Briefing Report: California Electoral Reforms - The Diminution of Electoral Integrity

Wednesday, February 13, 2013


One of the most important functions of any electoral system is to ensure that only legally cast, legitimate votes are counted.  An electoral system that fails to do this can undermine the legitimacy of election results and thus the legitimacy of those elected to public office.  Unfortunately, this is exactly what has happened to California’s electoral system over the years, particularly in the last two, as the Democrats in the Legislature and Governor Brown have enacted a number of policies that minimize standards and place convenient voting and ease of ballot access above ballot security and electoral integrity.  While there are arguably some legitimate benefits from these policies, they are minimal, do not outweigh the costs, and come at a high price. This briefing report will consider the current state of California’s electoral system as it relates to electoral integrity by discussing some of the most egregious election reforms enacted over the last two years as well as their impact.1

Silencing the Opposition

Last session, on party-line votes, Democrats in the California Legislature passed SJR 29 (Yee, D-San Francisco); a resolution which, among other things, included incendiary language intimating that support for laws to improve the integrity of the electoral process is equivalent to support for racially based voter suppression. Nothing could be further from the truth.  To the contrary, most credible proponents of voter integrity laws want to ensure that the sacred right to vote is not undermined by cheating or the potential to cheat. They want to ensure that everyone who is legally eligible to vote is afforded the opportunity to exercise their sacred right to vote - once and only once.

SJR 29 was part of a national strategy (by those opposed to reforms that would improve the integrity of elections) to eliminate debate regarding electoral integrity with the accusation of racism. Once one side has been declared a racist, there is no longer any reasoned debate.  Without reasoned debate, policies that undermine the integrity of the electoral process advance without any critique or opposition. By working to silence legitimate debate, SJR 29 (and the national strategy behind it) has been instrumental to undermining the integrity of California’s electoral process.

Diminution and Elimination of Standards …When Convenience Trumps Integrity:

SJR 29 notwithstanding, the policies enacted in the last two years that have accelerated the diminution of electoral integrity in California can, generally speaking, be divided into two broad categories: 1) policies that reduce, minimize or eliminate standards in the electoral process.2 and 2) policies that prioritize convenience over integrity.3

Policies that lowered or eliminated standards over the last two years include the following Democrat-authored bills that were signed into law by Governor Brown:

  • AB 461 (Bonilla) requires, in the event of a manual recount, that a “liberal construction standard” be applied to counting ballots for write-in candidates if the “intent of the voter” can be determined regardless of whether voter instructions were followed.  Allowing write-in candidate votes to be counted when they are placed in the wrong voting space, or in violation of voting instructions, introduces the potential for unnecessary confusion, inconsistency, and non-uniformity into the vote counting process. It also introduces an unnecessary amount of subjectivity into the vote counting process. Subjectivity destroys the uniformity needed for fair vote counts (and recounts), as different county registrars will have differing abilities to “read the minds” of the voters who don’t follow voting instructions.
  • AB 503 (Block) relaxes rules for counting write-in candidate votes so that votes cast in violation of voting instructions may still be counted during the official canvass, if the "voter's intent can be determined," and if it is mathematically possible that the counting of all such ballots could change the result. This bill will have a similar impact as AB 461.
  • SB 183 (Correa) requires that a ballot be counted even if a voter puts personal identifying information on his or her ballot. This measure would allow anyone processing ballots to potentially know whose ballots they are processing, creating yet another opportunity for cheating, including the potential for vote buying.4
  • AB 1343 (Fong) allows vote by mail (VBM) voters to miss four consecutive statewide elections, instead of two, before losing their VBM status. By increasing the number of inactive voters who continue to remain of the rolls as VBM voters, this measure is a recipe for voter fraud.
  • AB 216 (Swanson), among other things, prohibits  local election officials from purging any inactive voter who fails to vote in four consecutive years, fails to respond to a residence confirmation postcard, and then fails to vote in the following two federal elections. It also precludes local elections official from removing any inactive voters for whom change-of-address data received from non-forwardable mailing indicates that the voter has moved and left no forwarding address. This measure is also a recipe for voter fraud and will further clog the voter rolls with “dead wood.”5

