Monday, June 20, 2016

Why I couldn't vote (despite my best efforts) on June 7, a.k.a. my loss of faith in Vote-By-Mail

I am a citizen and resident of West Los Angeles who was unable to vote in the June 7 primary election, despite my strong desire to vote, my accurate voter registration, and my considerable troubleshooting efforts.  Parts of my experience must not be uncommon, though the extent of my [ultimately unsuccessful] efforts to solve the problem may be atypically stubborn.

Knowing I would be in Vermont for a conference from June 5 to June 10 and thus unable to vote in person, I planned well in advance to vote by mail (VBM).  I have been registered for permanent VBM status for years and have used mail-in ballots successfully before, but in April I made sure that my registration was up to date with my current address.  On the first date that VBM ballots were issued, May 9, two were sent to me and to my husband Andrew, as shown in the online VBM status check.  By May 12, Andrew's sample ballot and official ballot had arrived, but mine had not.

Between May 14 and June 4, the following transpired:

1) I made five calls/emails to the registrar's voter help line (double-checking my address and registration status each time), resulting in the additional two ballots being issued to me on May 18 and June 1.  Nothing came in the mail.  Each individual I spoke or emailed with was polite and helpful, but unfortunately their system can neither track whether a ballot is delivered, nor edit a mailing address.

2) I submitted a new VBM registration form with an alternate mailing address, that of a friend's in the same postal code (thanks, Karthik!).  A later call to the registrar revealed that this second form submission did not go through.

3) I called my local post office and spoke with our mail carrier, who rather indignantly denied the possibility that any election mail might have gotten lost or re-routed as part of their workflow.  (To be fair, this didn't surprise me, as I have always believed that our mail carrier is a very reliable professional.  In fact, I have had a fondness for the postal system ever since I started sending and receiving mail.  I also believe, though, that the mail service in our postal code may be more prone to errors due to overextension.  Westwood + Holmby Hills + Brentwood were at some point consolidated into a single hub office, with a massive and dense service area.  There was that memorable time I mailed an entire batch of post-wedding thank-you notes which never reached their recipients....)

4) I visited the mailroom at my previous address, just in case some fluke of the postal system resulted in a re-routing of my ballots there.  But no, I was told, any wrong-address mail just gets returned to USPS, and thus should have gotten to me eventually.

At this point I was losing hope, but decided to keep poking at my unidentifiable problem as a matter of principle.

5) On June 1, I called one of the two Democratic presidential campaigns, under the assumption that either campaign had a vested interest in my voting in this election.  A very nice staffer (named Hillary, of all names!) listened patiently to my story, asked for my address and the dates my ballots were issued, and said she would call me back by the end of the day.  She called back a few hours later explaining that she had made some phone calls, and if none of the issued ballots reached me, then my only other option at this late date would be to vote early in person.

Voting early in person is something I learned about from my second phone call with the registrar.  Unfortunately, the only early voting location was the county registrar's office in Norwalk, a substantial drive - likely over an hour - from where I live in Westwood.  Taking off 2-3 hours to drive to Norwalk was not going to happen, especially on a weekday.  After a couple calls wherein I received conflicting information about open hours, I was told that early voting was available on the weekends.  By then, it was two days before I was going out of town, and adjusting my schedule to make the drive happen was impossible.

On Thursday, June 2, I received my sample ballot in the mail.  This was a tantalizing suggestion that election mail could, in fact, reach me!  But by the time I left LA on the evening of June 4, there was still no ballot in my mailbox.  I left town feeling quite disheartened, and followed the election returns the following Tuesday from Vermont with a constant frustration.  A kind of burn, if you will.

But the fun wasn't over yet, because when I returned home on June 10 and picked up my held mail at the post office, what should be in the pile of envelopes but my official VBM ballot.  Just one, out of the three that had been issued to me.  It had arrived a few days too late for me to actually use it and so felt, in Andrew's sympathetic words, like a slap in the face.  This ballot bore no re-routing stickers, nor any indication of when it might have been issued or why in the name of Benjamin Franklin (our nation's first Postmaster General) it took so long to get to me.

Like millions of other Californians, I have relied on the VBM system for multiple reasons.  Voters may lack the means or physical ability to get to a county registrar's office or any other polling place, or they may be out of town for an election.  In fact, according to the California Secretary of State, Vote-By-Mail ballots have comprised 58-69% of all primary election ballots between 2008 and 2014, and between 41 and 60% of all general election ballots in this state! (http://www.sos.ca.gov/elections/historical-absentee/

Problems with the VBM system in California have also been documented, including (but not limited to) problems with ballot delivery by the postal system.  (See: http://nyti.ms/1GhWXIZ, http://www.calvoter.org/issues/votereng/votebymail/study/execsummary.html.)  I completed every requirement for voting by mail, well in advance of all deadlines, I tried everything I could to troubleshoot this system and learn my options, I have no difficulty advocating for myself or my rights, and I still lost my right to vote.  The VBM system is critical for a large population of voters for any number of reasons, but this system failed me.

As I understand it, the VBM system is under the jurisdiction of individual counties, without any state funding, and I also understand that Los Angeles County faces enormous fiscal and logistical challenges across all sectors and scales of public services.  That said, and admitting limited perspective on feasibility, I believe the following would be significant improvements to the Los Angeles VBM system:

1) Delivery confirmation for VBM ballots.  Currently, the Los Angeles VBM system tracks issuance and receipt of the ballot from/to the registrar, but not delivery to the voter's address.  This was the critical step in my case, as far as I can tell.

2) Addition of at least one early voting site within West or Central Los Angeles, which would be accessible by public transportation, and would thus make it far easier for voters to vote early in person if necessary.

I will be in town for the general election in November, but I will still give VBM another try.  This time I am considering another VBM registration months in advance, with an entirely new alternate mailing address (most likely my parents, since they live in a small town with consistently reliable postal service).  Here's hoping that the system might work for me the next time around!

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