By Eric Gelber
As documented by the Brennan Center for Justice, as of mid-February, 2021, state lawmakers across the nation have carried, pre-filed, or introduced at least 253 bills with provisions that restrict voter access in 43 states. The Brennan Center notes that a quarter of voting and election bills seek to limit vote by mail (VBM) procedures. These VBM bills would limit who can vote by mail (e.g., by limiting “no excuse” mail voting, requiring that mail-in ballots be notarized, eliminating mail-in ballot drop boxes) and/or would make it harder to obtain ballots (e.g., by eliminating the permanent early voter list).
California, on the other hand, is one of some 37 states that have introduced expansive bills focusing on mail voting, early voting, voter registration, and voting rights restoration. One such bill is SB 503 authored by Senator Josh Becker.
What problem/issue would the bill address?
California voters have increasingly utilized VBM ballots over the last decade. In late-September 2020, the Secretary of State (SOS) adopted emergency regulations pertaining to signature verification, ballots processing, and ballot counting. The regulations are effective from September 28, 2020, through July 28, 2021, unless extended. These regulations are designed to provide clear and uniform guidance to counties relating to verifying signatures on elections-related petitions, VBM identification envelopes, provisional ballot envelopes, ballot processing, and ballot counting.
The emergency regulations include a basic presumption that the signature on the petition or ballot envelope is the voter’s signature. The regulations further provide that exact matches are not required for an elections official to confirm a valid signature, and that elections officials may not review or consider a voter’s party preference, race, or ethnicity.
According to the author, SB 503 codifies and builds upon the emergency regulations intended to reduce the total number of rejected mail-in ballots. SB 503 sets standards for comparing signatures for all 58 counties so that every valid vote counts no matter where you reside. “Doing so will ensure we honor the votes of those with ability challenges, voters of color, and LEP (limited English proficiency) voters, who are more likely to face challenged and rejected mail-in ballots.”
What would the bill do?
SB 503 would provide an expanded and uniform statewide standard for signature verification for VBM ballot envelopes and would codify some of the SOS’s emergency regulations in statute, including provisions that apply a presumption, for the purposes of the comparison of signatures in the voter’s registration record, that the signature on the identification envelope, signature verification statement, unsigned ballot statement or provisional ballot envelope is the signature of the voter; that an exact signature is not required for an elections official to determine that the signature is valid; that the fact that signatures share similar characteristics is sufficient to determine the signature is valid; and that elections officials may not consider a voter’s party preference, race or ethnicity, when comparing signatures.
The bill would also provide that, when comparing signatures, an elections official needs to determine beyond a reasonable doubt that the signatures do not compare in order for a ballot to not be counted.
Additionally, the bill would require data related to the number of ballots rejected, categorized according to the reason for the rejection, to be included in the election results submitted by county elections officials to the SOS and would require the SOS to provide uniform reason codes for each category of rejection to be used by elections officials for reporting and that the SOS publish a report containing the information provided by elections officials on its internet website as soon as practicable after all information is received.
In the November 3, 2020 election, there were 15,423,301 VBM ballots cast. Although over 99% of returned ballots are accepted and counted, a number of VBM ballots were rejected for reasons such as a missing ballot from the envelop, multiple ballots being returned in one envelope, the ballot arriving after the deadline, or a missing signature or signature that does not compare with the signature on file.
According to data from the SOS, the November 2020 general election had 86,401 VBM ballots that were challenged. Of the 86,401 challenged VBM ballots, 14,666 ballots (16.97%) were rejected for a missing voter signature and 49,816 ballots (57.66%) were rejected for a signature that did not compare with the one on file. When combined, missing and non-comparing signatures amounted to 64,482 ballots or 74.63% of the total number of rejected ballots.
It should be noted that, because SB 503 is not an urgency statute, it would not take effect until January 1, 2022. That leaves a gap between the July 28, 2021 expiration date of the SOS’s emergency regulations and the effective date of the bill. The requirements would, therefore, not apply to a potential recall election held before the end of 2021. The gap could be filled, however, with a renewal of the emergency regulations.
In support of SB 503, the California Labor Federation stated that: “With the Governor having recently signed into law SB 29 (Umberg), which requires county elections officials to mail a ballot to every registered voter in all elections conducted prior to January 1, 2022, county elections offices will most likely see a higher rate of voters participate in VBM in elections this year. These reforms will help ensure transparency and allow voters to participate in a fair election process accessible for all voters.”
Also in support, Disability Rights California (DRC) stated that:
“Studies have shown that signature matches disproportionately impact voters with disabilities. Voters with disabilities, including seniors, are more likely to vote by mail and would have to sign their name on their ballots. A voter’s signature changes over time and for people with disabilities, a signature can change nearly every other time one is written. Some people with disabilities might have conditions that make it difficult to sign your name the same way multiple times. Some of these disabilities include epilepsy, cerebral palsy, vision impairment, and many others.
“Signature matches negatively impact voters from marginalized communities more often than any other. A signature match requirement is an additional unnecessary barrier that is detrimental for voters with disabilities. … [SB 503] would help voters with disabilities feel much more comfortable that they can do their best with the signature requirement. DRC advocates so that voters with disabilities have an opportunity to participate in a fair election process that is accessible for all voters. SB 503 will help make that become more of a reality.”
In opposing SB 503, the Election Integrity Project California, Inc. argued that:
“SB 503 would eviscerate any legitimate effort to determine a ballot’s legitimacy before counting, and would put indiscriminate and unrestricted power into the hands of a single elected official, the Secretary of State. …
“That kind of power should never be abdicated by the legislature, the people’s representatives, and handed over to any single individual.
“The mandates of SB 503 are antithetical to and destructive of election integrity. The voters of California deserve much better.”
SB 503 was passed by the Senate Committee on Elections and Constitutional Amendments on March 15th and is scheduled to heard in the Senate Appropriations Committee on March 22nd.
Eric Gelber, now retired, is a 1980 graduate of UC Davis School of Law (King Hall). He has nearly four decades of experience monitoring, analyzing, and crafting legislation through positions as a disability rights attorney, Chief Consultant with the Assembly Human Services Committee, and Legislative Director of the California Department of Developmental Services.
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