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A ballot, one of many sent to every California voter, shows the portion where the voter would have to authorize another person to deposit it on their behalf, is seen in Sacramento, Calif., Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020. A ballot, one of many sent to every California voter, shows the portion where the voter would have to authorize another person to deposit it on their behalf, is seen in Sacramento, Calif., Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020.

A ballot, one of many sent to every California voter, shows the portion where the voter would have to authorize another person to deposit it on their behalf, is seen in Sacramento, Calif., Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020.

Chris Nichols
By Chris Nichols October 23, 2020

If Your Time is short

  • Election officials recommend Californians return mail-in ballots at least one week early to avoid any problems with slow mail delivery. 
  • Ballots must be postmarked no later than Nov. 3. 

  • Voters must sign the outside of their ballot envelope.

  • Refer to the signature on your driver’s license or other recent government documents to ensure your signature matches those kept on file by election officials.

  • If your signature has changed dramatically recently, consider updating your voter registration with the new version.

  • If you don’t want to use the mail, you can return your ballot at your county election office, drop it inside an authorized ballot drop box or at a polling location through 8 p.m. on Election Day.

California voters are returning their mail-in ballots at a record pace, with more than 5 million already returned as of Oct. 22.

With two weeks left until Election Day, that’s nearly one quarter of the 21.5 million ballots sent out to all active, registered voters in the state at the beginning of the month.

But making sure your ballot counts takes more than just dropping it in a mailbox. PolitiFact California spoke with election officials and offers these key tips for mail-in voters: 

Don’t Wait Until The Last Minute 

A new state law requires counties to count ballots that arrive up to 17 days after Election Day, so long as they are postmarked by Nov. 3. 

Voters can place their ballot in a drop off box, bring it to a voting location, election office or mail it up to and including on Election Day. For those dropping it in a mailbox on Election Day, check to see if the mail has already been picked up for that box. If it has, your ballot won’t be postmarked on Nov. 3 and will be rejected. 

But officials say waiting until the last minute can lead to rejected ballots and slow election results. During the March primary, counties turned away more than 100,000 ballots statewide, with 70% rejected because they arrived late, the Associated Press reported. 

Given the added concerns about possible slow U.S. Postal Service delivery, elections staff and voter advocates recommend mailing your ballot at least a week early, which means Oct. 27 at the latest. 

"Go ahead and fill that ballot out, get it in a drop box or put it in the mail as soon as you possibly can so that we have on our end more time to process the volume of ballots that are coming in," said Janna Haynes, spokesperson for the Sacramento County elections office. 

Voters can find the location of authorized ballot drop boxes on the California Secretary of State’s website

A new law allowed counties to begin processing mail-in ballots on Oct. 5, meaning election staff can check for valid signatures, remove envelopes, sort, and, in some cases, start feeding ballots into a counting machine, CalMatters reported

Sacramento County Registrar of Voters Courtney Bailey-Kanelos told CapRadio in early October that the new law, Assembly Bill 860, means the county will be able to include the votes of those who drop off their mail-in ballots early in their initial release of results at 8 p.m. on election night.

You Must Sign The Outside Of Your Ballot Envelope

Stevie Wonder’s hit from 1970 "Signed, Sealed, Delivered, (I’m Yours)," offers perhaps the best advice for making sure your ballot counts. 

"Obviously, the most important thing for people to remember is to sign the back of the envelope," added Haynes. "We do get quite a few that are not signed. They forgot to sign it when they sealed it up, threw it in the mail or put it in a drop box."  

Statewide during the primary, more than 27,000 rejected ballots either did not have a signature or had a mismatched one, according to the AP.

How Are Signatures Verified? 

Counties use a combination of software and the human eye to verify signatures. This process is the biggest protection against fraud for vote-by-mail ballots. In Sacramento County, if a signature is flagged by a machine, the ballot is not automatically thrown out. 

Instead, a team of two election staffers look at it and use a collection of that person’s past signatures on government documents, including recent mail-in ballots or a marriage certificate, to see if it lines up. 

