More than 100,000 ballots from California primary go uncounted

State election officials rejected thousands of ballots because voters failed to follow instructions or filed too late.

    Absentee ballots waiting to be counted at the County Board of Elections in Albany, New York. Experts say about 1 percent of absentee ballots were rejected by election officials in the 2016 presidential election [File: Hans Pennink/AP Photo]
    Absentee ballots waiting to be counted at the County Board of Elections in Albany, New York. Experts say about 1 percent of absentee ballots were rejected by election officials in the 2016 presidential election [File: Hans Pennink/AP Photo]

    More than 100,000 mail-in ballots were rejected by California election officials during the March presidential primary, according to data obtained by The Associated Press news agency that highlights a glaring gap in the state's effort to ensure every vote is counted.

    With the coronavirus pandemic raging, California is part of a growing number of states increasing mail-in balloting to avoid crowds at polling places. President Donald Trump is among those questioning the integrity of vote-by-mail elections while supporters have said they are just as reliable as polling places and offer greater flexibility for voters.

    But while polling places include workers who can assist people who have questions about filling out ballots, a voter does not have support at home, and so, problems can arise.

    US election 2020 vote
    A woman casts her ballot for Maryland's primary election at a drop box in Rockville, Maryland. Problems can arise with such ballots, however, as election are not on hand to assist voters who need help filling them out properly [File: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters]

    The California secretary of state's election data obtained by the AP showed 102,428 mail-in ballots were disqualified in the state's 58 counties, about 1.5 percent of the nearly seven million mail-in ballots returned. That percentage is the highest in a primary since 2014, and the overall number is the highest in a statewide election since 2010.

    Two years ago, the national average of rejected mail ballots in the general election was about 1.4 percent, and in the 2016 presidential election year, it was 1 percent, according to a US Election Assistance Commission study.

    The most common problem, by far, in California was missing the deadline for the ballot to be mailed and arrive. To count in the election, ballots must have been postmarked on or before Election Day and received within three days afterwards. Statewide, 70,330 ballots missed those marks.

    Another 27,525 either did not have a signature, or the signature did not match the one on record for the voter.

    Kim Alexander, president of the nonpartisan California Voter Foundation that seeks to improve elections, called the uncounted figure discouraging.

    "The only thing worse than people not voting is people attempting to vote and having their vote uncounted," she said. The tally of nullified votes "can make a difference in a close contest".

    The data did not break down the uncounted ballots by party registration. While the overall number was large in March, if it is the same in November it is unlikely to affect the presidential race - Trump lost to Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016 by 4.3 million votes.

    But there are expected to be at least several tightly contested races for seats in the US House of Representatives where a relatively few votes could tip the balance. In 2018, Democrat TJ Cox upset Republican David Valadao by less than 1,000 votes in a Central Valley district. They have a rematch in November.

    Local races sometimes are decided by a handful of votes.

    California traditionally has offered mail-in voting only to those who request ballots. Over time, the number has grown to represent more than half of all cast ballots. In response to the coronavirus outbreak, Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom in June signed a law requiring county election officials to mail a ballot to all the state's nearly 21 million registered voters for the November election.

    He called mail-in voting safe and secure, pointing to a series of studies that found no evidence of significant fraud. States across the political spectrum rely solely on mail ballots, including Colorado, Utah and Washington.

    In preparation for November, the state is launching a ballot-tracking tool that will quickly alert voters if they need to take action, such as adding a missing signature. Another change: The state is extending the window for mail ballots to arrive to 17 days after Election Day.

    SOURCE: AP news agency