Voting by mail: how it works, safeguards, and remedies if something goes wrong

By | October 17, 2020

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, many people who usually vote in person on Election Day are mailing in or dropping off ballots for the first time. Here’s how that process works, how to avoid pitfalls and what to do if your ballot-casting experience doesn’t go smoothly.

This general election will run differently than the last one for many reasons. Chief among them is the executive order Gov. Gavin Newsom signed in May, requiring all county registrars to send ballots by mail to all registered voters in California, regardless of whether they requested one.

The aim is to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at polling places on Election Day. Ballots started landing in the mailboxes of San Diego County’s 1.9 million registered voters on Oct. 5.

Of the approximately 312,000 mail-in or drop-off ballots the San Diego County Registrar of Voters had received on Thursday, 10.4 percent, or roughly 32,448 voters, are people who don’t usually vote by mail, said the county registrar, Michael Vu.

But Vu said newbies aren’t alone if they are feeling anxious about getting it right. It seems all kinds of voters are being extra careful to do everything they can to make sure their vote gets counted, he said.

Michael Vu, the San Diego County registrar, speaks to the press.

(Sam Hodgson/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“I think voters are just on a heightened alert because of everything that’s going on,” Vu said. “The pandemic, the changes we’ve made because of the pandemic, and now these (unauthorized California GOP) drop boxes and the President’s thing about an army of poll watchers.”

The California Republican Party reportedly set up ballot collection boxes in at least four counties throughout the state: Los Angeles, Orange, Ventura and Fresno.

State GOP officials say the boxes are a form of legal ballot harvesting. California Secretary of State Alex Padilla called them “illegal” and ordered them removed because they were marked “official mail drop boxes,” even though they were not official drop-off locations. The California GOP denied that it authorized marking the boxes as “official” and said it had corrected the problem.

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As of Thursday, voting by mail ballot seemed to be going smoothly in San Diego County, Vu said.

How voting by mail works


A registered voter receives a ballot in the mail at the address where they are registered to vote. On the outside of the envelope is a barcode for tracking purposes. Inside, there are instructions with an “I voted” sticker, a ballot, and a pre-addressed, postage-paid return envelope with a barcode on it and a box where the voter must sign.

If you have not received a ballot by now: Call the Registrar at 858-565-5800 and the office will cancel that ballot and replace it, Vu said. “There’s a barcode on it, so we can suspend it and issue you a new ballot.”

If the ballot you received is damaged or you lose your ballot or return envelope: Call the Registrar for a new one.

The voter reads the page of instructions, then uses a pen with dark ink — not red ink or pencil — to fill out the ballot.

If you make a mistake filling it out: Do not attempt to initial or sign your name on your ballot to make a correction. Call the Registrar for a new ballot.

Once the ballot is filled out, the voter detaches the stub at the top and keeps it for their records. The voter then puts the ballot into the return envelope and seals it.

Potential pitfall: Only the voter’s ballot should go in the envelope the voter signed, Vu said. Do not attempt to put the ballot of your spouse or another person into your signed envelope to mail them together. If you do, only one of the ballots will count.

Election worker Chatt McGarry lays out documents

Election worker Chatt McGarry lays out documents that voters sign declaring that they voted in person rather than using their mail ballots.

(Sam Hodgson/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

When the ballot is sealed in the return envelope, the voter dates and signs their name as it appears on their driver’s license, DMV-issued identification card, or voter registration. Voters should not print their name. They must sign it.

If your signature does not perfectly match the signature on your identification card: A machine scans signatures, comparing for things like slant and other tell-tale marks of how a person signs their name. If there are any major discrepancies, there are layers of review by humans before the ballot is kicked back and the voter is contacted and offered a remedy if time allows.

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Voters should return ballots promptly, but no later than Oct. 27 to ensure it is postmarked on or before Nov. 3 and delivered by Nov. 6. Mail it through the United States Postal Service Mailbox, or drop if off by 8 p.m. on Election Day, Nov. 3, at any of the county’s 126 mail ballot drop off locations.

Another legal way to drop off your ballot is to allow someone else to do it for you, Vu said. But if someone offers to mail your ballot, make sure you have signed and sealed the envelope, and the person returning it for you has signed and printed their name and printed their relationship to you on the front of the envelope in the box entitled “Person Authorized to Return.” Do not pay them. It is illegal for them to accept compensation, Vu said.

The person you authorized to return your ballot will have legal custody of it. They are legally required to return it to the Registrar within three days or by 8 p.m. on Nov. 3, whichever comes first, Vu said. If they fail to return your ballot as required, they could be charged with a felony crime.

As for the ballot itself, if it is returned to the Registrar’s office by Election Day, Nov. 3, and it is filled out correctly, it will still be counted.

Vu said he considered dropping one’s own ballot in a U.S. Postal Service mailbox the most fool-proof option for voters who want a nearby, convenient way to ensure their ballot reaches its destination.

If you think you have put your ballot into an unauthorized collection box or you gave it to a person who did not sign for it: Voters can sign up for the “Where’s My Ballot?” tool on the Registrar’s website and wait for a notification that the ballot has been received and accepted, or they can call the Registrar’s office as soon as they notice the problem so the office can suspend that ballot and get you a new one. The same tool can help determine if a ballot you turned in close to deadline got counted.

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If you’re nervous your mail-in ballot won’t make it in time and decide to show up in person on Election Day: Poll workers have a computer system they will use to scan the barcode assigned to you, Vu said. The system will tell the poll worker if a mail ballot has already been received.

If it has been received, the poll workers can suspend the mail ballot and issue the voter a ballot to cast in person, which will be the vote that counts. If the mail ballot has not been received, the poll worker can issue a provisional ballot, which the voter can cast. That vote will count, and if the mail ballot shows up later, the barcode system will flag it so it is not counted.

Registrar of Voters office

The entrance to the Registrar of Voters in San Diego.

(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Once signatures are verified, ballots are considered “received,” Vu said.

Ballots are then taken out of the return envelopes and the ballot, which is now divorced from voter’s name and therefore “secret,” is scanned into a database where your now-anonymous vote is recorded but not analyzed or counted. Once the votes are in the database, your vote is considered “accepted.”

The data will sit there, piling up, until 8 p.m. Nov. 3, when the Registrar’s Office can begin to analyze it and add up the votes for each candidate and measure, Vu said.

Once all the votes have been counted and all the election results certified, elections officials search their data for any signs of fraud, such as double-voting. If they find any red flags, they refer the matter to the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office for review, Vu said.

“When I say there hasn’t been any systemic voter fraud, that’s because we looked at it post election and tried to identify any fraud,” Vu said. “Usually it’s innocent. It’s a voter who mailed it so late in the cycle they are worried their vote won’t be counted, so they go to the polling place. So that’s another reason not to procrastinate.”

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