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Election workers Heidi McGettigan, left, Margaret Wohlford, center, and David Jensen, unload a bag of ballots brought in a from a polling precinct to the Sacramento County Registrar of Voters office in Sacramento, Calif. Associated Press file photo. Election workers Heidi McGettigan, left, Margaret Wohlford, center, and David Jensen, unload a bag of ballots brought in a from a polling precinct to the Sacramento County Registrar of Voters office in Sacramento, Calif. Associated Press file photo.

Election workers Heidi McGettigan, left, Margaret Wohlford, center, and David Jensen, unload a bag of ballots brought in a from a polling precinct to the Sacramento County Registrar of Voters office in Sacramento, Calif. Associated Press file photo.

Chris Nichols
By Chris Nichols September 3, 2020

If Your Time is short

  • President Trump suggested this week that people should vote by mail and in-person during the fall election. 

  • Voting twice in an election is illegal under California and federal law. 

  • The crime is punishable by imprisonment of between 16 months and three years under California law and a maximum of five years under federal law. 

  • Election experts say there are safeguards in place to prevent double voting.

President Donald Trump during a campaign stop in North Carolina on Wednesday encouraged people to vote both by mail and in person this fall, before walking back some of his comments a day later. 

Voting twice in the same election is illegal under California and federal law. 

"Let them send it in and let them go vote, and if their system’s as good as they say it is, then obviously they won’t be able to vote," the president said. "If it isn’t tabulated, they’ll be able to vote."

"That’s the way it is," he added. "And that’s what they should do."

For months, Trump has attacked voting-by-mail, including California’s plans to send all active registered voters a mail-in ballot

He’s made numerous false and unsubstantiated claims that it will lead to widespread fraud, an allegation that election experts reject. 

With Election Day just two months away, we decided to examine the state and federal rules that make it illegal to vote twice, along with the penalties and safeguards in place. 

California And Federal Election Codes

Under California Elections Code 18560, every person is guilty of a crime who "votes more than once, attempts to vote more than once, or knowingly hands in two or more ballots folded together at that election."

The crime is punishable by imprisonment of between 16 months and three years, according to the state elections code. 

"Intentionally voting twice in the same election is, indeed, illegal. Clearly so.  And straightforward to prosecute, because there’s always a paper trail," Justin Levitt, a Loyola Law School professor and elections expert wrote in an email. 

Voting twice is also a crime under federal law, specifically under U.S Code Title 52, which reads: "Whoever votes more than once in an election … shall be fined not more than $10,000 or imprisoned not more than five years, or both."

The federal code notes that "the term ‘votes more than once’ does not include the casting of an additional ballot if all prior ballots of that voter were invalidated."

Levitt, who previously worked as a deputy assistant attorney general in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, said the crime can be prosecuted by both state and federal officials. 

Trump on Thursday tried to clarify his statements during his North Carolina visit, saying voters should go to the polls to verify that their mail-in ballots were received. 

PolitiFact National examined that idea and described it as "bad advice"  that could clog up lines at polling places. There are legal ways North Carolina voters can confirm their ballots were received, PolitiFact wrote, such as using the state’s online lookup tool or contacting your local county elections office. 

California also offers a ballot tracking service called Where’s My Ballot? 

Voting Safeguards In California

Levitt said jurisdictions across the country use several security measures to prevent double voting. But, at its most basic level, the job comes down to election workers checking to see whether an individual’s vote has already been recorded. 

"If the voter has voted already when an official goes to log a vote for that person (either checking them in at the polls or tallying an absentee ballot before the ballot is opened), the space will already be full," he wrote.

Levitt added that Californians "should be confident that the election process will be safe and secure on the back end." 

County governments conduct elections in the state. Meanwhile, the California Secretary of State’s Office oversees and certifies those elections.

Sam Mahood, a spokesman for the Secretary of State’s Office, explained in an email how the state’s safeguards work to prevent double voting.

If voters want to fill out a ballot at a polling place, Mahood said election officials recommend they bring their vote-by-mail ballot with them to "surrender" it at the polls, which essentially means they will exchange it for a live ballot at the polling location and officials will cancel out their vote-by-mail ballot.

Those who don’t bring their vote-by-mail ballots will receive a provisional ballot. Mahood said that document "is then processed by elections officials after polling place and vote-by-mail ballots have been processed and counted."

"Provisional ballots are carefully checked to ensure that the voter is registered and did not cast a ballot elsewhere," he said. 

Finally, some counties have adopted a new vote center model. At those locations, poll workers can check electronic pollbooks to determine in real time whether a voter has cast a ballot elsewhere, Mahood said. 

If those individuals have not voted, poll workers can print out regular, live ballots onsite for voters who forget their mail-in ballot and simultaneously cancel the individual’s mail-in ballot so that it can’t be used for double voting. 

Given the changes to the voting process, Levitt of Loyola Law School advised Californians to get ready for the election now. 

"Voting may be a little different this fall than some voters are used to, because of the pandemic," he wrote. "That means it’s best for voters to make a plan – nothing complicated, just three easy steps: check your registration, decide whether they want to vote by mail or vote in-person (both will be options in most of the state), and don’t wait for November 3 -- vote early if you can, to make sure everything goes smoothly."

CapRadio and PolitiFact California are fact-checking election misinformation and answering your questions about voting through the November 2020 election. Email us your questions and ideas for a fact check at [email protected], or contact us on Twitter or Facebook.

Related:

PolitiFact California, No, California Is Not Sending Mail-In Ballots "To Anyone In The State," As Trump Falsely Claimed, May 26, 2020

PolitiFact California, How Early Should You Send In Your Mail-in Ballot To Make Sure It Gets Counted? It Varies By State, July 29, 2020

PolitiFact California, Answering Questions About Vote-By-Mail In California Amid COVID-19, Attacks By Trump, June 2, 2020

PolitiFact California, Trump Draws False Contrast Between Absentee, Mail-In Voting, Election Experts Say, July 30, 2020

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Our Sources

President Trump, campaign speech in North Carolina, Sept. 2, 2020

Justin Levitt, professor, Loyola Law School, email interview Sept. 3, 2020

Sam Mahood, spokesman, California Secretary of State’s Office, email exchange, Sept. 3, 2020

PolitiFact, Trump’s bad advice on going to polls to verify if your mail ballot was counted, Sept. 3, 2020.

The New York Times, Trump Encourages People in North Carolina to Vote Twice, Which Is Illegal, Sept. 2, 2020

The Washington Post, Trump tries to clarify suggestion that voters cast ballots twice, which if done intentionally is illegal, Sept. 3, 2020

California Elections Code 18560, accessed Sept. 3, 2020

U.S Code Title 52, accessed Sept. 3, 2020

 

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