It wasn't exactly news to Jonathan Savell that the previous owner of the home he purchased seven years ago was deceased. He bought it on probate.
But when two vote-by-mail ballots showed up this week, one for him and one for the previous owner, it made him wonder about the integrity of the November election. Due to the coronavirus, this is the first year every active voter in the state received a mail-in ballot.
"Everybody has concerns about integrity and stuff. I think that it is not a partisan issue," said Savell, who lives in Inglewood. "Everybody should be worried. Anyone has the capability of cheating if something is sent their way."
While safeguards are in place, such as signature verifications and strong penalties for fraud, election integrity watchers concede that in a county as big as Los Angeles with roughly 5.6 million active voters, some amount of mistakes are liable to get made.
The L.A. County Registrar has made a few already, such as roughly 2,100 ballots recently sent to Woodland Hills without the U.S. Presidential contest.
"I know it’s very distressing," said Kim Alexander, president of California Voter Foundation. "I have been hearing a couple stories here and there. People are on high alert, and I’m glad people are paying close attention. But there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes that voters are not aware of."
Los Angeles resident Nate Duhon also received two ballots this week, and he doesn't know why. Now he's not sure which ballot is the correct one.
"Now I'm thinking, 'what’s going on?'" Duhon said. "It’s looking kind of shady to me... It was hard enough for some people to get the right to vote. Come on, we should have this perfected by now."
Even if someone is issued multiple ballots, there are several ways to safeguard against voter fraud, according to the L.A. County Registrar. Each ballot contains a bar code so that it can be tracked and matched to each voter, ensuring that voters only cast one ballot.
In addition, every ballot is scanned by a computer to verify the signature matches the one on record, usually from the California Department of Motor Vehicles. For those signatures that do not match, they are reviewed by two election officials, based on county guidelines.
But even with trained workers and technology, the reliability is questionable, said Bob Popper, senior attorney and director of voting integrity for Judicial Watch.
"Certainly in a practical sense, especially with an election with so many mail-in ballots, it does lead to a lot of ballots being rejected," Popper said.
One of the problems in California, Popper said, was the reluctance of election officials to clean up the voter rolls, something that could prevent incorrect ballots from being issued to people who have moved or died.
Judicial Watch, along with the Election Integrity Project California reached a settlement with the state and L.A. County in 2019 that included a process for removing inactive voters from the rolls after two consecutive federal elections without voting. California for years did not delete names of inactive voters, instead keeping them on the rolls but not issuing them voting materials.
In L.A. County, there are roughly 1.6 million inactive voters who likely moved. Those inactive voters were not removed from the rolls, but neither were they issued mail-in ballots this year, based on an executive order by Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Popper said he thought L.A. County was doing a better job at purging voter rolls of deceased individuals, but clearly some were missed.
"No doubt there are registrations of those who have died that just slip through the cracks," Popper said.
Election integrity experts point to a handful of voting fraud causes. Most involve individuals falsely submitting ballots such as a Norwalk man in August who faced voter fraud charges for allegedly casting ballots in several elections on behalf of his deceased mother.
Despite claims by President Donald Trump, who has lashed out against vote-by-mail, there is no evidence that mail-in balloting this year is ripe for fraud on a large scale basis.
Far more worrisome, said Alexander, were efforts to purge massive numbers of voters from the rolls and the rejection rate of mail-in ballots. A study by the California Voter Foundation in September found that an estimated 1.7% of vote-by-mail ballots cast in California over the past 10 years were rejected.
Reasons for rejected ballots were mostly due to lateness, mismatched signatures or no signature. The study also found young people were most affected.
The erroneous ballot sent to Savell got him wondering about the county's safeguards -- like signature verification -- designed to flag fraudulent ballots. He worried the safeguards might not be totally reliable and the mistakes could open the door to fraud.
"If you send out a million keys to a lock and you just send it to a million addresses, but you have no way of confirming who received those keys," Savell said. "How could you tell who was accessing the lock?"
Savell said he tried to notify the registrar about the mistake when a mailer arrived at the house in September with the previous owner's name on it. He sent it back: "Return to Sender. Addressee Deceased" -- with multiple underlines under "deceased."
But then it came back again.
"I thought that it was hilarious that nobody read it and sent it back," he said.
Then this week, a vote-by-mail ballot arrived. One for him, and one for the previous owner. Two ballots. One living. One dead.
At a time when voters are tuned in to the integrity of a U.S. election, he wasn't thrilled about the dual ballots. Savell doesn't plan to mail it in.
He's going to vote in person at a vote center, saying he's more comfortable with the in-person process.