TO VOTE IN-PERSON?

If you lose your mail-in ballot, you need language help or disability accommodations, or you just feel better using the machine and knowing your vote has been accepted — there will still be many in-person voting options in your county.

In fact, the L.A. County Registrar-Recorder is actively soliciting ideas for large venues, including outdoor spaces, to use as vote centers in November. The Pomona Fairplex and Dodger Stadium have already been announced as polling places.

In Orange County, the Honda Center will serve as a vote center, and there will even be drive-through voting available.

In Voter's Choice Act counties such as O.C. and Los Angeles, in-person voting is available for 11 days, including Election Day.

And L.A. County Supervisors want the county to focus on beefing up capacity for the final 4-5 days of voting this time around. The March primary saw voters waiting for hours in lines downtown and at L.A.-area college campuses, and part of the problem was that a lot of people waited until Election Day instead of taking advantage of the early voting days.

IS VOTING IN-PERSON SAFE?

Long lines at some vote centers during the March primary certainly looked like coronavirus "super spreader" events waiting to happen. But the expansion of vote-by-mail will help.

There will also be a lot of precautions at the in-person voting sites:

Sanitizing all surfaces before and after use, physical distancing, and faceguards and masks for all election employees. Masks will also be required for voters — and they'll be provided to people who don't have them.

L.A. County vote center worker Steven Toro wears a mask and gloves to welcome voters in Palmdale. In May, county elections workers operated outdoor in-person voting with coronavirus safety precautions for the CA-25 special election. (Libby Denkmann for LAist)

ELECTION RESULTS ALWAYS TAKE A WHILE IN CALIFORNIA. WILL THIS YEAR BE ANY DIFFERENT?

Since counties will start mailing ballots on Oct. 5, the first votes may begin arriving back at registrars' offices soon after. New this year: California registrars will be able to start processing mail-in ballots as soon as they're received. (In prior years, election officials had to wait until 10 business days before the election.) That will help move the process along.

But most ballots will inevitably come in closer to Election Day, and that means results could take a while.

Elections officials say the real challenge this November will be setting expectations: we may not know the outcome for many races for a few days, or weeks.

That's a feature, not a bug, of California elections. The state allows people to register or change political parties on Election Day, and contacts voters to cure mail-in ballot errors. All of that slows down the counting. Registrars tell us their first priority is accuracy, not speed.

WE LOVE TO ANSWER YOUR QUESTIONS