BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — Only about one third of ballots that go out come back. That’s when county officials start looking for fraud, ensuring votes are properly cast. They do this by validating a voter’s signature.

And while there may be concern voting by mail could lead to fraud, officials say cheating is very difficult.

“Say someone throws their ballot – they plan to not vote so they throw it in the trash – and then somebody gets it, okay, they still have to put a signature on the envelope,” Bedard said. “Well, they don’t know this stranger’s signature, they can’t forge that stranger’s signature, so when that ballot comes back, that signature isn’t going to match.”

That’s when the District Attorney’s office might get involved.

17 News looked at every voter fraud case in Kern County since 1986. We asked the DA’s office if there was any fraud in the 2020 election. The DA said there’s none that they know of.

In fact, the last voter fraud case prosecuted in Kern county stemmed from the 2018 election.

Court records show Lisa Hammond, a Republican, cast her son’s vote by mail ballot. Her son lived in Kern County but moved to Fresno. He registered to vote there and changed his address at the DMV just days before ballots were mailed.

Because it was so close to the election, her son received two ballots–one at his Fresno home and a Kern ballot at his parent’s home. He voted in Fresno. Hammond said she didn’t know he had voted there, so she cast his ballot in Bakersfield. She forged his signature on his Kern ballot.

About nine months later, after the 2018 election, the Secretary of State’s office noticed there were two ballots from the same person–one from Fresno and another from Kern–and the signatures didn’t match.

Hammond told investigators there was no ill intent and said she knows how he wanted to vote. Hammond was arrested in February 2020 and spent a couple days in jail. When the felony charge was reduced to a misdemeanor, she pleaded no contest to a charge of misusing voter registration information and paid a $500 fine.

While voter fraud happens in Kern, it’s rare. Only 56 people have been charged since 1956. And while there’s concern other fraud may go unnoticed, officials said widespread voter fraud can’t be done.

“I would say it’s impossible with all the controls we have in place, especially for widespread voter fraud,” Bedard said.

Does a ‘messy’ voter roll mean a ‘dirty’ one?

It all starts with the voter rolls–the list of more than 400,000 people registered to vote in Kern County.

Because of California’s universal vote-by-mail law, every person on this list is mailed a ballot every election.  

Mail-in ballots have been the source of concern for residents like Taft Republican Assembly president Vince Maiocco and Election Integrity Project Kern Coordinator Tom Pavich.

“The mail in ballots, that’s just to me, it’s just a recipe for disaster. It really is,” Maiocco said.

They are worried a ‘messy’ voter roll leads to mail-in ballots ending up in the wrong hands, leaving the possibility someone could vote twice or vote in place of someone else. 

“Dirty rolls equals dirty polls,” Pavich said.

Election officials acknowledge that voter rolls aren’t perfect. The list is fluid, constantly changing when people register, move away, die or update their information in any way. Reflecting those changes in the roll takes time. 

But does that mean ‘messy’ means ‘dirty’?

“I had heard a story that there were just under 200 People in Kern County that are no longer with us that actually, quote on quote, voted,” Maiocco said.

One of the main concerns is that dead people are still on Kern’s roll. 

Espinoza said the elections department takes voters off the active list when it receives health department reports of their deaths. 

But how reliable is that?

As a sample, 17 News went through every single death certificate in Kern County from March 2020 to March 2021. More than 6,000 people died that year. By hand, 17 News searched Kern’s voter roll for the name of every single one of those 6,000 people. We found death certificates for two people who appear to still be on Kern’s active registered voters list. Neither one is recorded as voting in the 2022 primary.  

We analyzed the voter registration list as of July 2022 and found 244 voters with the birth year 1900. That would make them 122 years old. Of those 244 voters, all but two have the birth date Jan. 1, 1900. 

“Registrations haven’t always required a birthday,” Espinoza said. “And so some of those registrations that were grandfathered in, if you will, unless someone re-registered. We don’t have that birthday.”

Espinoza said before the 1970’s, voters didn’t include their birthdays when registering to vote. If a person hasn’t updated his or her registration since then, the computer assigns the Jan. 1 1900 birth date by default. 

