A blunder has left thousands of San Francisco voters holding the wrong mail-in ballot for the June 8 election, in which pivotal primaries for statewide offices are at stake, along with the outcomes of local and state propositions.
Election officials in The City are now scrambling to sort through the chaos as the clock ticks down to the statewide election, which includes propositions such as the requirement for voter approval to begin a power program like the one The City is currently working on.
There are roughly 175,000 residents in The City who vote by mail-in ballot, according to the Elections Department. Each ballot that’s mailed to a voter’s home has their name printed on the return envelope along with a barcode. The information on the envelope allows the department to check the voter’s signature, which must match one on file from registration cards.
Last week, K&H Integrated Print Solutions, based in Everett, Wash., mailed out ballots with the wrong names to at least 1,000 voters, according to John Arntz, director of the Elections Department.
“It’s a small number, but at the same time, every vote does count and certainly that is a concern,” Arntz said.
In addition, the company sent out duplicate ballots to 1,317 absentee voters, he said.
Arntz said they are working to contact voters who may have received the wrong ballots, but neither the Elections Department nor K&H can confirm how many voters were mailed the wrong ballot, in what districts the mistakes were made or how the error can be traced. The only way of knowing for certain is if voters are calling the Elections Department and reporting it themselves, said David Haines, vice president of K&H.
Under current state law, the company is not required to notify the state about printing errors, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.
Haines said the duplicate ballots were a simple mistake: They were quarantined at the beginning of the process and instead of being discarded, they were mailed to voters. As for the ballot mix-up, Haines said he still isn’t sure how it happened.
The Elections Department had sent an employee to the printer to oversee the process as a safeguard to ensure nothing went wrong. In this case, Arntz said, the employee did not find any mistakes while overseeing production.
“At this point, we have not determined exactly what went wrong, but it appears that somewhere around 1,000 envelopes were addressed to the person right before them in line,” Haines said.
The Elections Department first started receiving calls May 12, two days after the first ballots were mailed, Arntz said. By Friday, the call volume increased to 30 as more voters started reporting they had either received two ballots or the wrong ballot. At that point, Arntz said they realized it was a much bigger problem affecting more than a handful of voters.
“We didn’t know,” Arntz said. “Just because we get a phone call, we don’t know that it’s something affecting 1,000 voters.”
The department was drafting a letter Tuesday to send to voters who received duplicate ballots, warning them of the situation.
It’s also planning to send a letter to those who might have received the wrong ballot once they have identified those voters. Voters with the wrong ballots are being asked to contact the Elections Department.
The department will cross-reference all mail-in ballot signatures with those on file in its database, which Arntz said is done in each election. This will ensure that there was no fraudulent voting and that nobody voted twice, Arntz said.
“We can tell if the signature is forged,” he said. “I’m fairly confident we will get a sense of who is potentially affected. If it comes down to it, we will reissue ballots.”
The City hired K&H last year, paying the company $148,000, according to the Elections Department.
State and local officials are unsure of how the ballot blunder will affect the June 8 election, but speculation includes affecting turnout or nullifying votes.
The San Francisco Elections Department confirmed Tuesday that at least 1,000 mail-in ballots containing the wrong names were sent out.
This bungle is exactly why Secretary of State Debra Bowen is pushing to change election laws. She sponsored legislation that would require ballot-printing vendors to report to the state any problems with printed documents. On Monday, the state Senate passed the legislation, which is now headed to the Assembly, said Shannan Velayas, spokeswoman for the Secretary of State’s Office.
“This lack of disclosure can result in serious election delays or jeopardize or nullify votes in counties,” Velayas said.
Matt Dorsey, press secretary for City Attorney Dennis Herrera, said their office is prepared to advise the Elections Department of legal questions, but at this point he said the issue is operational rather than legal.
Although it’s still unclear how big of a problem this is, 1,000 ballots in question are enough to affect voter participation and election outcomes, according to Jim Ross, a local political consultant.
“It’s already tough enough to get people to vote even in the best of circumstances,” Ross said. “But when you make them have to solve a problem to vote, a lot of voters will give up.”
What’s even more problematic is that central-committee races are oftentimes decided by 10 or 20 votes, Ross said, referring to the Republican and Democratic bodies that are elected in each county.
“So if you have a few thousand votes that are in question or there is an issue, it might give cause for a candidate to challenge the outcome of the race,” Ross said.
Elections Department head John Arntz said he’s certain his agency will resolve the problem and that he can still reissue ballots the Saturday before the election.
“There is definitely time to get all this remedied,” Arntz said.
— Erin Sherbert
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