California Election Count Keeps Getting Longer

John Wildermuth
Journalist and Political Commentator

If you haven’t noticed, California’s election isn’t over yet.

Two weeks after election day, Secretary of State Debra Bowen is reporting that there are still about 1 million ballots still to be counted.

Since about 12.2 million ballots were cast this November, that’s about 8 percent of vote that’s still out there.

Now local government being what it is, there probably are plenty of counties that already have tallied their late and provisional ballots and just haven’t gotten around to sending those numbers to the state.

Still, there’s a point to be made: It’s taking longer and longer to get a final count of a statewide election and the problem only is going to get worse.

The growing number of vote-by-mail ballots turned in at the polls, combined with more and more provisional ballots that need to be hand-checked, means that election night is becoming election week. Or election month.

That’s no problem if you’re Barack Obama, Dianne Feinstein or Nancy Pelosi, where the only election question is how big your margin is going to be.

But it’s a lot rougher if you’re Brian Bilbray, who had to wait more than a week before knowing that he had lost his San Diego congressional seat to Democrat Scott Peters.

Or what about Assemblywoman Betsy Butler of Marina del Rey, who on Tuesday trailed fellow Democrat Richard Bloom by 79 votes.

Then there’s the Warner Unified School District in San Diego County, where Angela Acosta has a 415-412 lead for a seat on the school board.

There’s a reason every voting official in the country goes to bed the night before any election praying for nothing but landslides.

It’s not just California that’s facing more long-count elections. In Washington state, all elections are mail-only. But since the ballots only have to be postmarked by election day, the count is at the mercy of the postal service.

In Ohio, voters who cast provisional ballots because they lack the proper identification on election day have 10 days to show up at their local registrar’s office with that identification, which means a close election can take plenty of time to decide.

And we’re not even going to get into Florida in 2000, where it took 35 days to determine – or not, depending on who you backed – that George W. Bush beat Democrat Al Gore by 537 votes out of nearly 6 million cast.

You’re not going to find any secretary of state who will say a bad word about the Florida debacle because they all know that “There but for the grace of God go I.” In an election that close, there are always going to be enough problems somewhere in the state to raise questions about the final count.

There’s that prayer for a landslide again.

Ironically, all California’s voting problems stem from the well-intended effort to make it easier for more people to vote.

Elections used to be a lot easier. If you were going to be out of town on election day, you could file an absentee ballot, but you better be ready to give a reason. Otherwise, none of this voting weeks early or on weekends at City Hall. You showed up at your polling place on election day, pulled the levers on the voting machines and that was that.

But now, vote-by-mail is available to anyone who wants it and plenty of people do. While less than a third of Los Angeles County voters cast their ballots by mail, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino are among the many counties that saw more than half their ballots arrive in the post. In the June primary, more than 65 percent of voters used mail ballots.

That can speed up things if everyone mailed those ballots early, but that’s not the way human nature works.

San Francisco, for example, was inundated on election day by mail ballots that were handed in at the polling places.

“Our polls are becoming vote-by-mail collection centers, where people take a hybrid approach to elections,” said John Arntz, the city’s elections chief. “They take time to study and mark their ballots at home, but then take the ballot to the polling place to participate in the civic aspect of the election.”

Polling places as entertainment venues. Who would have thought?

The election day fun may just be starting. California Democrats already are talking about using their supermajorities in the Legislature to push through a plan for same-day registration, which would allow folks to show up at the polls on election day, register to vote and immediately cast their ballot.

All the trends suggest that those TV, newspaper and Internet results posted on election night are going to have to carry a new warning at the bottom: “To be continued.”

John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.

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