Vote-by-mail fail: When a ballot arrives that isn’t for you

By Ben Christopher,
Cal Matters,
October 9, 2020


When the ballots arrived in Susan Lambert’s mailbox earlier this week, everyone in the house was accounted for. There was one for her, one for her husband, and two for her adult step-sons.

And then there was the one for George.

Lambert, a playwright, producer and writer who lives in Pasadena, didn’t recognize the name. There wasn’t a George among her neighbors, nor was it the name of the prior owner of the home, which she bought 13 years ago.

Lambert’s husband shrugged and chucked the extra ballot in the recycling. 

More than 21 million ballots are now in various stages of transit across California. They are in mail trucks and mail boxes. Some are sitting on kitchen tables unopened and others have already been filled out and shipped back to county election offices.

And, predictably, some have ended up in the wrong place.

Lambert, who grew up in Georgia where voting regulations are much stricter, said she assumed this was just the result of the state’s recent decision to send ballots to every active, registered voter this year. “I’d rather they err on the side of making sure that everyone gets a ballot, rather than the other way,” she said.

But she was also curious. So she went to the recycling bin and fetched it. 

“I want to know what happened,” she said. “That is the lesson of the last four years. You want to assume that people in charge are going to take care of stuff like this. But I don’t think we can count on that anymore.”

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The short answer, said Kim Alexander, president of the nonpartisan California Voter Foundation, is that election systems are “run by human beings.” 

Those human beings are called county registrars. Each registrar maintains a list of names and addresses of active voters (those who have recently cast a ballot) called a voter roll — what they use to send out ballots. 

They’re sending out way more than normal this year.

To keep voters from crowding into polling places and swapping aerosols amid a pandemic, a new state law requires all counties to send ballots to every active, registered voter — in other words, anyone on a county registrar’s voter roll — before Election Day.

Keeping those rolls up-to-date is a constant effort, said Joe Holland, the registrar for Santa Barbara County. (Full Story)