You’re hearing a lot more about election integrity — for a lot of reasons.
Since the 2020 election, the issue has been fueled by the “Big Lie” — the baseless claim still touted by former President Donald Trump and his allies that the election was stolen — and the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol and its aftermath.
Questioning election integrity has also become a political strategy: In the effort last year to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom, Republican candidate Larry Elder said he was concerned about fraud and started a website to collect tips even before the votes were counted.
While experts agree that there is no widespread voter fraud and California Secretary of State Shirley Weber told CalMatters there is no evidence of frequent instances, there have been scattered attempts to cheat. In 2020, for example, the California Republican Party admitted placing more than 50 fake ballot drop boxes in Los Angeles, Fresno and Orange counties. In August 2021, during the recall election, a 34-year-old man stole 300 ballots from a Postal Service vehicle in Torrance as part of a bank fraud and identity theft scheme. The ballots, which were unopened, were canceled and new ones sent to the voters.
There are a number of checks and balances to ensure no one can game the system. The Secretary of State’s office and the 58 county election offices say they are working to reassure voters that voting systems are secure.
“I think you have to stay concerned because if you ever get to the point where you’re not concerned and you’re not looking at everything and you’re not listening to everything, then that’s when you end up with a number of problems,” said Weber, who took over as the state’s chief election officer in January 2021.
Kim Alexander, president of the nonpartisan California Voter Foundation, said the state has one of the most secure voting processes in the country. And in a September survey, 63% of likely voters said they have a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in how votes are cast and counted in California. That’s a record high in the Public Policy Institute of California poll, and up significantly from the record-low voter confidence of 42% in September 2019.
“There’s a big difference between what you might imagine could happen and what actually does happen,” she said. “I’m certainly not hoping that voters will just blindly follow whatever their elections officials say. That’s not how democracy works. But election officials bend over backwards to make the process as transparent and accessible as possible.”
Election integrity is the idea that voting must be free and fair for all. There are federal laws on election fraud, plus requirements in the California constitution.
For example, here are examples of what counts as voter fraud:
- Giving false information when registering to vote, including in the name of someone who is dead.
- Voting, or attempting to vote, despite being ineligible, or helping someone else try to do so.
- Voting or attempting to vote more than once, or using someone else’s name to vote.
- Changing a ballot, if you’re delivering it for someone else.
- Receiving money or a gift for voting.
- Threatening someone to stop them from voting, or to vote a certain way.
Examples of fraud by election officials:
- For a precinct board member to open or try to open a ballot, or mark a ballot to figure out who the person voted for.
- To tamper with a voting machine, or fail to notify the Secretary of State before there is any change to a voting machine.
Fraud by campaigns and candidates:
- Campaigning within 100 feet of a polling place.
- Using taxpayer funds for campaigning.
- Not disclosing who pays for advertisements — TV, radio, online or print.
If you think you spot fraud:
- Report it online to the Secretary of State, or call (916) 657-2166.
- Report campaign ads that don’t say, or have incorrect information, who is funding it to the Fair Political Practices Commission.
Election officials in California and many other states are paying more attention to fighting bogus claims of voter fraud. “We’re in a period of enormous allegations and issues that are brought forward. And so we don’t take any of them lightly,” Weber told CalMatters. “But we try to respond to them quickly so that they don’t spread.”
Here are some of the most common myths:
Claims of ballots being sent to the wrong place or to someone who died can fuel rumors of fraud. Logistical mishaps do happen, especially when people move a lot. But there’s a state database that shows whether someone’s ballot has already been submitted in another county. The Secretary of State’s office also updates voter lists regularly, cross-checking them with state and local death records, prison records and address changes.
In last year’s recall election, claims surfaced about whether holes in ballot envelopes could be used to see how someone voted. The holes are to help those with vision impairments know where to sign their ballot. They also help ensure no ballot is left uncounted inside an envelope.
In California, it’s legal for registered voters to designate someone to return their ballot for them, as long as there is no compensation involved. Republicans have opposed the practice, citing a lack of safeguards. That’s where signature verification applies. If the voter’s signature on the ballot and their registration don’t match, the county will reach out to the voter. If someone is caught manipulating ballots, they can be prosecuted.
Voters often encounter misinformation about their ballots not being counted — for example, that provisional ballots are only counted in close races, or that mail ballots are thrown out if they arrive after Election Day. Both are false. You can track your ballot to see that it’s counted.
During the 2020 presidential election, Trump falsely claimed voting machines made by Dominion Voting deleted “millions of votes” cast for him. There was one known error in Michigan involving a Dominion machine, but it was by an election official.
No voting equipment can be connected to the internet, to ensure cybersecurity. Voting machines in California have higher security standards than the federal government, according to the California Voter Foundation.
The new law enacted last year to send every registered voter a ballot in the mail was a major change to California elections. This year, three other reforms were also signed into law:
- Senate Bill 1131 by Sen. Josh Newman, a Democrat from Fullerton, allows election workers to keep their addresses confidential to protect them from harassment. A report from the California Voter Foundation notes that 15% of local election officials have left the job since November 2020.
