In this explainer, Bipartisan Policy Center and National Vote at Home Institute focus on the states that allow election workers to run ballots through scanners before Election Day. This policy provides the most preparation for tabulation, which occurs after polls close on Election Day and before the release of unofficial results. By understanding the benefits of this policy along with other ballot pre-election processes (ranging from verifying signatures to curing ballots), policymakers can expedite the release of unofficial election night returns, mitigating the harmful impacts of election mis- and disinformation.
When voters cast ballots by mail, election officials need a method to verify their identity to ensure the integrity of the election. In many states, including California, county officials use signature verification, a process by which election officials compare the signature on a vote-by-mail (VBM) ballot return ID envelope to the signatures in a voter’s registration file. If the signatures are sufficiently similar, the ballot is accepted and counted—if not, it is set aside for election officials to review further and attempt to verify the voter’s identity.
California has been a leader among states in expanding options and facilitating vote-by-mail. With statewide implementation of the Voter’s Choice Act (SB 450) slated for 2022, all California voters will be given the option to vote at home and send their ballot in by mail. Increased adoption of this practice has brought state and national attention to all aspects of the vote-by-mail process, including signature verification. Small variations in these practices can decide close races.
The purpose of this study is to understand how California counties manage two related electoral processes: (1) verifying signatures on vote-by-mail ballot return ID envelopes and (2) notifying voters whose signatures were rejected and providing a process to allow voters to remedy this rejection. The latter process encompasses requirements mandated by recent California legislation entitled the Every Vote Counts Act (EVCA), SB 759.
We hope making this information accessible to election officials and the general public will raise awareness of how vote-by-mail ballots are processed in California. We also hope that, as a result, policymakers in California and elsewhere will gain a better understanding of how counties are performing these key electoral functions. Based on this study’s findings, we provide a set of recommendations directed to county election officials, the California Secretary of State’s Office, and to voters themselves to improve these processes and to ensure that, indeed, every vote is counted.
This report is the product of both quantitative analysis and qualitative interviews. To assess the effects of different signature verification processes on vote-by-mail rejection rates, we gathered and analyzed historical voting data for all California counties from 2004 through 2018 from the Election Administration and Voter Survey (EAVS). The bulk of our study, however, grows out of interviews with several national election administration experts and with election officials from thirty-three of California’s fifty-eight counties. While county procedures are identified, quotes are not attributed to individual county officials to preserve confidentiality. Together, the 33 California counties we surveyed represent over 32 million people—more than 80% of the state’s population.
Imagine the perfect voting experience. You drop by the polling place on the way to work or school. The line is moving quickly, so it doesn’t take more than a few minutes to get to the check-in desk. Once there, your registration is rapidly verified, and you’re handed a ballt by a friendly face. No one hassles you; no one unfairly questions your eligibility. You step aside to a private booth, fill out the form, and have it easily scanned. You get a receipt — and the cherished “I voted” sticker. The whole transaction takes about five or 10 minutes. Upon leaving the site, you not only experience that frisson that reminds you you’re a part of something bigger — civic pride — but also leave there in time to drop off the kids at school and make it to work on time.
Or maybe you skip the drive altogether and mail in your completed ballot after having received it in the mail. Or you thought about your choices for months but voted and returned your ballot in a matter of minutes on Election Day. In many ways, it’s a day like any other: you carry on with your duties as you otherwise would. In another way, though, it’s a special and unique experience; you participated in an act that for many was hard-fought and hard- won, that is a guaranteed right to you as a citizen, and that helps direct the course of the nation. You voted. And, because of that, you got to be one of the country’s critical decision-makers.
It may not yet be the norm, but in Colorado, and in states with more in-person and at-home voting options that resemble the above processes, a comprehensive elections model ensures an experience that benefits both voter and administrator alike. And it boosts turnout.
Foreword: “This report was prepared in response to Connecticut Governor Dannel P. Malloy’s Executive Order No. 64 issued in February 2018, directing “an analysis of the potential methods and requirements to implement voting by mail for all local, state and federal elections.” The report was prepared with assistance from the National Vote at Home Institute (NVAHI), a 501(c)(3) organization, at the request of and under the direction of the Office of the Governor and the Office of Policy and Management, and in consultation with the Office of the Secretary of the State.”