By Lewis Griswald, CalMatters
Nervous voters in California are walking their mail-in ballots into elections departments so they can personally hand them to an election official.
They want to be 100 percent certain their ballot gets counted.
“It feels like every voter I talk to is on edge thinking for some reason their ballot might not count,” said Melinda Dubroff, registrar of voters in San Joaquin County.
Every qualified ballot will be counted and there’s really no need to worry once a ballot is mailed or placed in an official drop box, elections officials say. The state’s safety protocol for drop boxes is rigorous.
But voters have reason for anxiety.
For months, without any evidence, President Trump has criticized vote-by-mail as rife with fraud, especially in states like California, which mailed every voter a ballot to ensure a safe pandemic voting opportunity.
Then postal service delivery slowed because of budget cuts, sparking concern that mail-in ballots wouldn’t reach county offices in time to be counted.
Concerns became more local this month when the California Republican Party placed unsecured and unofficial ballot drop boxes at locations around Orange, Los Angeles, and Fresno counties. After the GOP ignored an initial cease-and-desist letter from California’s secretary of state, Attorney General Xavier Becerra on Tuesday took the matter to court to force party officials to detail box locations.
The state’s concern? The unofficial drop boxes don’t meet strict rules designed to protect every voter’s ballot.
By law, official drop boxes must be made of durable material and, if unstaffed and outdoors, “securely fastened.” Most counties bolt them to concrete. The drop slot is purposely narrow to prevent water from getting in. Vandalism is rare.
In all counties, pick up crews, which must be at least two people, fill out a “chain of custody” form to show that ballots are under their control and not subject to interference. Locks are standard and some counties use tamper-evident seals.
According to the Secretary of State, as of Oct. 19 about 1.7 million voters had returned ballots through drop boxes. About 2.5 million did so by mail.
Drop boxes can be used starting 29 days before the election. At first, ballots must be retrieved every four business days. Starting 10 days before the election, ballots are retrieved at least every 72 hours for staffed drop boxes, typically in election department offices and lobbies, and every 48 hours for unstaffed boxes, which are usually outside or in a building or business where election staff does not work. Some county registrars of voters are even more rigorous and say they empty drop boxes daily or almost daily.
This year’s early voters have made heavy use of drop boxes statewide. According to the secretary of state, as of Oct. 19 about 1.7 million voters had returned ballots through drop boxes. About 2.5 million did so by mail.
The state standards are minimum rules counties must follow and some ramp up security considerably.
Orange County uses drop boxes fit for a spy novel. Making sure the boxes and the ballots inside are secure is the job of Neal Kelley, registrar of voters.
“Our teams go out daily and use GPS on their phones to be tracked via satellite, and we have random routes every day,” Kelley said. “We are the only county that put in fire suppression and liquid protection.”
A powder is released by the fire suppression unit inside the drop box if there’s a fire. The inside is also designed to keep ballots away from invading liquids. Additionally, each ballot box is numbered and the numbers are tracked.
“We use data from those ballots to tell voters, for example, ‘Hey, we picked up your ballot from Box 42’, ” he said.
San Diego County placed 128 drop boxes around the county and staffs them with seasonal employees. That’s so they can check to make sure the voter signed his or her envelope as required by law, said Michael Vu, registrar of voters. Hours vary by site, but most are open several hours a day.
San Joaquin County keeps all drop boxes inside, with video surveillance, to reduce the risk of vandalism. Such camera use is encouraged by the state but not required.
In Tulare County, several drop boxes are outside and available for use 24 hours a day, prompting questions by the public about security.
“A lot of them feel there should be someone guarding the drop box,” said Michelle Baldwin, registrar of voters. “There’s no way we can do that 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
That was apparent Monday in Los Angeles County’s Baldwin Park, where a drop box caught fire. In the aftermath, officials launched an arson investigation and are contacting voters whose ballots were damaged. The box was last emptied Saturday morning and voters who used the box are advised to check LAVote.net to see if their ballot has been picked up. All voters statewide can track their ballot through the secretary of state’s office.
Even with the new ballot tracking feature, plenty of California voters are playing it ultra safe by voting early and hand delivering their ballots.
Retired machinist Jack Van Rooy, 76, of Visalia, placed his ballot envelope into the drop box in the lobby of the Tulare County elections department. He could have used the drive-through drop box in front but chose to come inside.
“I want to make sure my vote gets counted,” he said. “I don’t want my vote winding up in a dumpster somewhere.”
He cited news stories about several military ballots cast for Donald Trump that were found in a wastebasket on Sept. 16 in Pennsylvania (a county employee made an error and was fired, officials said) and a report in late September about a postal worker in New Jersey being arrested for dumping mail including ballots.
For others, news stories about the California Republican Party putting out its own drop boxes fueled a desire to go to the elections office.
“With these boxes going up that aren’t right, I’m not taking any chances,” said legal secretary Vira Minjares, 66, of Tulare.
The “extracurricular activity” by the state GOP involving its own drop boxes is “unfortunate,” said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, a voter advocacy group.
“Those of us in the election field who want to help voters vote with confidence are having to explain how to do so safely,” she said. But, she added in response to a question, “I don’t have the sense that the intent (of the state Republican Party) would be to harvest out ballots.”
Republican party officials have said all ballots they collect will be delivered safely to the elections office, and that their boxes are legally allowed.
John Tuteur, Napa County registrar of voters, blames President Trump for voters thinking they need to hand deliver ballots.
“There’s a lot of people who want to hand their ballot to someone because of the controversy of what the president did to the post office,” he said. “Because of the paranoia, people are bringing their ballots to us even though there’s a drop-off box.”
In Santa Clara County, “a lot (of people) are trying to bring in their mail-in ballots,” said public communications specialist Ryan Aralar.
In Shasta County, about two hundred people each day have been coming into the office with their ballots. To allay concerns, the staff allows the voter to personally put their ballot into a scanning machine so they can see for themselves that it will be counted. It gives voters peace of mind and is pandemic friendly, said Cathy Darling Allen, registrar of voters.
“This election is different, right?” Allen said.
Katie Licari, a student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, contributed to this story.
This story has been revised to correct the date of several ballots found discarded in a wastebasket in Pennsylvania.
Votebeat is a national media collaboration about the administration and integrity of, and issues regarding, the unprecedented 2020 election. In California, CalMatters is hosting the collaboration with the Fresno Bee, the Long Beach Post and the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.
CapRadio provides a trusted source of news because of you. As a nonprofit organization, donations from people like you sustain the journalism that allows us to discover stories that are important to our audience. If you believe in what we do and support our mission, please donate today.