- Assembly Bill 2815 by Assemblymember Marc Berman, a Democrat from Menlo Park, requires vote by mail ballot drop-off locations at California State University campuses.
- AB 1631 by Assemblymember Sabrina Cervantes, a Democrat from Riverside, requires county election offices to post on their websites a list of precincts where there are officials who speak a language other than English and can help voters.
One bill that failed — for at least the fourth time since 2012 — was the latest effort to expand online voting. While supporters say that will make voting more accessible, others oppose the idea due to its security risks.
And while new laws can improve the voting process, Ryan Ronco, president of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials, said some consistency for a few elections would ease the workload on elections officials, and also allow candidates and voters to “understand what the rules are right now … and not feel like things will be changed as they’re playing the game.”
Anyone can be an election observer, including representatives of political parties and of nonpartisan groups such as the League of Women Voters. You can sign up through your county elections office.
Allowing the public to see each step of the voting process — from equipment testing through ballot counting — is one significant way to ensure integrity. Observers must follow some rules: Signing in and out, wearing a badge at all times, and not taking photos or using cell phones while in a polling place.
But the proliferation of election fraud claims is leading to more incidents of harassment by election observers of official poll workers. In late September, the California Voter Foundation held an online briefing for election and law enforcement officials on ways to defuse conflicts at polling sites. Weber said any attacks on poll workers will be fully prosecuted. “If you allow that to happen, you really get to begin to destroy the democracy,” she said.
Poll workers set up polling places, respond to voters’ questions and protect ballots and voting equipment. But due to the fears of harassment, as well as ongoing concerns about COVID-19, it hasn’t been easy to recruit poll workers. Any U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident can be a poll worker, including high school students 16 and older who have at least a 2.5 GPA. Poll workers receive a stipend that varies by county. In Los Angeles County, it’s $100 a day, plus $80 for training time.
“Most polling place workers are retired,” Ronco said. “They have other options and may not want to argue with people about the politics of the day, or put themselves in a position where they’re going to be stressed out.”
Yet, in these hyperpartisan times, some even worry that right-wing activists will try to infiltrate the ranks of poll workers, undermining security and public trust.
Other words you may be hearing a lot this election — misinformation and disinformation. While they are often used interchangeably, there’s a key difference — the intent of the person spreading it.
Misinformation is any kind of false information, including what people pass along out of confusion or by mistake. Disinformation is false information that’s spread deliberately, and sometimes covertly, to influence public opinion or obscure the truth.
Here are some efforts to combat misinformation and disinformation:
- The Secretary of State’s office has a rumor control team that monitors false information and responds to it. It also has a #VoteSafeCA social media campaign providing correct information.
- Weber’s office is also taking part in a bipartisan campaign by the National Association of Secretaries of State to promote trust in elections.
- And Weber is supporting candidates in other states whom she says will uphold impartial elections.
- California’s Fair Political Practices Commission has an AdWatch campaign to monitor violations by campaigns and candidates, such as misleading information.
- There are also local efforts, including by the Coalition of Bay Area Election Officials. Registrars of voters and county clerks in nearly a dozen counties have teamed up to curb misinformation and promote public trust.
- The News Literacy Project, a nonpartisan education nonprofit, has webinars and a podcast to help people learn to spot disinformation.
From CalMatters politics intern Ariel Gans: Social media and technology platforms are hotspots for spreading false claims, yet there are no government regulations on how they address them. Building on what they did in 2020, Facebook, YouTube, TikTok and Twitter are all boosting more reliable information around candidates and voting in their users’ feeds. They’re also removing false claims, labeling falsehoods and, in some cases, discouraging users from spreading them.
Going into the 2022 election, none of the top platforms completely ban election misinformation or have a distinct disinformation policy, according to a study from the Anti-Defamation League. The efforts are also lacking transparency: None of the platforms allow third parties to fully audit their efforts.
Starting with the 2020 election, both Twitter and TikTok have blocked political ads in the final days of campaigning. Facebook will ban new ones during the week before Election Day. Google has also previewed new features that will elevate reliable sources in election-related searches.
In August, Twitter renewed its civic integrity policy, allowing the platform to label and restrict tweets containing misleading election information. Also in August, TikTok, whose user base jumped from 700 million to 1.5 billion since the second quarter of 2020, launched an elections center that will connect users to reputable election information.
But protecting voters at this scale comes with challenges, experts say. For example, fact-checking can be time-intensive. And when platforms do remove unreliable content, users can get suspicious and seek out unmonitored information elsewhere. Labeling this content, on the other hand, can cause information to spread even further, a New York University study found.
A voter fills out their ballot at a voting site at the Hamilton School gymnasium in central Fresno on June 7, 2022. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local
- You are eligible to vote if you’re a U.S. citizen living in California, at least 18 years old and you’re registered where you currently live.
- You can vote as long as you’re in line when polls close.
- You have the right to cast a secret ballot.
- You have the right to a new ballot if you have made a mistake, if you haven’t already cast your ballot.
- You can get help casting your ballot from anyone other than your employer or union representative.
- You have the right to ask questions to elections officials about election procedures and watch the election process.
- You have the right to report any illegal or fraudulent election activity to an elections official or the Secretary of State’s office.