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PD Editorial: As mail balloting spreads, votes must count

A Virginia legislative election ended in a dead heat in November, underscoring the potential importance of every vote.

That outcome ultimately was determined by drawing a name from a bowl. If one more person had shown up on election day …

But what about votes that get cast and don’t get counted?

Most of us probably don’t give much thought to our ballots once they get turned in, assuming, not unreasonably, that they will be tallied and included in the election results.

But thousands of ballots get rejected without any notification or appeal.

The primary reason is handwriting, and it’s looming larger than ever as California approaches a seismic shift in the way elections are conducted.

Consider the story of Pete La Follette, as told in Monday’s paper by Staff Writer Guy Kovner.

La Follette, a 25-year-old Sonoma County man, was among 8.5 million Californians who voted by mail in the 2016 presidential election.

As required, La Follette returned his ballot in a special, signed envelope. It was set aside, uncounted because election officials determined that La Follette’s signature on the ballot didn’t match the one on his voter registration card.

By law, signatures on mail ballots must be crosschecked with voter registration cards.

Here’s the problem: an absent-minded scrawl on the return envelope that doesn’t match a voter-registration card isn’t proof of a fraudulent vote, nor is it much of a standard for disenfranchising a voter. Messy handwriting is hardly uncommon. And a voter who doesn’t move or change political parties has no reason to reregister - or to think about whether their signature has changed over some period of time.

If this sounds trivial, consider that a UC Davis study determined that 69,000 ballots were rejected in the state’s 2012 election due to unmatched signatures. That figure fell to 45,000 last year, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, although the California secretary of state’s office places it closer to 26,000.

The solution isn’t to eliminate scrutiny. While voter fraud is extremely rare, elections need an audit trail. Voters are required to sign a log at polling stations, and mail ballots must be subject to scrutiny too.

A voter who neglects to sign the envelope can do so as much as eight days after the election, but state law is silent on rectifying unmatched signatures.

A lawsuit filed on La Follette’s behalf by the ACLU seeks to require elections officials to notify voters whose signatures are rejected and give them an opportunity to resolve any problem. A bill introduced by state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, would impose a similar requirement.

Mail ballots comprised about 61 percent of all votes in 2016, a figure that has risen steadily since California relaxed absentee voting requirements in the late 1970s. And the number of mail ballots is poised to increase even more as California rolls out voting rules over the next two election cycles.

Beginning this year, 14 counties are authorized to do away with neighborhood polling stations and send ballots to all registered voters. Ballots can be returned by mail or turned in at regional voting centers. All 58 counties are authorized to switch to the new system in 2020.

No one’s vote should go uncounted, in a close contest or a landslide, because their handwriting is sloppy or their signature changed sometime after they registered to vote.

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