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.

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