For the first time in California history, every single registered voter in the state is set to have a ballot delivered to their home, enabling every Tri-Valley voter to cast their ballot remotely during the pandemic.
While some locally and nationally have publicly cast doubts on the security and validity of voting absentee, local county officials maintain that in California voting by mail is safe, secure and, according to some, superior to voting in person.
"Voting by mail is absolutely more secure and safer than voting in person in California," said Scott O. Konopasek, assistant registrar of voters in Contra Costa County. "Californians need to remember that we've been doing this for a long time and every elected official in California right now, and in the past 20 years, was elected primarily by votes cast through the mail."
"There's a lot of messages about voting by mail on the national level, but in California we've had voting by mail for many years. So it's not new to us," added Alameda County Registrar of Voters Tim Dupuis. "We are definitely equipped."
Initiated in response to the health dangers posed by the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Gavin Newsom on May 8 signed an executive order requiring that each county elections official send vote-by-mail ballots to all registered voters for the Nov. 3 general election.
"Elections and the right to vote are foundational to our democracy," Newsom said in a statement. "No Californian should be forced to risk their health in order to exercise their right to vote."
Some critics of the order have claimed that the move would result in widespread cases of fraudulent voting; however, historically, cases of alleged fraudulent ballots are low in California -- which has had more than half of its voters use vote-by-mail for over a decade -- and county officials have safety procedures in place to ensure an accurate and legitimate election count.
One of the first things local election officials check when tallying a mailed-in ballot is if the person sending it has already voted. If there are two ballots for the same voter -- voters may ask the county for a second ballot if their first was lost or destroyed -- or someone sends in a ballot and then attempts to vote in-person, officials said they are equipped with systems to detect the incident.
So long as the first ballot received was validated, the second one received would be disqualified.
"Once we receive that ballot and validate it, we mark the database saying a vote has been received for that voter. And so if the voter were to try and vote a second time, the system will know that we already received a ballot from that voter," Dupuis said.
Voting twice is a felony prohibited in all 50 states, and under California law may result between 16 months and three years imprisonment, according to the Poynter Institute.
Elections officials are also equipped with systems and policies to ensure that the person sending the ballot is the correct registered voter.
According to Konopasek, when a ballot is returned to election officials, it is scanned with the signature on the envelope and compared to the signature from the voter's registration on file.
"Believe it or not, signatures are just as identifying as a thumb print; they really don't change. A match is an obvious match 99.99% of the time," Konopasek added. "If the (elections staffer) is uncertain or has any questions or hesitations, the ballot is set aside to be reviewed by a supervisor."
If a signature is not a match or the voter forgot to provide their signature (one of the leading reasons why votes are not counted, according to Konopasek), they will be sent a notice from the county, giving the voter the opportunity to rectify the situation before Election Day.
Enacting these policies are old hat for Tri-Valley election officials, who point out that the majority of California voters have been voting by mail for years.
"Our permanent vote-by-mail voters have been climbing election cycle after election cycle," Dupuis said. "We've also seen a tremendous increase in the number of people registering as permanent vote-by-mail voters."
According to Dupuis, 565,000 of Alameda County's 888,000 voters were already registered as permanent vote-by-mail voters in 2016. As of Sept. 25, Alameda County had 936,000 registered voters, with 760,000 registered as permanent vote-by-mail voters -- Dupuis added that Alameda County may have 1 million registered voters by Nov. 3.
Contra Costa County had similarly high vote-by-mail voters, with more than 75% of registered voters already doing so prior to the governor's order, according to Konopasek.
Additionally, statewide 4,834,975 voters, or 67.7%, voted by mail in the 2018 midterm election, according to the California Secretary of State, the seventh consecutive election where the majority of voters used vote-by-mail.
While every registered voter will receive a ballot, traditional in-person voting on Election Day will still remain an option.
In past elections voters, have been assigned to a specific voting location where they had to go if they wanted to vote in-person; new to this year, however, voters seeking to vote in-person can do so at any location in their county -- so long as they wear face masks and follow social-distancing protocols.
"Four days before the election is when in-person voting opportunities start. Rather than having 'polling locations,' we're going to be having 'accessible vote locations,'" Dupuis said. "In this election you can go to any accessible vote locations, we are going to have 100 locations that people can use the Saturday before the election."
Dupuis added that a variety of in-person voting options are still available, including curbside voting for Alameda County voters at the Oakland Coliseum.
"We also want people to vote safely and feel that they have safe options, and the way that the November election is laid out, they have a lot of options to get those votes in safely to us," Dupuis said.
Also a part of the governor's May order and in response to concerns over the U.S. Postal Service's ability to handle an influx in vote-by-mail ballots, election officials will be receiving ballots up to 17 days after the election -- so long as they are postmarked on or before Nov. 3.
And while both Tri-Valley county elections leaders have expressed confidence in their department's ability to handle an influx in ballots, they have also issued pleas for residents to vote as early as possible.
"People can certainly drop off their ballots on Election Day, but if they feel comfortable with it, we would like them to vote early," Dupuis said. "Those vote-by-mail ballots that we get early, we are able to queue up and those are the first votes tallied shortly after 8 p.m. on Election Night ... So if you get your vote in early, you will very likely be a part of that initial tally that gets posted."
Ballots officially began to be sent to every California voter this Monday -- although Contra Costa County sent out its ballots early on Thursday. Voters can track their ballots online via the "Where's My Ballot" function on www.sos.ca.gov/elections.
To provide voters with secure drop-off locations, Contra Costa County Elections Division has installed several secure locations throughout the San Ramon Valley -- which can be used by any county voter, regardless of where they live.
In Alamo, county voters are welcome to use the secure drop off box at the Alamo Plaza Shopping Center, 190 Alamo Plaza.
In Danville secure ballot drop off locations can be found at the Danville Park & Ride on the Sycamore Valley Road and the Interstate 680 exit, and at the Danville Maintenance Service Center, 1000 Sherburne Hills Road.
San Ramon has five county issued ballot drop of locations, which can be found at San Ramon City Hall, 7000 Bollinger Canyon Road, Alcosta Senior and Community Center, 9300 Alcosta Blvd., San Ramon Permit Center, 2401 Crow Canyon Road, the San Ramon Community Center, 12501 Alcosta Blvd., and the Dougherty Station Community Center, 17011 Bollinger Canyon Road.
"With all of the uncertainty with the flu and post office and fires and power shutdowns, why would you wait until the very last day to vote if it is really important to you," Konopasek added. "Please vote the ballot that we mail to you and please return it as early as you can."
The last day to register to vote in order to receive a mail-in ballot is Oct. 19, although residents can register to vote in-person online at registertovote.ca.gov as late as Nov. 3.
For a full list of ballot drop-off spots, in-person voting locations and other efforts being made by the county to ensure a safe election, Alameda County voters can visit www.acvote.org and Contra Costa voters can do the same at www.cocovote.us.