Why mail-in ballots are confusing some Riverside County voters

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Change in appearance has sparked complaints; election officials offer new ballots if requested

SARAH HOFMANN | Contributed

Mail-in ballots for the March 5 election have started to arrive and in Riverside County are causing some confusion. Some residents are having trouble seeing the ovals, or bubbles, printed next to candidates’ names, and said they aren’t sure how to mark their choices.

Palm Springs resident Jeannette Dreisbach said that, when she opened her ballot this week, she didn’t see any ovals. Dreisbach called the Riverside County Registrar of Voters, where she said an employee told her to look at the ballot again — under a bright light. The ovals were there, Dreisbach said, but hard to see.

Her family’s ballots looked the same, she said. “I said, ‘Well, most people are not going to take it up to a bright light’,” she said Thursday, Feb. 8, voicing concern about whether voters would be able to complete ballots accurately. “You’d think there’d be a heavy emphasis on that outline,” she said Friday, Feb. 9, likening the situation to a basketball player who can’t see the hoop.

Riverside County voting officials said no ballots are missing the ovals, but they may be harder to see than usual. As of midday Friday, the registrar’s office had received about 33 calls and emails about the issue, spokesperson Elizabeth Florer said. Voters who can’t see the ovals can request that the office print a new ballot, on which the ovals’ lines will be thicker, she said.

The office “will provide the ballot in the most convenient way” for the voter. The registrar has received about 7,000 completed vote-by-mail ballots as of about 5 p.m. Friday, Florer said. In San Bernardino County, the Registrar of Voters “has not received any complaints” about ballot ovals, spokesperson Melissa Eickman said in a Friday email. As in Riverside County, San Bernardino County’s ballots have ovals “printed with light red ink,” which Eickman said has been used since the March 3, 2020, election.

Dreisbach said she hopes the Riverside County registrar’s office will have some kind of response. “People make mistakes, but the mistakes can be interpreted as fraud,” she said, referring to national concerns about voter fraud. Some have expressed worry about voting systems in recent years, though many officials have said there’s no evidence that voting machines have lost or changed votes.

An Associated Press investigation found fewer than 475 cases of fraud among the six states called into question during the 2020 presidential election, for example. Similarly, an investigation of Riverside County’s 2020 election process found no signs of fraud, though some are still unconvinced. Riverside County has seen election issues in recent years.

In 2020, duplicate ballots were mailed to about 42,000 Riverside County residents. Similarly, in San Bernardino County, 27,000 duplicate ballots were sent that year. And, in 2021, about 11,000 Riverside County special election ballots were mailed to voters too late to be counted. About a week ago, on Friday, Feb. 2, the county tested its voting system, which reassured some who observed the process. Days ago, the Riverside County Board of Supervisors considered, but then withdrew, a plan Tuesday, Feb. 6, that was intended to improve voter confidence in part by manually inspecting 2% of ballots instead of the current 1%. As for the ovals’ different appearance, Riverside County officials said it was caused by a vendor.

Riverside County’s vote-by-mail ballots were printed by ProVoteSolutions, which is based in Tulare County. The company’s website states that it “produces approximately 35 million ballots for 42 counties in multiple states.” Its president, Paul Mantey, sent a statement to Riverside County Registrar of Voters Art Tinoco on Friday.

The company found that the ballot artwork from the voting system vendor, which was used for the printed ballots, had thinner ovals than have previously been on ballots, Mantey said, which resulted in the lighter appearance. The same change occurred on all of Riverside County’s vote-by-mail ballots, which were mailed to the county’s 1.3 million registered voters earlier this month — though some will vote in person on Election Day. Ballots at the polls will have clearer ovals, Florer said.

The bubble’s color isn’t new. “We always print (the ovals) in red,” though they may appear pink to some, Florer said. “The ballot scanner is unable to read red ink,” she wrote on Friday, “therefore, it will only pick up what the voter intended using blue or black ink.” The use of red ink helps ensure voting integrity and accuracy, she said, and the color provides a contrast across different-colored ballots.

Information: Riverside County Registrar of Voters, 951-486-7200.

More ballot and election information is available by clicking on voteinfo.net.

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