Young vot­ers’ mail­in bal­lots re­jected more of­ten, study says

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - BAY AREA - By John Wil­der­muth

Cal­i­for­nia’s youngest vot­ers are three times more likely to have their mail bal­lots re­jected than vot­ers as a whole, a new study has found, high­light­ing a prob­lem that could grow as more of those in­ex­pe­ri­enced vot­ers turn out in Novem­ber.

A study by the non­par­ti­san Cal­i­for­nia Voter Foun­da­tion of three Cal­i­for­nia coun­ties — Sacramento, San Ma­teo and Santa Clara — found that in the Novem­ber 2018 elec­tion, vot­ers ages 18­24 made up the small­est num­ber of mail vot­ers of any age group, but had by far the high­est num­ber of re­jec­tions.

“With young and new vot­ers the high re­jec­tion rate per­sists, even though the state has made a lot of changes to bring it down,” said Kim Alexan­der, the foun­da­tion’s pres­i­dent and au­thor of the re­port.

The num­ber of re­jected bal­lots is likely to grow in Novem­ber, if only be­cause the state will try to ease coronaviru­s pan­demic con­cerns by mail­ing a bal­lot to ev­ery ac­tive voter in the state.

“While the per­cent­age of re­jected mail bal­lots has stayed pretty con­stant over the years, the num­ber keeps ris­ing as more peo­ple vote by mail,” Alexan­der said.

Cut­ting the bal­lot re­jec­tion rate for young vot­ers is also likely to re­main a prob­lem.

“I’m wor­ried that vot­ing by mail in­cor­po­rates el­e­ments viewed as old­fash­ioned by

young vot­ers,” Alexan­der said, “whether it’s writ­ing their sig­na­tures or even us­ing the mail.”

While mail vot­ing is safe and se­cure and has plenty of ad­van­tages dur­ing the pan­demic, it comes with its own con­cerns, she said.

“Vot­ing by mail shifts the re­spon­si­bil­ity for get­ting it right from the elec­tion of­fi­cials to the voter,” Alexan­der said. “Vot­ers need to make sure they know what they’re do­ing.”

It’s not just young vot­ers who run into prob­lems. Newly reg­is­tered vot­ers of all ages in the three coun­ties were twice as likely to have their bal­lots re­jected.

In the March 2020 pri­mary, 70% of the 102,428 Cal­i­for­nia bal­lots that were re­jected went un­counted be­cause they ei­ther weren’t post­marked by elec­tion day or they ar­rived more than three days af­ter the elec­tion. In San Fran­cisco alone, 9,115 of its 9,407 re­jected bal­lots didn’t get to the elec­tion of­fice un­der the dead­line.

In Sacramento County, there were 1,514 late bal­lots in the June 2018 pri­mary. The study by Alexan­der’s group found that 93% of them were post­marked June 6, the day af­ter the elec­tion.

“For some peo­ple, the idea is that if you drop your bal­lot into the mail­box by mid­night, you’re good,” Alexan­der said. That’s not true — if the mail has al­ready been picked up that day, the bal­lot won’t be post­marked in time.

Late ar­rival wasn’t the only rea­son bal­lots were re­jected. In the March 2020 pri­mary, 14,528 bal­lots statewide weren’t counted be­cause the sig­na­ture on the bal­lot en­ve­lope didn’t match the one in the voter’s regis­tra­tion file.

That’s an area of con­cern for young vot­ers, Alexan­der said.

“A lot of sig­na­tures, in­clud­ing those of peo­ple who reg­is­tered at the (De­part­ment of Mo­tor Ve­hi­cles), were made with a sty­lus and a sig­na­ture on a pad or a cell phone and looks very dif­fer­ent from a ‘wet’ sig­na­ture made on a piece of paper,” she said. “Peo­ple should look at the sig­na­ture on their driver’s li­cense and make their bal­lot sig­na­ture look like that.”

Vot­ers don’t get all the blame for the prob­lems. In the 2018 gen­eral elec­tion, a star­tling 40% of the re­jected bal­lots in Sacramento County went un­counted be­cause the sig­na­tures didn’t match, com­pared with 4% in San Ma­teo County and 10% in Santa Clara County.

The likely rea­son for Sacramento’s sig­na­ture prob­lems was a change in pro­ce­dure in the elec­tion of­fice, which for that elec­tion did not re­quire “a sec­ond re­view by elec­tion staff or an elec­tion supervisor of chal­lenged sig­na­tures,” the re­port said.

While most coun­ties re­quire a sec­ond or even a third re­view of a sig­na­ture be­fore a bal­lot is tossed out, that’s al­most be­side the point, Alexan­der said.

“There’s an ab­sence of statewide reg­u­la­tions to guide sig­na­ture­check­ing pro­ce­dures,” she said. Rules for check­ing sig­na­tures “should not be left up to elec­tion of­fi­cials in each in­di­vid­ual county.”

The Cal­i­for­nia sec­re­tary of state is pre­par­ing those statewide stan­dards with an eye to­ward hav­ing them in place for the Nov. 3 elec­tion.

Since 2018, coun­ties have been re­quired to no­tify vot­ers if their bal­lots have been re­jected be­cause of a miss­ing or mis­matched sig­na­ture, giv­ing them a chance to cor­rect the prob­lem and have their bal­lots counted.

In the June and Novem­ber elections in 2018, the study found that 13,543 vot­ers in the three coun­ties were told of their sig­na­ture prob­lems. Only 7,318 peo­ple re­sponded, lead­ing to a cor­rec­tion rate of 54%.

While the num­ber of re­jected bal­lots is a prob­lem, it’s also proof that the cur­rent vot­ing sys­tem works, Alexan­der said.

“Late bal­lots don’t get counted, bal­lots are re­jected for mis­matched or miss­ing sig­na­tures, and du­pli­cate bal­lots are caught,” she said. John Wil­der­muth is a San Fran­cisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: jwil­der­muth@sfchron­i­ Twit­ter: @jfwil­der­muth

Michael Short / Spe­cial to The Chronicle 2018

Young vot­ers make up the small­est num­ber of Cal­i­for­nia mail vot­ers but had the high­est num­ber of re­jec­tions in 2018.

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