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Election Challenge: Safe, Accurate Voting in Pandemic Era



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Despite skeptics in high places — President Donald Trump, for example — of mailing a ballot to every active registered voter in California, local election officials are answering with their own message:

All votes will be accurately counted, and rigorous safeguards are in place to prevent election fraud.

In fact, Fresno County Clerk Brandi Orth and Tulare County Registrar of Voters Michelle Baldwin say that voters will have more options than ever to ensure their ballot counts.

And, because of the coronavirus pandemic, there will be changes in the way in-person voting takes place as well.

A Ballot for Every Voter

“Automatic mailing appears to be an unnecessary overreaction to the situation.”Ruth Weiss, Election Integrity Project

Fresno County was one of the early adopters of mailing out ballots to all active registered voters. It was one of 14 Voter’s Choice Act counties, meaning it engaged in extra measures to increase access to voting. Those included establishing voting centers and mass-mailing ballots.

Madera County adopted those techniques in 2018.

(The state designates voters who have moved out of state or have undeliverable mail as inactive; they won’t receive voting materials.)

For the 2020 presidential primary in March, Fresno County saw a 42% voter turnout, with 87% voting by mail. For comparison, in the June 2016 presidential primary, 41% of registered voters cast a ballot with 60% coming via mail.

Voters can complete the ballots at their convenience and return them by mail without having to add postage (it’s already covered), drop them in one of 60 secure boxes in Fresno County, or turn them in at voting centers, which will open prior to the Nov. 3 general election.

As in March, voters can register on Election Day.

Spurred by the pandemic, state legislators approved mailing ballots throughout the state, not just those in counties that opted into the special program — like Fresno and Madera counties.

Two months from now, on Oct. 5, election clerks throughout California will mail out ballots. And, Orth said that if voters don’t receive their ballot by Oct. 12 to call her office at (559) 600-8683 for a replacement.

But, this method has skeptics.

Ruth Weiss with the Election Integrity Project says 75% of voters already were receiving a mail-in ballot.

“Any voter in the remaining 25% need only make a phone call to request a ballot for this election up to and including seven days before Election Day if they feel it is unsafe for them to go out to cast a vote in person. Automatic mailing appears to be an unnecessary overreaction to the situation,” Weiss told GV Wire℠ by email.

In his Thursday KMJ radio commentary, conservative Michael Der Manouel Jr. also said mailing a ballot to every California voter is likely to cause mistakes and fraud.

Drop Box Preferred

“The drop-box program is the best program going. It was so successful in March, and now with COVID and no contact voting being the way to go, we have added an additional 20-plus drop boxes to be deployed through Fresno County.”Fresno County Clerk Brandi Orth

Orth recommends mailing ballots by Oct. 27, one week prior to the election. A new law this year allows the clerk to accept ballots 17 days later, through Nov. 20, as long as they were postmarked by Nov. 3.

However, Orth also is urging voters to return ballots to one of 60 secure drop boxes throughout the county.

“The drop box program is the best program going. It was so successful in March, and now with COVID and no contact voting being the way to go, we have added an additional 20-plus drop boxes to be deployed through Fresno County,” Orth said.

On this issue, Weiss agrees.

“If the drop boxes are staffed by two people from the elections office and emptied daily, then that is an excellent option. Otherwise, we recommend dropping them off at the elections office directly or at one of the in-person polling locations,” Weiss said.

New emergency guidelines from the Secretary of State changed how often ballots are collected in the period starting 10 days prior to the election. Because of the pandemic, instead of collecting every 24 hours, elections offices now have the option to collect every 48 hours.

The drop boxes will be open on Oct. 5 and checked regularly by election workers. Tulare County plans on daily ballot box pick-up with two people.

“They are very heavy, secure metal drop boxes with a very thin slot for just one envelope. I think that’s a great service for the voters to use,” Orth said.

In Tulare County, Baldwin is planning for 12 drop boxes.

Baldwin says it is up to the voter to decide the best way to return ballots.

“Due to the COVID pandemic, yes, I would recommend voters mailing in their ballots. They should mail them in as soon as they can so that they can be processed and reduce the amount turned in on election day,” Baldwin said via email. “It is really up to the voter how they want to drop them off. Whatever is more convenient for them. Either way, they can be assured that their ballot will be counted.”

Graphic of key facts for November 2020 election

(GV Wire/Alexis DeSha)

Preparing for November Election During Coronavirus

Presidential general elections naturally draw more voters, Orth said.

The county purchased more equipment and hired more staff to meet the need.

Many changes are needed because of the coronavirus. Like in March, Fresno County will use 53 voting centers. They will be open four days prior to the election, starting Oct. 30. The downtown elections office at 2221 Kern Street will be open for voting starting Oct. 5.

Because of the pandemic, Orth is taking safety precautions.

“Vote centers again will look a little different in that we’re putting all the safety protocols in place. Social distancing masks, hand sanitizers, plexiglass between voters and workers,” Orth said.

Portrait of Mi Familia Vota's statewide director Samuel Molina

“We need to have as many bilingual and multilingual volunteers available at these centers so that people get the translation assistance that they require.”Sam Molina, state director, Mi Familia Vota

Federal money from the CARES Act will help fund some of those changes.

The state Legislature in on the verge of passing SB 423, to help provide guidance for in-person voting during the pandemic.

That means setting up 18 in-person polling sites in Tulare County, according to Baldwin. Three additional sites will be in rural areas on election day only: Springville, Three Rivers, and Tule River Tribal Reservation.

Orth warned that because of social distancing — with voters spaced six feet apart — long lines are expected on election day.

Certain locations used in March will also have to be changed because of COVID-19.

