The state of California held on to our paper ballot-based elections as the 2002 Help America Vote Act lured election jurisdictions across the country into high-tech equipment that delivered fast results without anyone actually having to count paper. Now we’re the envy of the nation, because those jurisdictions have buyers’ remorse. Their high-tech equipment has been intruded upon without their knowing. We’ve all discovered, with a sinking feeling, that we need public proof that election results are honest. Or democracy starts to die.
California paper ballots are computer-scanned, but the computer count is checked by a mandatory hand-count of ballots from a randomly-chosen 1% of precincts. This is known as our “1% audit law” and it deters fraud. Paper ballots, and inspection, by human eye, of a significant percentage, is conceded now as the absolute requirement for election integrity.
AB 840 (author Bill Quirk, D-East Bay) was introduced last spring as an Assembly bill helping election officials notify voters who fail to sign the outer envelopes of their returned ballots. They can correct the problem more easily now, instead of have their vote discarded.
The amendment of AB 840 exempts late-arriving mail ballots from audit, and – for the first time – legally exempts all provisionals from audit, too. This sends California election integrity reeling backwards.
It passed the Assembly. On the way to the Senate, there was a lethal amendment that changed CA election code 15360 so significantly that it effectively guts California election integrity. It re-worded 15360 to re-define what ballots must be included in the 1% audit.
Current language in 15360 refers to mail ballots being included – no restriction. The amendment of AB 840 exempts late-arriving mail ballots from audit, and – for the first time – legally exempts all provisionals from audit, too. This sends California election integrity reeling backwards.
Almost half our state now votes by mail due to legislation sought and won by elections officials to expand mail voting. Whole counties can now be shifted to mail ballots. Mail ballots received back up to three days after the election can be counted now, as long as they’re postmarked by election day. But voters still go to the polls – and if they appear without their unvoted mail ballot to surrender, they’ll have to vote provisional. The numbers of provisional votes have exploded.
Along with the millions of VbM ballots hand-delivered by voters on election day and late-arriving mailed ballots, they are a huge part of our election results. Two days after the November 2016 election, 4 million mail and provisional ballots were uncounted.
Exempting this number of votes from audit invites corruption. Late ballot counting takes weeks; many observers foresaw its growing clash with the 1% audit, but the case for wider enfranchisement won the day. Wider enfranchisement is good. But at the cost of honest results, what’s the point? Elections must be provably honest. Gutting California’s 1% audit is madness. AB 840’s lethal amendment must be rejected and the bill considered in its original form. Auditing the late ballot count is a challenge to be met with California integrity.
Advisory Board Chair, Progressive Democrats of America
Member, California Election Protection Network