A Month Later: LA Times Piece Examines Vote Counting in California

A.Month.Later

[Image via kdk12]

California’s primary election took place on June 7 … but vote-counting for the contest just completed. That has brought the state – and local election officials – in for some criticism, but as the LA Times’ Cathleen Decker writes in a news analysis, there are several very good reasons why it takes so long to reach the finish line in California:

Well, that’s a relief.

For the last four weeks, Californians have ceased to be those goofy people on the left coast. For the last four weeks, we have been the people who can’t count.

And now the votes from the June 7 primary, more than 8.5 million of them, have been counted; they are due to be certified by Secretary of State Alex Padilla on Friday.

The lingering question isn’t who won the presidential primaries or the Senate race; the margins in those races, and most other regional and local contests across the state, were big enough that the winners have been known almost since primary day.

No, this was the question: What took you so long?

The answer: It’s complicated. More than voters know. But it may be about to get faster.

As it often does, the slow pace of vote counting created frustration with – and directed at – election officials:

For voters, the most time-intensive part of balloting is deciding which candidate to like. The act of filling in the answers at a polling place or mailing it in from home doesn’t take long. But this year, several factors combined to give elections officials a giant counting headache.

Elections officials say they understand that voters have been wondering what was up. Among other things, the delay fed countless conspiracy theories, particularly on the part of Bernie Sanders voters who saw in the extended count a false hope of eking out victory over Hillary Clinton.

“I can certainly relate to the frustration of not knowing why it takes so long in California, but as an election official, if I had to choose I would err on the side of getting it right rather than getting it fast,” Padilla said. (Don’t blame him: The secretary of state’s office doesn’t count ballots; it certifies the ballots counted locally.)

The biggest problem is that counting votes in California is a big job: as the article notes, “[m]ore votes were cast in California in June than there are residents of the entire state of Virginia, or in Kentucky and Oregon combined.”

Another obstacle to a quick count? The growing popularity of vote-by-mail which, when combined with the sheer number of voters participating, created a long list of to-dos for election officials:

[There was also] a state policy change that, this year, allowed ballots to be counted if they were received up to three days after the election, so long as they were postmarked by election day, the previous deadline. That added, Padilla said, hundreds of thousands of ballots to the mix.

Mail-in balloting has boomed in California because of its convenience. But those ballots have to be checked and verified, acts which take longer than simply spinning them through the counting machine. Perhaps the worst complication in June was that the usual number of election day mistakes — primarily, voters going to the wrong precinct, or not appearing on the rolls due to an error — were magnified by the boost in new voters and differing rules about presidential voting on the part of Democrats and Republicans.

These factors conspired to generate a larger-than-usual number of provisional ballots which take more time and effort to count:

In Orange County, for example, 61,000 ballots were cast provisionally, meaning the ballots suffered some sort of glitch. Four years ago, there were only about 30,000 of those ballots. And it is those ballots that are the most labor intensive of all.

Here’s the run-down, courtesy of Neal Kelley, the Orange County registrar of voters: When a provisional ballot is cast, election officials have to pull the record of the voter, searching databases to find out if, say, Joe Smith still lives in the same place in Orange County and didn’t cast a ballot elsewhere.

“Do you know how many Joe Smiths there are in Orange County? Hundreds,” said Kelley, who is president of the California Assn. of Clerks and Election Officials.

Sometimes the address is wrong, and sometimes the signature looks off, and both have to be double-checked against the original registration document. Sometimes the voter went to the wrong voting location and thus cast a ballot in races outside his home precinct, and those local races would have to be stripped from the count.

All of that, Kelley said, takes two to five minutes, minimum, and sometimes up to half an hour. In Los Angeles County alone, about a quarter-million such ballots were cast. In California? More than 700,000.

Voters, Kelley said, “don’t have a concept of that. It’s like me trying to explain to you how to build a jet engine over Twitter.” [emphasis added – and I’m totally stealing that – DMCj]

The piece then goes on to describe several coming attractions in California that could improve the process: specifically, same-day registration (powered by a new statewide voter database), vote centers and a version of the “Colorado model” which mails ballots to voters and gives them a choice of how to return them.

All that remains is the small matter of legislative approval – and the funding to make it all work:

Of course there’s a catch: money. The measure does not include funding, but Padilla said he hoped to secure some from the state because the new system would be cheaper than the present one. Some counties will be able to use money they’ve put aside to upgrade aging voting systems; others will struggle. But anything, election officials say, should be an improvement in terms of speed and voter confidence.

Orange County’s Kelley sums it up best: “We’ve been voting in this state essentially the same way since the 1800s … Does that make sense given that the population has now grown to 18 million voters?”

This is a terrific piece and well worth reading for the insight it provides on how counting votes, a task that seems simple on its surface, can in actuality be time-consuming and difficult. Kudos to Ms. Decker for her analysis; there are big changes coming in California and it will be fascinating to watch it play out.

Until then, stay tuned … and in California, at least, be patient!

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