California secretary of state launches tool to track ballots, promises voter safety during pandemic 

California’s Secretary of State is rolling out a new tracking tool that lets voters check on the status of their vote-by-mail ballot. | Photo courtesy of California Secretary of State

WITH less than two months until the November 3 general election, California’s Secretary of State is assuring voters that casting their ballots during the pandemic will be secure and safe.

“This is an unprecedented year between the political climate we find ourselves in and the COVID-19 pandemic,” Secretary of State Alex Padilla said in a virtual briefing with reporters on Wednesday, September 9.

Though vote by mail is not a new concept in California, the state will be mailing out a ballot to every active registered voter by October as a way to make the election more accessible and to slow the spread of COVID-19.

“We’re going to be encouraging [that] vote by mail is the first and safest choice for people to vote,” Padilla said.

During the primary election in March, over 72% of voters opted for the vote-by-mail option, the highest it’s been in the state’s history, according to data from the California Secretary of State.

The state allows for ballots to be postmarked on or before November 3 and can arrive up to three days after that date in order to be counted. However, this year, that deadline will be extended up to 17 days.

Each ballot certified by the state has specific watermarks and “other distinguishing features” to prevent fraud and double voting, Padilla said, alluding to the national debate about whether voting by mail is the safest option during this election cycle.

“When voters return their ballot, they have to use the official envelope that came with their vote-by-mail package and they all have unique barcodes, which enable both our ballot tracking, but also allow us to make sure that each voter can only vote once,” Padilla said.

Los Angeles County is offering over 300 secure drop box locations where voters can return their completed ballot before the November 3 general election. | AJPress file photo by Christina M. Oriel

He added that voters have to sign their ballot envelope and county election officials will compare that with the one on file in their voter registration record. Mail-in ballots can be sent through the U.S. Postal Service or placed in any of the designated county drop off boxes.

The Secretary of State is also introducing “Where’s My Ballot” so voters can track the status of their ballots — by email, text message, or voice call — at every step of the process from the time it is mailed out to them until it is received and counted by the county registrar.

“It’s great for transparency, great for accountability and we hope great for confidence in vote by mail because that too has come under attack in recent weeks,” Padilla said, mentioning that over 900,000 California voters have signed up for the tracking service at

Voters can still cast their ballots during the early voting period or by physically going in person, but they can expect the same measures as in the past few months, such as physical distancing, wearing masks and the availability of hand sanitizer at polling locations.

On November 3, sports arenas will be turned into voting locations, such as Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, Chase Center in San Francisco, the Oakland Coliseum and Dodger Stadium and Staples Center in Los Angeles. Some counties may offer certain accommodations like voting while in your car.

In addition to actual voting procedures, the state is also seeking how to get more eligible voters registered before the October 19 deadline; identifying more polling sites statewide convenient for communities; and encouraging individuals to become poll workers on Election Day, as many previous volunteers tend to be older and part of groups vulnerable to COVID-19.

As more state voters are anticipated to favor voting by mail, Padilla recommends returning the ballots ahead of time so they can be counted as part of the election night tallies. But as in previous cycles, it may take weeks for California to finish processing ballots and certifying results, especially in close races and submitting final numbers.

However, since other states are expanding the mail-in option, the results for the presidential race may not be called on election night, Padilla suggested.

“Maybe even for a few days after the election, we won’t know the outcome of the presidential contest in a lot of battleground states. But I think there’s a strong likelihood if there’s a close race, that will take a few days to know the final results. That’s not an attempt to panic,” Padilla said. “That’s a time to be patient and have confidence that it’s the process at work verifying that legitimate ballots are being counted…We’d rather get the results right than get them fast.”

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