Is voter fraud shaping the recall? Here’s what’s true and what isn’t
The same pattern of claims of voter fraud — which made many Americans doubt the 2020 election — are swirling around California’s gubernatorial recall, with familiar allegations and a few new concerns bouncing across social media.
As happens every cycle, county registrars say the recall has come with some minor irregularities and they’ve flagged some potential fraud cases. But elections officials — from both sides of the political aisle — say most issues are found to be the result of simple human or technical errors rather, not malfeasance. And flagging such problems is, in fact, a sign that California’s election safeguards are working as intended, not an indication that the system is failing.
Just like in 2020, officials also say there’s zero evidence of the type of widespread scheme that would be needed to actually swing results one way or the other.
With less than a week until Election Day, we asked elections experts to address claims around everything from envelope design to print-at-home ballots. We also asked what they’re doing, and what the public can do, to help keep elections secure.
How do we already know more Democrats have voted than Republicans? I thought officials couldn’t open ballots until Election Day?
While no results can be announced until 8 p.m. on Sept. 14, California, like most states, allows elections officials to start verifying signatures and processing mail-in ballots when they arrive. For this election, officials could start that process 29 days early, or on Aug. 16. That’s permitted so any issues can immediately be tackled and results can be delivered as quickly as possible.
Some county elections offices, including Orange County, publish partisan breakdowns of early returns to be as transparent as possible with all known information. Others, such as Los Angeles County, say this information will be available after Election Day.
But voting records are public. So candidates and political operatives from all parties capture information on ballot returns in real time to help them focus last-minute resources on people who haven’t voted, while data firms have long collected and published early ballot return information. Sacramento-based firm Political Data Inc., for example, is sending out regular updates on voter turnout — broken out by party, age and ethnicity — to anyone who signs up at politicaldata.com/2021-election-tracker-email-signup.
Won’t releasing this information suppress GOP turnout?
For decades, initial returns tended to favor Republicans, who were more likely to mail in their votes early. So early turnout reports, it could be argued, long favored the GOP. But in 2020, President Donald Trump and other GOP leaders sewed doubt around mail-in ballots, which flipped conventional voting patterns — and any advantage that comes with early leads in voter turnout — on their head.
Early returns this year are getting particular attention because elections experts believe the recall will hinge on voter turnout, with most saying higher turnout is better for Gov. Gavin Newsom while low turnout spells bad news for the governor.
Reports that Democrats have an edge in voter turnout could discourage some GOP voters and others waiting to cast ballots in person, elections officials say. But the information also could make Democrats who haven’t voted complacent — and less likely to show up on Election Day — even as it motivates those who want Newsom out.
There are reports about ballots and envelopes being designed in ways that favor Newsom. Is that true?
This false claim stems largely from a viral social media video, where a woman showed a ballot with one fold running through leading GOP candidate Larry Elder’s name. There also were holes on the outside of the envelope that might allow anyone handling it to potentially see how the person voted.
As for placement of the folds, the names of the 46 candidates in the running to replace Newsom appear on ballots in random order, with different placement in each of state’s 80 Assembly Districts. So while Elder’s name was on the fold in the viral video, photos and video of ballots posted online from other parts of the state show different candidates — or no candidates at all — with lines through their names. Also, elections officials have clarified that machines can pick up votes marked along the folds, so they say the line won’t sway results.
As for the holes in the envelopes, elections officials said they’ve been there for multiple election cycles to help voters with visual impairments know where to sign their names. Since envelopes are designed differently in each county, many do not have holes that line up with any key ballot information. For those that do, people can place their ballots in the envelopes in a way that doesn’t reveal their vote.
Even if someone’s vote does show through the holes, there are safeguards to protect that ballot. All envelopes are checked for tampering, for example. And Californians can sign up to track their ballot throughout the tabulation process to ensure it makes it to county elections officials by answering quick questions at california.ballottrax.net/voter.
I’ve seen social media posts about people who live in other states getting ballots, or of people getting ballots meant for someone else. Does this mean fraud is taking place?
While elections officials routinely clean up their voter rolls, ballots do sometimes get mailed to someone who has moved or died due to outdated records and human error. Anyone who gets a ballot for someone else is encouraged to write “no longer at this address” on the envelope and stick it back in the mail or notify elections officials to clear up the problem.
But just because those ballots go out doesn’t mean the can be used to cast fake votes.
All ballots returned by mail, placed in secure drop boxes or taken to in-person vote centers are checked to ensure signatures on the outside of envelopes match signatures on file from DMV records. Most are verified by secure sorting machines. Any that don’t pass electronic checks are reviewed by hand by trained workers.
More than half of the 86,401 California ballots rejected in the 2020 general election, for example, were not counted because signatures didn’t match. Another 14,666 were rejected because signatures were missing.
It’s a felony to try to vote using someone else’s ballot. All ballots are tracked and scanned, with suspicious activity investigated. That process, and threats of prison time, likely deters many potential bad actors.
Some elections offices are offering live online feeds of ballot processing, so anyone can watch signature verification and other activities. Members of the public can also become elections observers, so they can go to elections offices and oversee ballot handling in person.
Even if a fake signature occasionally gets through this review process, elections officials say the odds are simply too high of that happening in conjunction with the sort of massive, undetected mail fraud scheme that would have to occur for bad actors to swing a race.
I heard people can print ballots at home. Isn’t this system ripe for fraud?
Since Jan. 1, 2020, all California counties have been required to let voters with disabilities request access to download ballots at home through the Remote Accessible Vote-by-Mail system. That way, voters with special needs can use assistive technology to complete the forms privately and independently, then print their ballots and return them in the usual ways.
Due to the pandemic, that ability is being offered to all Californians in the recall election. But few know about the option, data shows. And there are a number of safety measures in place to guard against abusing this system.
First, voters must have requested remote voting at least seven days before the election. They then log into the system with their drivers license or state I.D. number and date of birth to get access to complete one ballot. Once that process is complete, it voids the standard ballot mailed to that voter, so it can’t be used again or by anyone else. And no one can use the system more than once, so it’s impossible for one person to print multiple ballots.
“It’s another one of those misplaced concerns,” Orange County Registrar Neal Kelley said of print-at-home ballots.
He equated it to concerns about ballot collection, a process in which Californians are allowed to collect and return ballots for others. He’s seen no evidence of widespread ballot harvesting this recall, and he said they’ve only received 50 print-at-home ballots out of more than half a million ballots cast as of Tuesday.
“Most people aren’t going to hand over their ballot,” Kelley said, “and most people aren’t going to download their ballot.”