The absentee ballots poured in by the hundreds–sometimes thousands–in the days after November’s election. But though the ballots were cast by registered voters, the votes are never tabulated in the election results.
That’s because absentee ballots that arrive after 8 p.m. on Election Day–even if postmarked and mailed days earlier–are discarded, according to state law. Across California, such discarded ballots number into the tens of thousands every election, disenfranchising thousands of voters who often have no idea their votes didn’t count.
“It is a chunk of voters, and in close races who’s to know if that would make a difference,” said Los Angeles County Registrar of Voters’ Conny McCormack, whose office received more than 5,000 late absentee votes in the first two days after the June election.
“It’s right there is big letters: Don’t mail this after Friday,” said McCormack.
Yet every election cycle thousands of votes arrive too late–and sometimes the discarded votes outnumber the margin of victory.
Steve Weir, the president of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials, said he has tracked late-arriving absentee ballots since 1996, when such votes outnumbered the margin of victory in a hotly contested Senate race.
“We rejected 3.78 percent [of the ballots that year]” recalled Weir, who serves as the Contra Costa County registrar of voters, “most of which came in after Election Day.”
Weir says the problem is growing as an increasing percentage of voters vote absentee. This year, Secretary of State Bruce McPherson issued a pre-election forecast that 44 percent of all votes cast in November would be absentee, with an informal statewide survey showing 5.1 million absentee ballots issued.
If just 1 percent of those ballots are discarded for arriving late, more than 50,000 votes statewide would go uncounted.
Through public notices, television interviews and inserts in absentee ballots, Weir says he’s gotten the percent of rejected ballots as low as 1.3 percent, though it has risen again in recent elections.
Brad Buyse, a spokesman for the Sacramento County Registrar of Voters, said that absent-minded absentee voters send in ballots too late despite the best efforts of elections officials.
“I did three TV interviews on Monday [before the election] telling anyone who still had an absentee ballot to drop it off and not to mail it,” says Buyse. “What happens, though, is a lot of people don’t listen.”
In Sacramento County, 1,664 ballots arrived too late in the June primary, out of 119,000 absentee ballots cast and 221,000 ballots issued. In November 2004, 1,141 ballots were discarded out of 182,000 returned and 206,000 issued.
“There is a huge amount that comes in the days after the election,” said Buyse, who expects a similar number of uncountable absentees this year out of the 250,000 absentee ballots.
In Orange County, Democrat Lou Correa clings to a 1056-vote lead over Assemblywoman Lynn Daucher, R-Brea, in his bid for state Senate. But more ballots than that (2,597) have been tossed aside in Orange County for arriving too late, though the contested Senate seat represents only a small portion of the county’s voters.
Currently no government agency collects information for discarded absentees at the statewide level.
McPherson did coordinate with post offices to ensure that absentee ballots would be delivered to county registrars regardless of insufficient postage. Because of the size of the fall ballot, absentee voters in 15 counties had to use more than one stamp to mail the ballot.
“As secretary of state, my number one priority is to protect the integrity of the vote. No voter should be disenfranchised because his or her ballot did not contain adequate postage,” McPherson said in a statement.
But fears of voter fraud–like the illegal use of postmarking machines after Election Day–is at the core of California’s law requiring that all ballots arrive by the close of the polls.
“It’s a shame–no one wants to see ballots arrive after the election is over,” said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation. “Generally, you can count on mail delivery to happen in a certain number of days, but voters who cut it close can’t be guaranteed their vote is counted.”
Contact Shane Goldmacher at