The privacy of the ballot box is a core promise of American democracy. Preserving that privacy is also central to the justification for absentee voting, but in several California counties, voters who cast absentee ballots in the gubernatorial recall election cannot count on their votes remaining confidential due to an egregious flaw in the return envelopes provided to them by local election officials.
Due to a poorly positioned hole in the envelopes, it is possible for anybody who handles mail-in ballots to see whether the voter chose “yes” or “no” on the question of whether to recall Governor Gavin Newsom, as demonstrated by this example submitted by a concerned voter. Compounding the problem, some voters have reported that the ballot return envelope is so thin that it is easy to see the entire ballot simply by holding the envelope up to a light source.
Common-sense election integrity measures could easily prevent this problem.
One easy fix would be a privacy envelope – a cheap, simple solution that is widely used all over the country. California, however, does not use privacy envelopes, either because the state does not overly concern itself with voter privacy, or because California lawmakers are determined to eliminate anything that might cause an absentee ballot to be rejected. Most likely, the real reason is a combination of both.
California could also pony up the relatively paltry amount of money it would cost to use thicker envelopes of the variety that we routinely expect when conducting even the most insignificant transactions by mail. That wouldn’t stop people from being able to see through the holes in the envelopes, of course, but it would at least keep the rest of their ballot secret.
My organization, the American Voter’s Alliance, has been looking deeply into this problem to determine the extent and severity of the flaw, as well as try to determine who is responsible for what amounts to a window into private voting choices. What we have found is, to put it mildly, distressing.
So far, we have identified at least three separate counties – Los Angeles County, Nevada County, and Placer County – where the absentee ballot return envelopes include holes that are positioned to reveal the portion of the ballot that asks about recalling Gov. Newsom. Since the rest of the ballot is contingent on there being a majority in favor of recalling Newsom, that question is by far the most significant one.
According to the Los Angeles County Clerk, the holes have been in use for years, and serve a dual purpose: to help visually impaired voters identify the correct place to sign the envelope, and to help election workers ascertain whether there are ballot materials left in the envelopes without having to manually open and inspect each one. The clerk’s office further claims that this practice is recommended by “civic design consultants.”
This raises an obvious question. What kind of election “experts” design an absentee ballot envelope that exposes citizens’ private votes?
We’re still investigating the details, but one organization that has been involved in both Los Angeles County and Placer County is the Center for Tech and Civic Life, the leftist nonprofit that received $350 million from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to privately fund election operations in 2020, which we’re investigating in partnership with The Amistad Project. One of the most common uses of CTCL funds was for “mail/absentee equipment/supplies.”
Another leftist organization that is deeply involved in ballot design all over the country, including California, is the Center for Civic Design, which counts the Democracy Fund as one of its top benefactors. According to NBC News, the Center for Civic Design is responsible for the ballot design in Los Angeles County.
Are these the election “experts” that California election officials are trying to blame for the egregious privacy vulnerabilities in their absentee ballot envelopes? The American Voter’s Alliance is determined to answer that question and help California voters hold their elected officials accountable so that future elections are conducted in a responsible manner that preserves the privacy of the ballot.
After all, Americans deserve to have complete confidence that our ballots are secret whether they are cast in person, at a polling place, or absentee by mail.
Jacqueline Timmer is the founder and director of the American Voter’s Alliance, a nonprofit grassroots voter education group focused on election integrity.