Low Turnout and Uncounted Ballots: Voting Issues to Overcome in CA

3 November 2014


By Kira Lou, Food Policy Research Intern 

With the November midterm election just around the corner, it is important now more than ever to educate voters on their rights, and to highlight just how essential their voice is in these elections. This is particularly true for California where numbers from the state’s most recent primary election are disheartening for the Get Out the Vote efforts. California experienced a record low turnout of voters for the June 2014 primary, where only 25.2% of registered voters cast a ballot. In addition, according to a recent Pew Charitable Trusts report, California ranks 49th among states in election administration, which includes measures like turnout, voter registration, rejected ballots, and polling place wait times. Part of this poor rating is also due to a lack of a state-wide online voting information lookup tool, along with the fact that California does not participate in the Electronic Registration Information Center, a data sharing resource that many states use to identify eligible voters for registration. Perhaps most notable, though, is California’s poor administration of the vote-by-mail option for submitting a ballot.

California ranks number 1 in the country for unreturned vote-by-mail ballots, which is significant, considering that 8 million California residents are signed up to vote-by-mail. That is 43% of all registered voters in the state. While some ballots may never be submitted—which brings up another issue of voter turnout, addressed further down—a proportion of vote-by-mail ballots that do get submitted are never counted. The California Voter Foundation conducted a study on this very issue. They found that while the state improved counting vote-by-mail ballots from 2008 to 2012, still 0.5% of vote-by-mail ballots went uncounted in the 2012 election. The number is significant, as it represents tens of thousands of people who voted, but whose vote in the end didn’t get counted. The study found three main reasons for uncounted vote-by-mail ballots: late arriving ballots, ballots lacking a signature, and signed envelopes that had a signature that didn’t sufficiently match the signature on file. In addition to these three findings, the study also found that the vote-by-mail process has a lot of fragmentation and disjointedness in its administration. For example, there are inconsistent statewide guidelines for signature verification and unclear options for in-person drop-off locations. We hope to see such issues addressed by the newly elected Secretary of State after the November elections. Increasing counted vote-by-mail ballots will require an increased effort in voter education— an effort that is also greatly needed for increasing California’s voter turnout.

With only about one fourth of registered voters in California taking part in the June primary, a renewed effort is needed to encourage those registered voters to either submit their vote-by-mail ballots or make it to the polling places on November 4th. In order to try and understand why so many people stayed home on election day, California Forward sent out a survey to 1,000 of their members. The survey showed that the majority of people didn’t vote because they believed that their vote didn’t matter, or because they perceived there was an uneven electoral playing field tilted in the direction of special interests. A different article claims that another reason for abstaining from voting may be that voters are relatively content with the state of California politics, as there is a notion that we are in a period of “political quietude.” However, it is important to recognize that the United States has come a long way in voting rights and has greatly reduced voter disenfranchisement. Some states, though, have recently reverted to certain laws that too closely mimic times before the 1965 Voting Rights Act. More restrictive laws with regards to voter ID requirements, ability to register to vote, early voting, and restoring voting rights to people with prior convictions, have been passed in 22 states since the 2010 midterm election. These laws passed as partisanship increased in the legislature, and they passed largely in states that have higher minority populations participating in elections. This is an issue that the whole country should be concerned about. California has thankfully preserved many rights for voters, but the burden still remains on the state to ensure that registered voters are casting their ballots and casting them correctly. While it is clear that administrative and legislative changes need to be made to election procedures, in the mean time the onus is on the rest of us to Get Out the Vote and educate each other on our rights for voting and civic engagement.

It is important for every eligible voter to know and understand their rights. Some of these rights include:

1) The right to cast a provisional ballot

2) The right to election materials in another language

3) The right to ask questions about election procedures

4) The option to return a vote-by-mail ballot to any precinct in the county

5) The right to get 2 hours of paid time off from your employer to vote

In addition, California voters should know that they are only required to show an ID at the polls the first time they vote, and only if they registered to vote without providing their ID. Voter education is essential if California hopes to improve its voter turnout numbers from the June primary. That includes educating voters on their rights, as well as making sure they know what is included on the ballot. Simple to use websites, such as ballotpedia.org, can be informative resources for voters to find out what they will be voting on.

We cannot take for granted the fact that we live in a democracy. While this gives us many freedoms and choices on a daily basis, it also puts responsibility on each and every citizen to take an active role in how that democracy is run. While California has certain challenges to overcome over the next years in voting and election administration, the foundations of successful voter participation are in place. If we can increase voter education and emphasize the importance of every person’s vote, then people will feel empowered to have his or her voice heard. Voting is an essential component of a democracy, and everyone should take an active part in exercising their right to vote.



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