Friday, October 31, 2008

How many vote-by-mail ballots will get cast and counted?

Given the high rate of vote-by-mail ballots being requested and returned in California (See the California Association of Clerks and Elections Officials' vote-by-mail tracking sheet for county by county details) many are wondering how many of the seven million ballots requested will be returned? And how many will go uncounted because of voter error or because they didn't arrive in time?

The Sacramento Bee sought to answer these questions in an excellent article published yesterday by Robert Lewis. The article took a close look at Sacramento's vote-by-mail ballots, and including this graphic showing how, in the February 2008 presidential primary in Sacramento County, approximately 171,000 vote-by-mail ballots were requested, and nearly 2,000 of them were disqualified, primarily because they were either received after the close of polls on Election Day (920) or the voter had failed to sign the ballot return envelope, preventing the ballot from being validated (613).

Voters who want to check if their vote-by-mail ballots have been received can go online this year and find out on county election web sites, thanks to a 2006 law authored by Secretary of State Debra Bowen that took effect this year.

Here are excerpts from the Bee story:

The Sacramento County election office, which mailed out almost 300,000 absentee ballots, has been getting between 8,750 and 17,500 of them returned a day. Monday the office got about 16,000; Wednesday there were 12,500.


"We're processing more than I've ever seen processed here," said Jill LaVine, the county's registrar of voters.

The operation is not without hiccups. Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, said that as more voters choose to cast a ballot by mail as opposed to going to the polls, it is safe to assume the number of disqualified ballots will also increase.

"I think we need to find out if this is a significant number of (disqualified) ballots or not," Alexander said.

In the 2004 presidential election, Sacramento County disqualified about 3 percent of mail ballots – although that number is slightly high since it included ballots that had a wrong address. A 2005 secretary of state ruling changed that. In the February 2008 election, Sacramento County disqualified about 1 percent of mail ballots, which is about the same percent El Dorado County disqualified in the June primary.

There are no statewide statistics. The only person who appears to be tracking the issue is Steve Weir, the Contra Costa County clerk and past president of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials.

In November 1996, his county disqualified almost 4 percent of its absentee ballots. After a concerted effort to educate voters on voting absentee, that number is down to between 1 percent and 2 percent an election, he said.

"They can be statistically significant," Weir said.

Thanks to a state law that took effect this year, voters can find out if their county received the returned absentee ballot. The governor, however, just vetoed a bill that would have required counties to let voters know if their ballot had been counted.

"Voters don't know if their ballot is disqualified or not," Alexander said.

Weir estimated that about 6 million voters will cast ballots by mail this year. If 1 percent of those ballots are disqualified – a conservative estimate – about 60,000 ballots will not count statewide.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The California Voters' Experience

Just in time for the election, the California Voter Foundation has published a new paper I authored, "The California Voters' Experience, What Works for Them, What Does Not Work, and Where to Go From Here."

I've spent the past three months working on this paper, at the request of California Forward, which is working to make structural and governance changes to improve California.

"The California Voters' Experience" is 40 pages long and takes a close look at the four stages of the voting process from the perspective of the California voter: registration; preparation; voting; and results. It also includes analyses about key barriers to improving voter participation in California, such as the digital divide, and concludes that greater uniformity and consistency in voting practices and procedures would help improve the voting experience for Californians.

Our Vote Live web site for 866-Our Vote Hotline

This week the Our Vote Live web site debuted. This is a fantastic site featuring data from reports being filed by the staff who are working the phones at the nationwide 1-866-OUR-VOTE hotline, sponsored by numerous voting rights organizations.

The Our Vote Live site provides up-to-the-moment information on problems and questions being asked by voters to the staff and volunteers working the hotline. It also features blog posts from folks who are providing some analysis of those reports. The idea is to make it possible for the public to get a sense, in real time, of how things are going on Election Day and in the days leading up to it and be able to identify any places experiencing significant problems.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Assorted presidential election web picks & stories

It's Friday, and that means some folks are killing time sitting in front of their computers waiting for the weekend to arrive. I know this is the case, because such folks send me links to web sites promising to entertain me. I could use a little entertainment, since election time is my busy time and my days are filled with calls and questions from reporters. Below is smattering of links to some of those stories plus the fun stuff that's been arriving in my mailbox this election season (in no particular order...)

