Garamendi, Bowen decry danger to mail-in ballots

Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, joined California Secretary of State Debra Bowen to testify to the state Legislature today about the danger that some impending U.S. Postal Service facility closures pose to the integrity of California’s vote.

As I reported last month, Bowen contends the Postal Service’s proposed closure of around a dozen mail processing centers in California as part of a national restructuring could delay hundreds of thousands of mail-in ballots from arriving at registrars across the state in time to be counted.

She and Garamendi took their concerns to a joint oversight hearing of the state Senate Committee on Elections and Constitutional Amendments and the Assembly Committee on Elections and Redistricting.

“Don’t radically alter mail delivery expectations in a year that could very well set vote-by-mail records in California. Don’t close down these centers in the lead up to a presidential election, giving voters, elections officials, and postal workers insufficient time to work out the kinks,” Garamendi testified at the hearing. “Don’t disenfranchise tens of thousands of Californians who just want their voices heard. Give us six more months to get through this election, and after six months, once the chaos of the election settles down, we’ll have enough time to make the best of a bad situation. Democracy is too important to penny pinch.”

Garamendi also sent a letter today to the chairman and ranking members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and its Subcommittee on Federal Workforce, U.S. Postal Service and Labor Policy urging their support for Congressional action to prevent mail processing center closures.

“We are a nation that takes voting rights seriously. We are a nation that believes democracy is worth paying for. I oppose the closing of these facilities because they help make representative democracy possible,” Garamendi wrote in the letter. “I hope you’ll join me in preventing voter disenfranchisement by using the powers of this Committee and the United States Congress to prevent further mail processing center closures until after the November 2012 elections.”

A mail-in ballot – which state law says a voter can request up until seven days before the election – must be received by the voter’s county election office no later than 8 p.m. on the day of the election; any received after that aren’t counted. According to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, about 26,000 ballots arrived too late to be counted in California’s November 2010 general election.

Last year, Bowen has said, the three processing-center closures – in Salinas, Marysville and Oxnard – clearly affected local elections in Monterey and Ventura counties: The time it took to deliver outbound and receive inbound vote-by-mail ballots went from one to three days, to five to seven.

Postal Service spokesman Augustine Ruiz last month said the agency will announce by mid-May which centers it plans to close, but has not decided when the closures would take effect. Election mail “would be affected by the proposed service changes,” he acknowledged.

“However, the Postal Service, as always as in elections past, will be working with elected officials and their mailers in the coming months to ensure their mail is received and delivered in adequate time to respond,” Ruiz said. While he couldn’t advise voters how late they can wait to put their ballots in the mail, he said they should still arrive in time to be counted if the Postal Service processing center receives them the day before the election.

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.

  • Steve Weir

    This is a good and timely report. Contra Costa is less than two months away from sending out over 225,000 vote-by-mail ballots. Since 1996, we have worked with our voters to reduce the rate of late vote-by-mail ballots by five fold. We need to keep getting the message out about sending in your vote-by-mail ballot in a timely manner. (Watch for more of this from Secretary Bowen and County Registrars.)

    What we are working on right now is a program to inform all votere, especially younger voters, of the need to pay attention when they sign their vote-by-mail envelope. Our rejection rate for “no signature match” has skyrocketed in 2010.

    Upon examination, those 20 to 29 are four times more likely to have their ballot rejected for no signature match than the average, and more than ten times more likely to have their ballot rejected for no signature match than voters over 60.

    This is a phenomenon that has recently appeared to our surprise. With so many voters, of all age groups, gearing up for the June and Novmeber Elections, we’ll need to focus on timely mail AND care in signing vote-by-mail ballots.

  • John W.

    Steve Weir,

    I can’t recall. Is the information about signing included only on the separate instruction sheet, or is there something on the ballot itself? Personally, I always put a yellow sticky on my ballots and tax returns, reminding myself to sign before mailing. People forget to sign their tax returns, even though the signature line is hard to miss as you get to the end of the return. Perhaps if the VERY FIRST ITEM on the ballot, before you even start voting on the candidates and issues, was an instruction to sign the envelope before you even start voting, that would reduce the no-signature errors.

  • steve weir

    John, lack of signature is a tiny fraction of rejected ballots (0.05% of ballots cast at the November 2, 2010 Electon.) We scan for them, first thing each day, and return them that day to the voter with instructions to sign the envelope. That usually does it.

    We do a separate sheet with instructions, but we have also highlighted the box requiring the signature. What we are seeing are signatures that in no way, compare to the original signature on the voters affidavit of registrtion. Our rejection numbers were contining to decline until 2008 (February and June), and again in 2010.

    Election Code Section 3000 states that we have to error in favor of the voter. We try to allow signatures. What we are seeing is a jump in rejections, and we can attribute that to age groups.

    Because this is an age thing, we think we can craft a mulit-media blast, including facebook, to highlight this issue. We have a feeling that this will grab that generation’s attention. Time will tell.

    We do know that when we alert the public to an issue, we see positive results. The use of social media is new and I’m betting that it will do the trick.

  • Publius

    Re: #1,#2,#3

    Trying to make the ballot completely 100% idiot proof is a waste of time and money. You cannot cure youthful stupidy and apathy. If a capable healthy person cannot go to the polls and cast his or her ballot they should at least take the time to read the instructions and fill out the form properly. The increase in the rejection rate is a direct reflection of the low voter IQ here in Ca. I feel very uncomfortable with the power to approve new taxes, and the power to approve wonderful projects like High Speed Rail, in the hands of people that cannot read instructions and sign their name. I say less is more, if you have to put out a blast to inform voters how to vote then we as State would be better off having them not vote at all.

  • steve weir

    Publius, in your Revolutionary Phase, you feared the masses, sounds like time has not softened your perspective.

    Anyway, easy for you to say, I’m the County Clerk. Don’t fear, the older population (of which I am one) has a much higher rate of participation to begin with.

    If someone takes the time to register and then to vote, I will take the time to try to see to it that their ballot is counted. You and I (most likely) had handwriting training (Palmer method?) Today, that is lacking. That should not disinfranchise a whole generation of folks who, at some time, will be running our show.

  • John W.

    So, I’m confused. The “younger” ballots are being rejected not because they forgot to sign but because the signature doesn’t match. What’s that all about? I always assumed the signature match issue involved us older folks, as our signatures get shakier and sloppier. Although, I went into the Army at 23 with a “little kid” signature and came out at 25 with a doctor’s prescription type signature — both lousy but in different ways. No idea why!

  • Elwood

    “a whole generation of folks who, at some time, will be running our show.”

    God help us.

  • Publius


    Point well taken. Thank you for your service.

    It is not the mass that I fear. What scares me is the uneducated entitled mass.

  • Rick K.

    “Live Shot” Garamendi never wastes an opportunity breathe his hot air into any open microphone. He loves being the center of attention even if he has nothing intelligent to say. What fraction of the entire mail stream is vote-by-mail ballots? Must be less than 1 out of 100,000 pieces of mail. We’re supposed to delay much needed reform of the postal service for another eight months just because of a few thousand ballots that might be mailed at the last minute and the reformed postal service just might not be able to handle the ballots? This looks like a rather transparent attempt on Garamendi’s part to kiss the posteriors of the postal service union members. “Live Shot” Garamendi really could care less about citizenship and common folk — he’s all about himself, his union boss backers and getting himself re-elected in a year when he very well could be defeated and retired to political oblivion. Voters of Fairfield, Vacaville and points north, dump Garamendi in June & November 2012!