Terry McLaughlin: Changes to California’s voter regulations
During the past few months, California Secretary of State Alex Padilla has been assuring California’s voters of the accuracy and integrity of the state ballot system. As recently as Aug. 28, Padilla testified to Congress about the importance of signature verification to California’s election integrity. Yet one month later, on Sept. 28, Padilla released 14 new regulations on mail-in ballots and signature verification, declaring them to be effective immediately.
These new regulations were released five days after the public comment period had passed, denying citizens or advocacy groups an opportunity to review or comment on the changes. The radical nature of these regulations may explain why Padilla wanted to minimize public comment.
The new regulations imposed by California’s secretary of state prior to the November national election do not even require that a voter use an official ballot, but make a simple handwritten note acceptable as a valid vote. This sounds unbelievable, but section 20991 (b) of the new regulations actually states that a ”voter’s ballot shall be considered a valid ballot if:
“(9) Voter indicates vote choice(s) by writing the name(s) of the candidate(s) or indicating the vote(s) on the measure(s) in a letter or note, and returns it in a vote-by-mail ballot identification envelope with a valid signature. If the voter’s choice(s) can be determined, the ballot shall be duplicated pursuant to Election Code section 15210 to reflect the voter’s choices and processed as if cast by the voter.
“(10) Voter, instead of using his or her official ballot, marks a sample ballot and mails it in the vote-by-mail ballot identification envelope and the signature on the identification envelope compares with the signature(s) in the voter’s registration record.
“(11) Two or more ballots are returned in one vote-by-mail ballot identification envelope, and there are an equal number of distinct signatures on the identification envelope that can be attributed to eligible vote-by-mail voters and each of these signatures compares with the signature(s) in the applicable voter’s registration record.”
A vigorous signature matching process is necessary to filter out illegitimate votes. The process used in previous elections, whereby no ballot would be rejected without notifying the voter and offering them an opportunity to verify the ballot, protected voters from having a ballot rejected by a signature match snafu. That process was passed by the Legislature in 2018 and strengthened in 2019, and allowed election officials to challenge signatures with no obvious similarity to the signature on file without the fear of disenfranchising legitimate voters.
With no legislative input, a new regulation, 20960(j), imposed by the secretary of state prior to the November election makes it very unlikely that any envelope signature will be rejected, as it imposes a standard requiring that two additional election officials agree, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the signatures do not match. Abiding with regulation 20991(b)(11) above, a diligent fraudster could stuff one bar-coded ballot return envelope with as many notes, sample ballots, or official ballots as will fit and then just scribble the names and signatures of additional voters anywhere on the envelope. Because the signature verification process has been so weakened, this type of fraud could well succeed.
For months, officials have been assuring California voters that mail in ballots were secure due to watermarks in the printed ballots and unique codes on the return envelope that identify each individual voter. The new regulations, particularly 20991(b)(9) and (10) entirely negate those reassurances.
In addition to the changes discussed above, Padilla also released a new version of the Election Observation Rights and Responsibilities. California’s election laws give California voters the right to observe every aspect of the election process, ask questions and receive answers.
By law, observers have the right to observe the processing of vote-by-mail ballots closely enough to see the signatures and marks on the ballots, and the election laws also mandate that observers have the opportunity to challenge procedures in a “reasonable and timely manner.” The new mandate imposed by Padilla’s regulations allows county officials to restrict election observers to a “designated area” at such a distance that they cannot clearly see the signatures or marks, going so far as to allow remote observation from separate rooms or even from home.
These “remote” observations not only limit the quality and narrow the viewing angle of what the observers can see, but they are kept from asking timely questions about election procedures. This year in Los Angeles, an observer in a Zoom room was told to write down her questions and mail them to the registrar of voters — not exactly an accommodation that allows questions and answers in a reasonable or timely manner.
Many of the 14 new regulations imposed by Padilla are outside the purview of the executive branch of government because they supersede or countermand what is codified within California’s Election Code. These types of changes may only be sanctioned by an act of the state Legislature. Yet, California’s secretary of state is likely to get away with this excessive executive overreach.
If you believe that “as California goes, there goes the nation,” then we are in serious trouble.
Terry McLaughlin, who lives in Grass Valley, writes a twice monthly column for The Union. Write to her at email@example.com.
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