Policies implemented over the last two years that prioritize convenience over electoral integrity include the following Democrat-authored bills that were signed into law by Governor Brown:

  • SB 397 (Yee) required the implementation of an online voter registration system by the November 2012 election and prior to California’s launch of a Help America Vote Act (HAVA) compliant statewide voter registration database. A predecessor, SB 381 (Calderon, 2008), was contingent upon the launch of a HAVA compliant statewide voter registration database.  At least, this would have better ensured that a person registering online had not registered elsewhere and was legally eligible to vote. SB 397 further opens an already vulnerable voter registration system to an even greater potential for fraud, hacking and other security breaches.6
  • AB 1436 (Feuer) allows an individual to register and vote on the same day (a.k.a. "Same Day Voter Registration"). Voter registration deadlines are in place to provide elections officials a reasonable opportunity to verify registration information. This was one of the few mechanisms in place to protect against electoral fraud.
  • AB 2080 (Gordon) eliminates  the requirement that a voter must be physically unable to return the VBM ballot in order to allow a third person to return the ballot on his or her behalf (thereby allowing specified third parties to handle such ballots even if the voter is not sick or disabled). Such limits may be inconvenient for some able-bodied adults, but it is a necessary inconvenience to protect against fraud. In the words of Governor Davis in his veto message of a similar bill from 2001 (AB 462, Karnette), “…This bill would weaken the most important safeguard against fraud by allowing virtually anyone to handle an official ballot on behalf of a voter…”


Ensuring ballot security and electoral integrity, while at the same time providing for convenient voting, is a balancing act. Sadly, as demonstrated above, the current state of California’s electoral system, in the area of electoral integrity, is out of balance and thus seriously compromised. Obviously, we need an election system that better balances electoral integrity and appropriate standards with convenience. Without it, Californians will continue to be justified in questioning whether their sacred right to vote has been undermined and compromised by illegitimate votes after each election.

For more information on this report or other Election issues, contact Cory Botts, Senate Republican Office of Policy at 916/651-1501.

1 To list every single policy that undermines electoral integrity in California enacted over the last two years would require a much longer and more in-depth report. In the interest of brevity, this report will only mention the most egregious reforms.
2 These policies also represent yet more examples of nanny government unnecessarily stepping into protect people from their own failure to act responsibly. For example, the law before the enactment of SB 183 (see body of report for more on SB 183) required that the instructions for voting which appear on the ballot include the following warning and instruction, "All distinguishing marks or erasures are forbidden and make the ballot void." "If you wrongly stamp, tear, or deface this ballot, return it to the precinct board member and obtain another." There is nothing unclear or ambiguous about this warning or these instructions. Any voter who failed to read and follow these instructions did so at their own peril.
3 It is important to note that often a policy that fits in one category can have the effect of bringing about the other category, e.g. eliminating a standard may make it even easier and more convenient to vote.
4 This was the primary reason for precluding identifying information in the first place.
5 An essential component of any efficient and fair election is a clean voter roll. This measure would hamstring the ability of county elections clerks to keep the voter rolls clean. Moreover, every inactive voter registration is a potential fraudulent vote in waiting. This measure would allow these potential fraudulent votes to remain on the rolls indefinitely, thereby substantially increasing the potential for voter fraud.
6 It also increases the potential for adding to the significant amount of ineligible voters (“dead wood”) already on the voter rolls (i.e. names of the deceased, convicted felons, former residents who have moved, duplicate registrations, fraudulent registrations etc.).  Because, for the most part, ID is not verified either at the polls or when voting by mail, any amount of “deadwood” on the voter rolls is an invitation for serious voting fraud.