Why California counts its ballots so slowly

Greg Nash

County officials in California are still slogging through more than 4 million uncounted ballots four days after Election Day.

The lengthy process is sowing frustration for anxious Democrats and Republicans eyeing nail-biter congressional contests in Los Angeles, Orange County and the San Joaquin Valley.

The process of counting ballots in the nation’s most populous state has always taken time. But the delays in finalizing vote counts grew longer in 2016, and they are longer again this year, because of several new laws the state legislature has passed in recent years that have slowed vote counts.

The new laws are a conscious trade-off, those involved with election administration said: They are meant to place a greater weight on enfranchising voters and counting more ballots than on counting those ballots quickly.{mosads}

“We’d rather get it right than get it fast,” Secretary of State Alex Padilla (D) said in an interview. “We have many policies in place to make sure that every eligible voter in California has the right to cast a ballot.”

The most significant policy that slows down the ballot-counting process is a relatively new law that allows voters to drop their ballots in the mail later than voters in other states.

A law passed in 2014 and first implemented in 2016, known in elections circles as postmark-plus-three, requires that any ballot returned within three days of an election gets counted, so long as the ballot is postmarked by Election Day.

This year, more than 4.5 million Californians sent in their ballots in the final days before, or on, Election Day. Paul Mitchell, who runs a political data management firm in California, said that meant state elections officials received about 40 percent of all ballots cast on or after Tuesday.

“That’s enfranchised a lot of people,” Padilla said.

Every ballot that is mailed back has to be checked to ensure it comes from the proper voter, a laborious process that involves inspecting millions of voter signatures, said Michael Vu, the registrar of voters in San Diego County.

The signature verification process takes even more time, Vu said, because any problems with a voter’s autograph are handled by high-ranking election administrators.

In some states, low-level election workers can eliminate a ballot if they believe a signature does not match; in California, several more layers of increasingly senior officials inspect a ballot, in an effort to count as many as possible.

“That’s a very time-consuming process,” Vu said in an interview.

A new law implemented for the first time this year gives voters with a mismatched signature more hope of having their votes counted. County elections officials can now follow up with voters to resolve any mismatch issues — a process known as “curing” — increasing the chances that the voter’s ballot will count.

And for the first time this year, California has allowed voters to register and vote on Election Day itself. The ballots those voters cast cannot be counted until their registration is processed, adding more time to the process.

California also has some of the most liberal ballot access laws in the country, provisions that allow supporters to qualify local and statewide initiatives and propositions. The mishmash of local ballot measures, and the huge number of candidates vying for everything from a seat on a town council to the governor’s mansion, means counties must create many different ballots for different sets of voters.

In San Diego County, there are 594 different ballot combinations, Vu said. The longest, a multicard ballot, is four and a half feet long, when laid out end to end. When a voter goes to the wrong precinct or casts a provisional ballot, the county determines which races that voter is eligible to vote on and counts those votes, rather than throwing out the entire ballot.

“All of these are inclusive policies so that administrators like myself are considering more [ballots] to be valid,” Vu said. “So it’s naturally going to go against the grain of time.”

The races still up in the air will be decided long before December 7, when counties must report their final vote tallies to Padilla’s office in Sacramento. Padilla said election administrators acknowledge their jobs have gotten harder in recent years, both as mail voting has increased and as the new laws have been implemented.

But Padilla said counting more votes is worth the wait.

“There’s a little bit more work involved, of course, but [county administrators are] happy to do it because it means more eligible voters are having their voices heard in the process,” Padilla said.

Tags Paul Mitchell

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