How Can I Make Sure My Signature Is Valid?

Officials say you don’t need an identical match, but your signature does need to be fundamentally the same as the ones on file. Haynes recommended voters check the signature on their driver’s license as a reference because election officials have that on file. 

She said if your signature has changed dramatically, you should consider contacting your county elections office and updating your voter registration with the new version. 

San Diego County Registrar of Voters Michael Vu told NBC San Diego that  officials "must begin with the presumption that the signatures are a match." He added that as long "as the signatures are similar, you should be OK."

What Happens To Ballots With Incorrect Or Missing Signatures?

When election officials reject a signature because it doesn’t match with those on file, they are required to contact that voter at least eight days before the certification of the election to give them a chance to provide a valid one, with the idea being that signatures change over time. This process was set in law two years ago when then-California Gov. Jerry Brown signed the Every Vote Counts Act.

Here’s how that process works in Sacramento County: Election officials have 10 days to make contact with the voter once they receive a mismatched signature or a ballot missing a signature. The county sends the voter a letter, and makes a second attempt to contact them if they do not hear back, Haynes said. She advised voters to include their phone number and email on their voter registration forms to make it easier for officials to reach them. 

What Happens If Officials Can’t Read My Ballot? 

From food and coffee stains to torn paper to doodles on ballot margins, election officials see "all kinds of imperfections," once they open ballot envelopes, Haynes said.

These problems may not get your ballot disqualified, but they will slow counting, she added. That’s because ink blotches and smears across ballot barcodes can interfere with the machines that read them.

This presents another challenge, as once the envelopes are removed the ballots are anonymous and officials cannot contact the voters. In Sacramento County, if the ballot is unreadable a team of two election staffers duplicate the legible responses on a clean ballot. 

Haynes said the duplication teams are also used when machines can’t read a ballot after a voter has scribbled out their initial choice, sometimes writing ‘Yes’ by the second mark and ‘No,’ by the first. 

"We have a process to ensure that those votes count as well," Haynes said, explaining the teams use their best judgement to interpret voter intentions. 

If there’s no way to determine what a voter meant for a certain contest, that single contest is thrown out, but the rest of the votes on the ballot are tabulated.

"We have a number of systems and teams and processes in place to make sure every contest, every vote, every ballot counts," she said. 

If a voter believes they’ve made marks on their ballot that would make it difficult to read, Haynes said they can swap it out (before they mail it or turn it in) at their county elections office or a vote center for a new ballot. The old one will be voided. Once a ballot is turned in, however, "there are no take backs," she added.

Tracking Your Mail-In Ballot

Californians who vote by mail have one more way to ensure their ballot is counted: The state’s electronic ballot tracking program Where’s My Ballot? You can sign up for text, email or phone alerts to learn when your ballot is received and counted. The program is available in all counties.

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Our Sources

Janna Haynes, spokesperson, Sacramento County Voter Registration and Elections office, video interview Oct. 14, 2020

Courtney Bailey-Kanelos, Sacramento County Registrar of Voters, interview Oct. 5, 2020

NBC San Diego, Make Your Vote Count: Check Your Ballot Signature, Oct. 9, 2020

Political Data Inc, 2020 Ballots Returned Tracker, accessed October 2020

Associated Press, California rejected 100K mail-in ballots because of mistakes, July 13, 2020

CalMatters, When Will My Ballot Be Counted? The Perks Of Voting Early, Oct. 21, 2020

California Secretary of State, Where’s My Ballot? Vote-by-mail ballot tracking service, accessed October 2020

California Secretary of State, Early Voting and Vote-By-Mail Ballot Drop Off Locations, accessed October 2020

California Secretary of State, County Elections Office contact information, accessed October 2020

California Secretary of State, California Senate Approves Every Vote Counts Act To Give Voters The Opportunity To Correct Mismatched Mail Ballots, Aug. 28, 2018

California Assembly Bill 860, Elections: Vote-by-mail ballots, accessed October 2020

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