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For Immediate Release -- Tuesday, August 19, 2014
Contact: Kim Alexander, (o) 916-441-2494, (m) 916-708-9900,


Report finds vote-by-mail improvements needed to reduce balloting errors

Three-county study finds late return, missing signatures and non-matching signatures are top reasons why some vote-by-mail ballots cast go uncounted


Sacramento, CA – A new report issued today by the California Voter Foundation (CVF) finds that the top three reasons why some ballots go uncounted in three counties studied are that they are received too late, lack the voter’s signature, or the signature on the ballot envelope does not sufficiently compare to the one on file. The report is online at

“Casting a vote-by-mail ballot has become a popular option for California voters,” said Kim Alexander, CVF president and founder and the primary author of the new report, Improving California’s Vote-by-Mail Process: A Three-County Study. “But with its rise in popularity has come an increase in the number of vote-by-mail ballots cast that go uncounted.”

The three counties profiled – Sacramento, Orange and Santa Cruz – were selected to provide a comparison between counties serving small, medium and large voting populations. CVF studied four statewide elections across the three counties and found that:

  • 99.2 percent of vote-by-mail ballots cast were counted and 0.8 percent were not counted;

  • Late-arriving ballots comprise 61 percent of the uncounted ballots;

  • Ballots lacking a signature make up 20 percent of the uncounted ballots; and

  • Ballots sent in envelopes with a signature that did not adequately compare to the one on file comprise 18 percent of the uncounted ballots.

These three reasons – late, no signature, and bad signature – account for 99 percent of the uncounted ballots in CVF’s three-county, four-election study. Overall, California’s mail ballot rejection rate is among the highest of all the states according to the Pew Center on the States’ Election Performance Index.

Additional findings from the three counties profiled include:

  • Nearly one in three November 2012 vote-by-mail voters returned their ballots in person rather than through the U.S. Mail;

  • Voters residing in all-mail ballot precincts are provided postage-paid envelopes for returning their ballots but would likely be better off paying their own postage, because the postage-paid accounts counties use require extra time for the post office to process, slowing down ballot delivery.

  • Postage rates are inconsistent from post office to post office and even from scale to scale within the same post office, making it difficult for election officials and voter educators to correctly instruct voters how much postage is actually needed on a return ballot to ensure timely delivery.

  • Online lookup tools to help voters determine the status of their vote-by-mail ballots were available in all three counties but provided inconsistent services and messages that could confuse voters.

  • It is likely that the recent rise in the use of provisional ballots can be attributed to the increase in permanent vote-by-mail voters, many of whom move and thus fail to connect with their ballots. In November 2012, four in ten provisional ballots cast in Santa Cruz County and nearly six in ten cast in Orange County were cast by vote-by-mail voters.

The report features the following legislative recommendations:

  • Change California law to allow ballots postmarked by Election Day to be counted;

  • Require counties to notify voters when their ballots go uncounted;

  • Require counties and the Secretary of State to report the number of uncounted VBM ballots each election and why they were not counted;

  • Provide the funding counties need to support vote-by-mail programs;

  • Enact a comprehensive framework for early voting; and

  • Allow voters to return VBM ballots to any election office or polling place in the state.

Administrative recommendations include: expanding statewide standards for signature verification; using barcodes to track vote-by-mail ballots; expanding and improving voter access to online lookup tools; improving voter education to help voters avoid common balloting mistakes; and educating postal workers about the importance of sending election mail through.

“The only thing worse than people not voting is people trying to vote and having their ballots go uncounted,” Alexander said. “Every statewide election, tens of thousands of vote-by-mail ballots arrive in county election offices that cannot be counted. By examining three counties in great detail we found a number of improvements that can be made to increase the vote-by-mail success rate, reduce disenfranchisement and improve turnout.”

The online report includes an executive summary, findings, profiles of the three counties, recommendations and numerous photographs, charts, and images.

The California Voter Foundation is a nonpartisan, nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization working to improve the voting process to better serve the needs and interests of voters. CVF’s study and report are supported by a grant from The James Irvine Foundation, and produced in partnership with the Future of California Elections (FOCE), a collaboration between election officials, civil rights advocates and election reform advocates to examine and address the unique challenges facing the State of California’s election system.


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This page was first published on August 16, 2014 | Last updated on August 18, 2014
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