Every election, tens of thousands of California voters have their vote-by-mail ballots rejected, typically because they don’t arrive on time or lack a signature.
But in at least three California counties — Sacramento, Santa Clara and San Mateo — young voters had their vote-by-mail ballots disqualified at three times the overall rate, a new study shows.
The study, Improving California’s Vote-by-Mail Process by Reducing Ballot Rejection: A Three-County Study, was conducted by the California Voter Foundation, which advocates for improving the election process.
In Sacramento County, 2.3% of voters ages 18 to 24 had their vote-by-mail ballots rejected, compared to an overall county rejection rate of 0.8%, the report found. In San Mateo County, 3.5% of young voters had their ballots disqualified compared to the overall rejection rate of 1%. And in Santa Clara County, 2.5% had their ballots rejected compared to an overall 0.7% rejection rate.
Kim Alexander, president of CVF, said several factors work against younger voters when they cast vote-by-mail ballots.
“They’re new to voting. They’re less familiar with using the post office. And they are not used to using a signature to sign checks or to do other secure transactions,” Alexander said. “We need to do extra outreach to young people and make sure they get it right when they vote-by-mail.”
The study says the most common reasons mail-in ballots get rejected for all voters include: returning them too late, forgetting to sign the ballot envelope and signatures that don’t match the one on file.
On average over the past decade, 1.7% of California ballots cast as vote-by-mail ballots have been rejected, a figure that’s held steady in recent elections but is down from a decade ago.
“That may not sound like a lot,” Alexander said of the 1.7%. “But in a state where we have 21 million registered voters, it does add up to tens of thousands of ballots that are not getting counted every election.”
She added that with more Californians choosing to vote-by-mail — a record 72% of ballots cast in the March primary were by mail — and with the electorate getting younger, the overall number of vote-by-mail ballots getting rejected is on the rise.
During the March primary, 27,525 mail-in ballots either didn’t have a signature, or the signature didn’t match the one on record for the voter, the Associated Press reported this summer. Altogether, more than 100,000 mail-in ballots were rejected by election officials, the vast majority because they missed the deadline for the ballot to arrive.
The total number of rejected ballots represents about 1.5% of the nearly 7 million mail-in ballots returned, AP reported.
Starting in early October, mail-in ballots will be sent to all active, registered voters in California under a new law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom. Counties must send them out by Oct. 5, though election officials are advising voters that it may take several days before they arrive.
During the general election in California, election officials must accept mail-in ballots that arrive up to 17 days after Election Day, as long as they are postmarked by Nov. 3.
Alexander offered this advice to make sure your ballot gets counted:
“No. 1, don’t wait until the last minute,” she said. “You don’t have to vote weeks before the election. But get your ballot in early. If you want to mail it in, try to mail it in a week before the election. No. 2, don’t forget to sign the envelope. That’s another top reason why ballots get rejected.”
Alexander offered one more tip: If voters wait to mail their ballot on Election Day, they should make sure to check the pickup time listed on the U.S. Postal Service mailbox. If the mail is picked up before a ballot is dropped off, the ballot won’t be postmarked on Nov. 3, meaning it won’t be counted.
The study was conducted in collaboration with Mindy Romero, founder and director of the USC Center for Inclusive Democracy.
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