Paper is America's High-Tech Solution, a Reuters story by Mary Milliken featuring this comment from me: "The rules should be the same everywhere and people should know what to expect. Instead, we have this rabbits' warren of systems and procedures out there that is infinitely complex."

Interview with Cyrus Musiker, on KQED FM yesterday (the third piece in the clip) about potential problems in California this election.

A piece about my News 10 Live Online segment, which I'll be doing again on Nov. 3.

From the good people at Wired, Threat Level, featuring a map of voting problems and great reporting on the election from expert journalists such as Kim Zetter and Sarah Lai Stirland.

From the good people at Google, 2008 US Voter Info, a map-based service that allows you to look up your polling place and election information along with lots of other neat features.

The McCain/Obama Dance-Off video. Who knew those guys could break dance?!

The "Palin as President" interactive web page - a truly clever use of Internet technology.

The leaked Homer Simpson video, showing him trying to vote on an electronic voting machine. This is not the whole video, it's a link to a French video featuring the original clip, which circulated a few weeks ago and appears to have been taken down. The episode the clip is from is said to be airing on Sunday, Nov. 2.

From the folks at Mother Jones, Beyond Diebold, 10 Ways to Steal This Election.

From Greg Palast and Bobby Kennedy Jr., Steal Back Your Vote, a comic-book style voter guide to election security.

All in all, there are lots of incredibly creative, useful and innovative voter outreach and education activities this election season. Happy surfing!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Ballots with incorrect postage to be delivered

Today's San Francisco Chronicle features this excellent story by John Wildermuth reporting on the variations in postage rates for vote-by-mail ballots in bay area counties. In some counties, such as Sacramento and Santa Clara, the ballot is so long that a 42 cent stamp won't cover the postage; 59 cents is required. In other counties, such as San Francisco, the postage is covered by the election office. The variation in postage rates and rules among California counties is incredibly confusing for voters and voter educators, such as myself. According to the Chronicle story, all ballots will be delivered even if there is insufficient postage.

Bay Area voters who send their ballots by mail can relax. Correct postage or not, their votes will get counted.

There's even more concern in Contra Costa, Napa and Santa Clara counties, three of the state's counties where ballots are so long or bulky that a single 42-cent stamp isn't enough postage.

"It costs 59 cents to mail our ballots back this year," said Matt Morales, a spokesman for the Santa Clara County elections office. But he said virtually all the ballots received so far have proper postage, adding that "a single-stamp ballot is more the exception than the rule."

But while local elections officials don't advertise it, Santa Clara, Napa, Contra Costa and most other counties in the state have arrangements with the Postal Service to deliver ballots and other election-related mail - even if it is short on stamps.

"We have an agreement with the post office that they'll deliver the election mail, but we keep urging people to use the proper postage," Morales said. "We don't want to subsidize the entire ballot."

Santa Clara County typically spends about $2,000 a year to cover ballots with insufficient postage, he added.

That arrangement means the Postal Service moves not-quite-paid-for ballots directly to the county, rather than returning them to the voter for more stamps, which could mean that some of the ballots wouldn't be returned in time to be counted.

"The way it's supposed to work, there shouldn't be any delay with the ballots, even if they don't have sufficient postage," said John Tuteur, Napa County's registrar of voters.

It's national policy to get ballots to their mailing address, regardless of postage, said Gus Ruiz, a spokesman for the Postal Service's Sacramento district.

Postage costs most often go up when a lengthy ballot requires an additional ballot card, boosting the weight. In Napa, however, the weight meets the one-stamp limit but the oversized envelope used for the election materials raises the cost, Tuteur said.

Nearly half the voters on Nov. 4 are expected to cast ballots by mail, and the percentage is going up in almost every election. If voters don't attach the proper postage, vote-by-mail can become an increasingly expensive proposition for counties.

Some counties, including San Francisco, have decided to pay the return postage for all ballots.

"It's a good thing we pay," said John Arntz, the city's election chief, joking that "as long as some of our ballots are, people could be paying 50 bucks in postage."