But that doesn’t mean some of those voters couldn’t be dead – especially if they registered to vote before the 1970’s, which would make them at least 70 years old in 2022. 

17 news called, mailed letters or knocked on the doors of each of the 71 people with the birthdate Jan. 1, 1900 who actually voted in the 2022 primary election to find out if they are alive. We heard back from 15. Their real birthdays ranged from 1920 to 1942 – all before the 1970’s when putting your birth date became a requirement. 

That still leaves 56 people who voted who did not get back to us. We don’t know if those people are alive. But it’s also key to remember they are 56 out of 113,560 who voted in Kern’s primary–less than 1 percent (0.0493 percent to be exact). 

“You could have as many as 1,000, 1,500 duplicates. Look at how close the auditor controller race was was and tell me that this is not an issue that’s well within that margin,” said Greg Perrone.

Another big concern with the voter rolls is the same person listed twice. That would mean the voter would receive two ballots at his or her house and could vote twice. 

Of the 113,560 who voted in the 2022 primary in Kern, we found 34 pairs of voters – 68 individual voters in total – who have the exact same name and address as another voter. 

Once again, we called, knocked on the door or mailed a letter to each one. We heard back from 28 voters or 14 pairs. In six cases, the two voters with the same name and address were a mother and daughter or grandmother and granddaughter. In one case, it was a husband and wife with the same name. The rest were father and sons who did not put suffixes of junior or senior.

“I was able to identify almost 200 former athletes that went to school at Taft college some as long as 15 years ago that were still on the voter roll,” Maiocco said. 

Here is where the accuracy of the voter roll gets the most tricky. 

“As far as someone moving away, we don’t, we don’t know that unless someone brings it to our attention,” Espinoza said. 

Espinoza said if a voter moves even to just another home in Kern County and doesn’t update their voter registration, that person’s ballot could be sent to the old address, leaving the possibility somebody else could get a hold of it. The post office, the DMV and other counties’ elections offices all communicate with one another if it appears someone has moved. But officially taking that person off Kern’s voter roll still requires confirmation from the voter. 

Just last month, Kern County District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer charged Fairfax School District Board of Trustees member Palmer Moland with voter fraud. Moland allegedly registered to vote at an address he did not actually live at and proceeded to vote in the 2018 and 2020 elections using that address.

Regarding dead people voting or the same person voting twice, it is a very small number. In the 2022 primary election, fewer than 200 people who had a birthday of 1900 or the same name and address as another voter did not get back to us to clarify their birthday or tell us why they had a relative at their address with the same name. Kern’s closest race in June had a difference of 289 votes. But there are aspects of the system, such as moving, that really do rely on voters to accurately follow the rules. 

How are fraudsters caught?

Millions of ballots have been counted at the county elections office over the past few decades. A few dozen came back fraudulent.

There have been 58 cases of voter fraud crimes in Kern since 1986. That’s a small fraction of one percent in total votes.

But the number one reason someone commits voter fraud has nothing to do with what they do with their ballot, it’s how they sign up.

In California, you have to be at least 18 years old on Election Day, a citizen of the United States and not serving a prison sentence.

About half of those charged with election-related crimes in Kern voted in elections but weren’t citizens. What’s surprising is how investigators found out.

In most cases, the illegal voters were caught when they tried to get out of jury duty. Non-citizens can’t serve on juries. But the court system uses voter registration rolls to find potential jurors. When someone told a judge they couldn’t serve on a jury because they weren’t a  citizen, investigators were tipped off. That led to the arrest and prosecution of a voter who committed fraud.

There are many opportunities for fraud to happen and occasionally, it does, as evidenced by the few dozen charges over the past 34 years. 

But 17 News went looking for more. We found two dead people receiving ballots, but their ballots were never counted. We also found apparent duplicates in the voter roll, but they were parents and children with the same names. We found ballots going all over the world, but were going to residents who were serving in the military or studying abroad.

The election system is not perfect. But through this investigation, 17 News found it would take a massive conspiratorial plan–and luck–to change the outcome of most elections.

Read about mail-in ballots and how they get processed.

Watch the full 30-minute special on voter security on TV-17 at 5 p.m.