I had several that were in senior homes, which of course, it is not possible to have a vote counter there now,” Orth said. “So there will be a small percentage of them that have been changed.”

Sam Molina, state director with voter advocacy group Mi Familia Vota, says in-person voting is still necessary.

For those who need assistance, for those who may have language barriers or disabilities, we want to make sure that people get the assistance that they need,” Molina said.

President Donald Trump claims that voting by mail invites election fraud but California officials, including Fresno County Clerk Brandi Orth and Tulare County Registrar of Voters Michelle Baldwin, say that safeguards are in place to prevent fraud and guarantee an accurate vote. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Fraud Protections

President Donald Trump, among others, has questioned the integrity of the voting process if conducted through the mail.

“But this mail-in voting where they mail, indiscriminately, millions and millions of ballots to people, you’re never going to know who won the election.  You can’t have that,” Trump said Wednesday at a White House media briefing.

The president has relented some, supporting absentee mail-in ballots and approving Florida’s mail-in ballot system.

Orth says there are safeguards to protect against fraud.

California has been having voters vote by mail for years. We have our processes down pat. We have security measures in place,” Orth said. “California is actually well ahead of many other states. … I think we’re well qualified to handle the November election in that same manner.”

Namely, each ballot must be signed by the voter. The election’s office then checks that signature against what is on file.

If there is a discrepancy, the ballot will be set aside. Voters with a mismatched signature or a missing signature will be contacted by the election’s office to fix the problem.

That satisfies Molina.

“(Claims of fraud are) unsubstantiated. I know for a fact that Brandi (Orth) and her team did a good job in verifying the signatures,” Molina said.

Molina says in 2014 his vote was rightly not counted when he had a signature mishap on his ballot.

“In the rare instance that a voter is able to submit a second ballot, that ballot is flagged as the voter already having voted and the second ballot is not counted.”Michelle Baldwin, Tulare County Registrar of Voters

Election departments have plans in place to protect against double voting.

“In the rare instance that a voter is able to submit a second ballot, that ballot is flagged as the voter already having voted and the second ballot is not counted,” Tulare County’s Baldwin said. “Our office takes our obligation seriously to refer those cases to the Secretary of State Investigation Unit and the County District Attorney’s Office for criminal investigation.”

The public is allowed to observe ballots being processed and counted.

Keeping Voting Rolls Clean

If a ballot is sent to someone not living in the household — because they either moved or died— Orth suggests returning the ballot with a note on it.

“Getting information from a variety of sources to keep the voter rolls as accurate as possible is always something that we strive for. We work on it every single day,” Orth said.

Elections offices also receive regular updates from the state Department of Public Health and the Secretary of State on people who have died.

“We receive a monthly report that lists the deaths that have occurred in Tulare County so that we can deactivate those voters. It is the voter’s responsibility to re-register if they have moved. When we receive mail back from the Postal Service that tells us that the voter is no longer at that address, we will deactivate the voter. If we receive a change of address, we send a notice to the voter to confirm that the new address is correct,” Baldwin said.

Photo of a woman working in an elections headquarters

Fresno County is hiring workers for the Nov. 3, 2020, presidential election. Bilingual candidates are encouraged to apply. (Shutterstock)

More Election Workers Needed

Fresno County is still looking for poll workers.

“Right now we are looking for election workers not only in our warehouse and office, but also in the vote center,” Orth said.

Fresno will also utilize at Chukchansi Park, home of the Fresno Grizzlies minor league baseball team.

“We will be utilizing (the stadium) to sign up some workers,” Orth said. “Because space in my office is at a premium, I needed to move my phone bank somewhere else and it will be down there, which is close enough for us to monitor it and handle it. And a great service to the voters. We really appreciate the Grizzlies participation.”

Molina, with Mi Familia Vota, said workers need certain skills to help voters.

“We need to have as many bilingual and multilingual volunteers available at these centers so that people get the translation assistance that they require,” Molina said.

Awaiting Results

Orth does not anticipate any change to when results will be available. Most offices continually report shortly after the 8 p.m. poll closing and update on a regular basis.

As seen in recent local elections, a close race may take weeks to sort out.

In one of the tightest races in the nation in 2018, TJ Cox didn’t declare victory in his congressional race until Nov. 28, more than three weeks after the election. Cox defeated incumbent David Valadao by 862 votes.

As part of AB 860 passed this year, election offices can start processing ballots as soon as they are released (Oct. 5). Before, processing started 10 days before Election Day.

California is really not going to change from what our history has been in the past because we’ve been having people vote by mail for years,” Orth said.

Curiosity drives David Taub. The award-winning journalist might be shy, but feels mighty with a recorder in his hand. He doesn't see it his job to "hold public officials accountable," but does see it to provide readers (and voters) the information needed to make intelligent choices. Taub has been honored with several writing awards from the California News Publishers Association. He's just happy to have his stories read. Joining GV Wire in 2016, Taub covers politics, government and elections, mainly in the Fresno/Clovis area. He also writes columns about local eateries (Appetite for Fresno), pro wrestling (Off the Bottom Rope), and media (Media Man). Prior to joining the online news source, Taub worked as a radio producer for KMJ and PowerTalk 96.7 in Fresno. He also worked as an assignment editor for KCOY-TV in Santa Maria, California, and KSEE-TV in Fresno. He has also worked behind the scenes for several sports broadcasts, including the NCAA basketball tournament, and the Super Bowl. When not spending time with his family, Taub loves to officially score Fresno Grizzlies games. Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, Taub is a die-hard Giants and 49ers fan. He graduated from the University of Michigan with dual degrees in communications and political science. Go Blue! You can contact David at 559-492-4037 or at Send an Email