LA Times reports on voter registration fraud; man arrested in case

Over the weekend, the Los Angeles Times ran this article by Times reporters Evan Halper and Michael Rothfeld about an organization hired by the California Republican Party to register voters. The Times investigated a number of the registrations and found several voters who said they were duped into re-registering as Republican or changing their voting status to vote-by-mail.

Voters contacted by The Times said they were tricked into switching parties while signing what they believed were petitions for tougher penalties against child molesters. Some said they were told that they had to become Republicans to sign the petition, contrary to California initiative law. Others had no idea their registration was being changed.


It is a bait-and-switch scheme familiar to election experts. The firm hired by the California Republican Party -- a small company called Young Political Majors, or YPM, which operates in several states -- has been accused of using the tactic across the country.

Election officials and lawmakers have launched investigations into the activities of YPM workers in Florida and Massachusetts. In Arizona, the firm was recently a defendant in a civil rights lawsuit. Prosecutors in Los Angeles and Ventura counties say they are investigating complaints about the company.

The firm, which a Republican Party spokesman said is paid $7 to $12 for each registration it secures, has denied any wrongdoing and says it has never been charged with a crime.


The Times randomly interviewed 46 of the hundreds of voters whose election records show they were recently re-registered as Republicans by YPM, and 37 of them -- more than 80% -- said that they were misled into making the change or that it was done without their knowledge.

Lydia Laws, a Palm Springs retiree, said she was angry to find recently that her registration had been switched from Democrat to Republican.

Laws said the YPM staffer who instructed her to identify herself on a petition as a Republican assured her that it was a formality, and that her registration would not be changed. Later, a card showed up in the mail saying she had joined the GOP.

The founder of the company, Mark Jacoby, was arrested over the weekend on voter registration fraud charges, but not for the fraud allegations described by the LA Times. According to this press release from the Secretary of State, the charges brought against him are due to the fact that he registered himself to vote in California at an address that authorities say is not current. The Los Angeles Times published this follow-up article about Jacoby's arrest, which included comments from the California Republican Party stating that the charges were "politically motivated."

Monday, October 20, 2008

Today on KXTV Channel 10's "Live Online" - a walk through the props

I'll be Sharon Ito's guest today from 11:00 - 11:30 a.m. on KXTV Channel 10 in Sacramento's "Live Online" program, discussing the 12 state propositions on California's ballot. You don't have to be in Sacramento to watch it, though, since it is broadcast online - you can watch it here.

Voter Registration Deadline Today: LA County allows online lookups

Today is the deadline to register to vote for the November 4 election. At the California Voter Foundation, we've been receiving a ton of calls and emails from voters asking about their status. Currently, the only to way to verify your status is through your county election office. Some, but not all counties allow online voter registration status lookups, and we have noted those providing this service on our County Election Offices roster.

I'm pleased to report that Los Angeles County recently added this service to its web site. Now Los Angeles County voters can look up their registration status online, which will save voters from having to make phone calls that tie up the county's phone lines (last week CVF staff waited on hold for thirty minutes to get through to the county). While the county election staff is always extremely helpful, it is frustrating to voters to have to wait so long, or not be able to get through at all. Hopefully this service will help relieve some of the pressure on the county election office staff. Kudos to Los Angeles Registrar of Voters Dean Logan and his staff for making this invaluable service available to voters. In the future, all voters in California may have the convenience of verifying the registration status online if California is successful in creating an online voter registration system.

Secretary of State Debra Bowen seeks emergency regulations for post-election verification measures

California Secretary of State Debra Bowen has issued proposed emergency regulations that reflect her post-election verification requirements originally imposed on counties through the voting equipment certification process. That approach was challenged by the San Diego County Registrar of Voters, who filed a lawsuit claiming the orders were actually regulations that had not gone through the regulatory process. San Diego lost in the initial court round, but won on appeal.

The additional requirements direct counties to count more ballots in extremely close contests (within one half of one percent), to count additional ballots when variances are found during the initial post-election manual count process, and to account for overvotes and undervotes. They also address the public's right to observe and record retention. As is explained in the above-linked memo to county registrars of voters (posted online courtesy of Joseph Lorenzo Hall - thanks, Joe!), the Secretary of State is seeking emergency regulations from the California Office of Administrative Law because her initial orders were recently struck down by an appeals court and there is not sufficient time to go through the normal regulatory process to get regulations in place in time for the post-November 2004 election period.

