For the first time ever, all registered voters in Stanislaus County will receive their ballot in the mail for the upcoming election on Nov. 3 — and many are wondering if their vote is safe.
On June 18, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 860 into law, which requires all counties to send a ballot to eligible voters in advance of the general election. Voting by mail is nothing new in Stanislaus County as about 77 percent of registered voters cast their ballots by mail here, according to Registrar of Voters Donna Linder. Still, she has been kept busy in recent weeks answering questions via social media, telephone and email from constituents who are worried about the change and whether or not it will lead to election fraud.
Despite President Donald Trump tweeting that mail-in voting will lead to massive fraud and abuse, Linder said jumping from 77 percent to 100 percent of voters participating in the election by mail won’t sway its results at all. The process is secure, she added, and social media is only contributing to the misinformation about voting by mail.
“I think voting by mail is impacting the election more because of the social media attention on it,” Linder said, pointing out that several states already vote only by mail, like Washington, Colorado and Oregon. “There was kind of a push for our state to move to vote by mail years ago. Stanislaus County just has not done it yet, so it’s just different for some of our voters.”
The push for statewide mail-in voting has been a longtime coming in California, with many counties having already made the switch, but the process was streamlined due to the coronavirus pandemic as some voters fear gathering at the polls. Coincidentally, Stanislaus County was the first county in California to vote by mail when a pilot project was authorized in a bill passed by the 1993 Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Pete Wilson.
While every registered voter in Stanislaus County will receive a postage-paid ballot in their mailboxes this year, they do not have to turn it in by using the postal system. In an upgrade from the four satellite offices set up during the March primary election, there will be one voting center for every 10,000 voters where those who don’t want to send in their ballots can drop them off. Voters can also receive device or language assistance at these locations, or replace a misplaced ballot.
In addition, the County is working with locations to allow for drop boxes where ballots can also be placed. These drop boxes will be in plain sight of the business where they are located and contain bags that are sealed when the drop box is opened by elections staff.
Linder stated that employees are currently being hired and undergoing background checks so that they can assist voters at the satellite offices and responsibly deliver ballots from the boxes to the Elections Office.
“The ballots are never left alone with just one person,” Linder said. “In essence, it goes directly from the voter’s hands to our hands. There’s no middle man.”
Ballots dropped off at the satellite offices are not mailed to the county Elections Office, but are picked up by staff who always travel together, two at a time. This ensures no one is ever left alone with the ballots, and there is also a chain of custody process in place so that Linder can see who the ballots were with at any given time.
Once a ballot is received by the Elections Office, whether it be through the mail or through a drop off, every signature on every envelope is checked to ensure it matches the handwriting on the voter’s registration.
“It’s a very intensive process that we have perfected over the years of developing a more hearty vote-by-mail system,” Linder said.
She added that in her 17 years of working in elections, Stanislaus County has not seen a confirmed case of voter fraud — even though the method has steadily grown in popularity over the years.
“The convenience of receiving your ballot, voting whenever you want and either dropping it off or mailing it in has just grown and grown and grown,” Linder said. “You’ve seen that trend in California where people just like the convenience, and as it’s grown, we’ve made our processes more secure. We have learned to adapt to this style of voting and have put all of these securities and processes in place to secure people’s mail-in votes.”
In the United States as a whole, about 250 million vote-by-mail ballots have been cast over the last 20 years. According to The Heritage Foundation, which maintains an online database of election fraud cases, there have been 143 criminal convictions out of 1,200 cases of voter fraud during that time. Or, one confirmed case per state every six to seven years.
For Linder, whose elected position is nonpartisan, it has been a unique experience to see the voting process so politicized. For example, many have pointed out the recent cost-cutting changes to the United States Postal Service as a direct attempt to impact the election. Locally, Linder said, it’s nothing new; in 2012, the Stockton USPS processing facility was shut down. This has forced the county’s Elections Office to wait longer for mail-in ballots over the last eight years, since mail now has to travel to Sacramento before being distributed.
“A lot of what is happening isn’t related to the election, but people are relating it to the election because it’s coming up,” Linder said.
The Elections Office maintains a close relationship with USPS throughout election years, Linder added, with the two organizations exchanging info on envelope appearances, handling instructions and delivery schedules.
“Our job is to count the votes. Your ballot’s envelope does not distinguish what party you are affiliated with,” Linder said. “We do not know how voters vote until it has been scanned through our scanner.”
On Tuesday, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy stated he would be suspending some changes to the post office until after the 2020 election.
“The United States Postal Service will play a critical role this year in delivering election mail for millions of voters across the country. There has been a lot of discussion recently about whether the Postal Service is ready, willing and able to meet this challenge,” DeJoy said in a statement. “The Postal Service is ready today to handle whatever volume of election mail it receives this fall. Even with the challenges of keeping our employees and customers safe and healthy as they operate amid a pandemic, we will deliver the nation’s election mail on time and within our well-established service standards. The American public should know that this is our number one priority between now and election day. The 630,000 dedicated women and men of the Postal Service are committed, ready and proud to meet this sacred duty.”
There is no way to tell how many — if any — ballots are lost in the mail each election, since the Elections Office cannot determine if a voter misplaced it on their own or if it was truly lost by USPS. To track a ballot, voters can visit www.california.ballottrax.net/voter/.
Ballots will be mailed beginning Oct. 5 and information regarding satellite offices is to be announced. Linder encourages anyone with questions to call her at 209-525-5200. She’s recently answered plenty of questions from concerned voters, she said, and looks forward to helping more people understand the process.
“Some are just going to be mad, but once I explain, I’ve had a lot of ‘thank yous’ from just understanding all of the steps we take...I call every voter back who wants to talk to me personally because we want them to understand what our process is and feel comfortable with our office and the integrity we bring to elections,” Linder said. “There are many steps in place to make this a very safe, secure and fair election in the mail.”