Local News

Friday, Nov 05 2010 06:54 PM

Elections officials: Ballot-counting takes time

BY COURTENAY EDELHART, Californian staff writer cedelhart@bakersfield.com

It's clear now that the U.S. House of Representatives will transition to Republican control when the 110th Congress begins in January, but the new majority's precise margin is still unknown, with many national, state and local races undecided days after Tuesday's mid-term elections.

As of Friday, 1.9 million ballots remained to be counted in California, including more than 1.4 million vote-by-mail ballots and another 451,056 provisional ballots.

Related Info

Vote by mail facts

* Anyone choosing the voluntary option of voting by mail must apply for it at least seven days before an election.

* Any registered voter may become a permanent vote-by-mail voter, but they will lose that status if they fail to vote in at least two elections in a row.

To have results undetermined nearly a week after an election is not at all unusual, said Santa Cruz County Clerk Gail Pellerin, who also heads the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials.

"There's always this expectation from the public and the media that Election Day occurs and the results are known that day," she said. "But in the election world, that's never been our frame of reference.

"People don't understand what we're doing. It's a long process, especially when there are close contests. It's really frustrating, I know, to have to wait for the process to occur, but that's what has to happen."

The most high-profile delay, of course, was the drawn out declaration of victory in the nail-biting 2000 presidential contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore, which ultimately was decided by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

Nov. 2's election pales in comparison to that, although the still undecided race between Republican Andy Vidak and Democrat Jim Costa in the 20th Congressional District is drawing national interest. It's also still up in the air who the state's new attorney general will be, or who will represent the 11th Congressional district, which is in parts of San Joaquin and Santa Clara counties.

Processing mail-in ballots has been cited as one of the reasons for the hold-up. Kern County has about 150 polling places, but about half of registered voters here choose instead to vote by mail.

By law, counties have up to 28 days to complete counting and verify election results, which must be reported to the state no more than 31 days after an election. This year, that falls on Dec. 3.

In theory, vote-by-mail ballots should make all that happen faster. County elections offices begin mailing out vote-by-mail ballots 29 days before the election and continue until the seventh day prior to the election. That gives voters several weeks to send in their votes, but they don't always take advantage of the time.

"Voters are procrastinators," said Kern County Auditor-Controller-County Clerk Ann Barnett. "A lot of the vote-by-mail ballots are mailed at the last minute, or even hand-delivered on Election Day."

Almost 58 percent of statewide votes in Tuesday's election were cast via vote-by-mail ballots. The number of Californians choosing to vote by mail generally has been creeping up for decades, peaking last year at 62 percent.

In some states, people vote by mail almost exclusively. Only one county in the state of Washington, Pierce County, still has polling places. The transition was made because in many of Washington's counties, turnout was so low that it wasn't cost effective to continue operating polling places.

In California, vote-by-mail ballots must be received -- as opposed to mailed -- no later than the close of polls at 8 p.m. on Election Day. They can be mailed, taken to a polling place in person, or dropped off at the county elections office.

The law allows counties to begin preparing mail-in ballots for counting a week ahead of the election, but it's up to each county to decide exactly how such ballots will be processed.

Like many counties, Kern starts prepping vote-by-mail ballots for counting ahead of time but doesn't actually tally them until Election Day. That process includes verifying signatures on the outside of the envelopes.

"None of this is done in secret," Barnett said. "It's open to observers."

The county hired 28 temporary workers to help with that tedious work this election, slightly less than the last general election because some steps in the process are now automated, Barnett said.

Election officials say vote-by-mail ballots are worth the trouble. For one thing, they save money.

"It's expensive to run a polling place," Barnett said.

Also, the convenience of filling them out and mailing them at your leisure encourages higher voter participation.

And ballots sent by mail do speed up the process, despite the delay in some of the state's tighter races, election officials insist.

"Those first returns you get at 8 o'clock when the polls close are all vote-by-mail ballots," said San Joaquin County Clerk Austin Erdman.

Erdman added that ballots had been streaming in pretty steadily from the moment they arrived in mailboxes, but surged after the second debate between gubernatorial candidates Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown.

After that, Erdman said, he was inundated. But even the late mailers are helpful, he said.

"It relieves pressure on Election Day so we don't load up so many people at the polls," Erdman said.

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