Election reform groups issue report assessing state election preparedness

The Brennan Center for Justice, Common Cause and Verified Voting issued a report last week, Is America Ready to Vote?, examining state preparations for voting machine problems in 2008. According to the news release, the report "evaluates each state by four criteria: procedures for issuing emergency paper ballots, reconciling ballot tallies, providing paper records of votes cast, and post-election audits. The report reveals a broad range of preparedness across the country to address Election Day voting system meltdowns." Specifically:

• Of the twenty-four states that use voting machines, eight states, including Colorado and Virginia, have no guidance or requirement to stock emergency paper ballots at the polls. In contrast, twelve states, including Ohio and North Carolina, recommend emergency paper ballots to be given to voters if machine failures are causing long lines.

• While all states do some form of ballot accounting and reconciliation, the 50-state report card finds that the requirements in ten states (Alabama, Illinois, Kentucky, Maine, New Jersey, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia) fall far short of best practices – meaning there are insufficient provisions to make sure that every vote is counted, and only once.

• 28 states get "inadequate" on post-election audits because they lack paper records from which to conduct audits (like Georgia, Louisiana, Virginia) or because they do not mandate manual audits even where paper is available (like Michigan, Montana and others).

The report includes lots of color-coded maps that make it easy to see which states did well or poorly on the assessment. I'm pleased to say that California rates extremely well. Just four years ago when 40 percent of California voters were casting ballots on paperless, electronic voting machines, that would not have been the case. Kudos to Common Cause, Verified Voting and the Brennan Center for issuing this report.

Forum show on Election Protection on KQED last week

I'm a bit behind on my blogging and have a few items to add, one of which is the archive of Forum, a one-hour radio talk show hosted by Michael Krasny on KQED FM in San Francisco. I was one of the guests last Tuesday who spoke about election security issues heading in to the November election. An archive of the show, which included calls and emails from listeners, is available online.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

CVF launches new California Online Voter Guide!

Today the California Voter Foundation debuted our new California Online Voter Guide to help voters get ready for the November 4 election. See today's news release for more details. The guide will be frequently updated throughout the election season.

Online voter registration bill signed into law

Yesterday California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed Senate Bill 381, authored by State Senator Ron Calderon (D-Los Angeles), which will allow the Secretary of State to implement an online voter registration system.

Last December, I testified at a State Senate informational hearing on online voter registration, and raised numerous concerns about the security of such a system and how voter privacy would be protected. SB 381 was amended to address these concerns, and was supported by a wide range of groups, including the Secretary of State, who issued a news release yesterday praising the Governor's signature .

It is newsworthy that the Governor signed this bill. His own Department of Finance had recommended a veto due to the bill's up-front start-up costs, and the day prior the Governor vetoed several election reform bills, including AB 2953, which would have required pollworkers to inform independent voters in writing of their right to cast partisan ballots in primary elections. Following the record- setting budget impasse, the Governor said he would only sign bills that are of "the highest priority for California", and the election reform bills, according to his veto message, did "not meet that standard".

But apparently online voter registration does meet the governor's "highest priority" standard. While it will certainly be
technologically challenging to set up the system, the California Voter Foundation board and staff have been studying the feasibility of online voter registration and we think it can be done in a safe and secure manner.

The system called for in SB 381 is similar to the one Arizona has established. It will utilize the Department of Motor Vehicles'
database to verify the eligibility of potential voters and will use a digitized image of the DMV signature for the registration record. The system, which will only become operational after the state's new VoteCal database is functioning, will include functions that allow voters statewide to check their registration status online, a convenience currently offered to voters in only a handful of counties.

Some may think online voter registration will lead to online voting, but that is not CVF's opinion. Voter registration records, unlike ballots, are public records and therefore the risks associated with transacting them online are not the same as transacting ballots online. A voter registration record transacted online can be verified by election officials and voters in a way that an online ballot, the contents of which must remain secret, cannot.

CVF looks forward to working with the Secretary of State, the Department of Motor Vehicles, county election officials, and other
public interest groups to develop a state-of-the-art online voter registration process for California. And we congratulate Senator Calderon, Secretary of State Debra Bowen, and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger for their bipartisan leadership in moving forward an important election reform for California voters.