How did I end up with vote-by-mail status? Voting expert answers this question and more

By Rebecca Plevin,
Desert Sun,
March 4, 2020


Chuck Yates arrived at his Palm Springs polling place on Super Tuesday, prepared to vote by paper ballot as he always has. But things didn’t go as he had planned.

“I showed up, I gave my name and they said, ‘you voted by mail,’’ he said. “I said, ‘no, I didn’t.’”

A poll worker handed him a provisional ballot, which he begrudgingly filled out.

Two other longtime Coachella Valley voters told The Desert Sun they had similar experiences. They said they went to their polling places on Election Day, intending to vote in-person, only to be told they had received a mail-in ballot at home. They said poll workers offered them the option of casting a provisional ballot.

So how did these Coachella Valley voters end up on the vote-by-mail rolls and what happened to their ballots? The Desert Sun reached out to Rebecca Spencer, Riverside County Registrar of Voters, and Kim Alexander, president and founder of California Voter Foundation, a nonpartisan organization working to improve the voting process, for answers.

Alexander said she hears these questions frequently and understands why people are concerned. But, she said in an email, “it is more likely that they simply didn’t remember signing up to be a permanent vote-by-mail voter and therefore weren’t looking for their ballot coming in the mail.”

The county registrar also hears from voters who do not recall signing up for a vote-by-mail ballot, Spencer said, and "the number of calls this year was similar to previous Presidential Primary Elections."

OK, but what about people who said they would never register to vote by mail? Yates, the Palm Springs voter, said he did not unintentionally register to vote by mail.

“I think the confusion may stem from a question on the state’s voter registration form,” Alexander said.

The form reads: “I want to get my ballot by mail before each election,” she said. It includes an asterisk and a message at the bottom: “If initialed, you will get your ballot by mail before each election. If you want to vote in person, you must turn in your ballot or vote a provisional ballot.”

“I think voters who have registered with paper forms initialed this box, perhaps not realizing they were signing up to be permanent vote-by-mail voters,” she said.

Looking back on the experience, Yates said he can’t shake the feeling that something “weird” might have happened. He is “not a huge conspiracy theory person,” he said, but he hadn’t registered to vote by mail and didn’t recall receiving a ballot in the mail.

“It leaves me to wonder if somebody voted for me and who did they vote for,” he said.

Alexander offered Yates and other voters reassurance.

“Vote-by-mail ballot fraud is extremely rare,” she said.

In California, she said, every vote-by-mail ballot must have the voter’s signature on the back. County staff verify the signature by comparing it to the voter’s John Hancock on file; if the signatures don’t match, she said, the ballot doesn’t get counted.

It’s a common problem, she said. Voters’ signatures can change over time, especially as they age, and family members sometimes sign ballots for other relatives.

“Signature rejection is one of the leading reasons why one in 100 vote-by-mail ballots do not get counted,” she said. (Full Story)