BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — Printed, sealed and in the mail. For most people these days, the mailbox is the ballot box.
“Well before 2020, a majority of people were voting by mail,” said Mary Bedard.
Voting by mail is not new. People have been casting absentee ballots for decades., but you had to notify the elections office ahead of time. Coronavirus changed that.
Now, every registered voter gets a ballot in the mail even if they didn’t ask for it or haven’t voted in years.
Over two months, 17 News examined Kern’s voter rolls. There are 917,673 residents in Kern County, according to the latest census data. Of the 645,000 adults, 440,000 are registered to vote. Monday, ballots for each of those registered voters were sent in the mail.
Do all ballots stay in Kern County?
Nearly all ballots will stay in Kern County, but thousands of others will end up in mailboxes all over the world.
“So there are different reasons why people would be able or you’d see those ballots going out of Kern County and then coming back, because, again, residents have the right to vote for our local races, and then obviously in state and federal races to vote in those as well,” said Aimee Espinoza, assistant registrar of voters in Kern and set to take over the department next year.
Nearly 1,700 ballots leave Kern but stay in the United States. Most end up in the Bay Area or Southern California. Another 1,600 will head to the other 49 states. But 637 ballots will travel overseas.
“I was in Spain at the time of the primary election,” said Haylee McDonnell, a Kern County resident who voted abroad in primary election.
McDonnell lives in Bakersfield but was abroad during the June primary. She still wanted to cast her ballot.
“Since I turned 18, I have always made a point to vote,” McDonnell said. “I think it’s important to exercise that right, like I’m thankful to have it. And even though I was abroad at the time of the election, it was a primary election that would be affecting the election, the general election that’s happening this fall.”
The ballots sent out Monday will end up in Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and South America. The furthest ballot will travel more than 10,000 miles to Johannesburg, South Africa.
In the 2020 presidential election, about half of the ballots that left Kern County came back to be counted. Of those, 700 were Democratic votes and 650 were Republican votes.
“Some people live out of the country, maybe half the time or part of a portion of the year, but they have a residence here in Kern County,” Espinoza said. “Or they go vacation. And so, you know, of course, we want everyone to be able to vote and they were going to be gone, the entire time ballots went out.”
But you don’t have to be outside of Kern to have your ballot mailed to a different address. 17 News found ballots sent to jail.
Seven June Primary ballots were sent to the Lerdo pre-trial facility. Five incarcerated voters were registered as Democrat, one was registered as a Republican and one other as a No Party Preference voter.
Most are charged with misdemeanors like domestic violence, vandalism or being drunk in public. But we there were also two voters charged with murder and awaiting their trials.
One man is charged for shooting and killing another many five years ago. He is registered as a Democrat.
The other is accused of killing his father and assaulting his mother just before Christmas five years ago. He is registered as a Republican.
Both accused murderers voted in their cells in past elections while they wait for their trials, both set to begin in the next few weeks.
Jeremy: “the entire constitution is calibrated to protect individual liberty, you are supposed to have individual liberty unless it has been shown that you violated the social contract in some way. And then you can be punished in some way…So if you’re sitting there waiting for a trial, then that voting rights cannot be taken.”
You’ve sent your vote. What happens next?
“When we’re talking about mailing ballots, drop boxes, it comes down to the signature verification and that person deciding if those signatures match or do they not match,” Maiocco said.
To vote-by-mail, a voter must fill out the anonymous ballot, seal it inside the envelope provided by the elections department and sign the outside of the envelope.
Signature verification is the process in which election officials check to make sure the signature on the envelope matches the voter’s signature the county has on file.
Espinoza said the election officials check the signatures on the outside of the ballot envelope and thus do not know who the person voted for or the voter’s party affiliation at any point during the signature verification process. The person’s name or signature does not appear anywhere on the physical ballot.
If a signature is rejected, the voter is sent a letter with a chance to sign again and submit a new signature to be checked .
You might be thinking your own signature rarely looks the same every time.
How can the department ensure every signature it approves is in fact the person who is supposed to be voting?
“Simple answer is we can’t,” Espinoza said. “We can’t go and hand deliver each ballot and make sure that the person who the ballot is addressed to is filling that out and returning it to us.”
But Espinoza explains Kern’s election officials are trained by Larry Liebscher, a former investigator for Redding police department’s forensic crimes unit.
Donna Johnston, President for the California Association of Clerks and Elections Officials, coordinates the training and said employees are taught to look for specific elements of a signature that typically stay the same every time.
“Whether or not somebody dots, their I’s, crosses their T’s a certain way, whether or not their signature generally floats above the signature line stays on the line drops down a little below the line, the slant is consistent,” Johnston said.
Johnston said each time a voter signs a ballot or submits another signature to the DMV, the elections department keeps that signature on file. That means the department could have 5 or 10 signatures for one person. That allows the department to track a person’s signature over time, instead of just relying on the first signature a voter ever submitted.
“As far as the security that we can provide on our end, we are doing all that we can to make sure that that signature matches,” Espinoza said.
For the first time this November, the county will use computer software to perform the first round of signature checks.
Ballots are not counted when the department determines the signature on the ballot does not match or the ballot arrived too late. In the 2022 primary election, Kern had 568 such ballots and 549 were challenged due to signature. Of those 549, 211 were because the voter simply did not sign the ballot envelope and 338 were rejected because the signature did not match.
“The Dominion voting system, that’s the one thing that I really have concerns about,” Maiocco said.
After the signature is checked, the vote still needs to be tallied. Kern’s use of Dominion machines to count votes has become one of the most contentious parts of elections, especially after the county extended its contract with Dominion in the 11th hour, leaving supervisors with little choice but to approve the extension.
“Dominion voting systems machines are very susceptible to hacking or, you know, online irregularities,” Maiocco said.
Espinoza said Kern’s machines are kept in a locked room under 24 hour surveillance year-round that only three people have access to.
“It’s a closed network,” Espinoza said. “So all of those machines are on one server that is not connected to the internet, nor is it connected to any other network in the county. It is all stand alone.”
In order for someone to change votes or connect the machines to the internet, Espinoza explains they would have to gain access to the building, gain access to the office, gain access to the locked tabulator room, divert security cameras and guess the passwords.
Espinoza said the elections office also has a safeguard where it hand counts one percent of ballots at a precinct selected randomly to check the accuracy of the machines.
Watch the full 30-minute special on voter security on TV-17 at 5 p.m.