Late Election Results: the New Normal


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Last Friday morning, the Secretary of State’s Office reported that there were still at least 1.7 million uncounted ballots in California — ten days after the election. The Alameda County Registrar of Voters Office, which was much more efficient at counting ballots than most other election offices around the state, didn’t post its final vote tallies until last Thursday night. As a result, several close contests in the county, including Measures B1 and T, were not decided until nine days after the election.

Welcome to the new normal.

In fact, we’ll probably have to wait even longer in the future for final election results in close contests. How could this be in an era of high-tech wizardry? The main culprit is absentee voting — also known as voting by mail. Throughout California, an increasing number of voters are using this method to cast their ballots. But the problem is: A substantial number of these voters are failing to mail-in their ballots on time. Instead, they drop off their ballots at polling places on Election Day.

It’s great that people are voting, but dropping off absentee ballots at polling places creates major headaches for elections officials, said Alameda County Registrar Dave MacDonald. “It’s a real killer,” he said. “And it’s happening all across California.”

The biggest issue with absentees is that they take much longer to process than regular ballots. For instance, the signature on each absentee ballot must be checked with the voters’ original signature on file (that’s because absentee voters don’t have to show up in person to cast their ballots). And because absentees are so cumbersome to process, election officials prefer to deal with them before Election Day. But they can’t do that when voters turn in their absentees at polling places.

So how big is the problem? About 160,000 voters in the county turned in their absentees on Election Day this year. That represents about 27 percent of the total votes cast.

Making matters worse, another 40,000 voters had to fill out provisional ballots this year because they showed up at the wrong polling places and didn’t have an absentee ballot. Provisional ballots are even more difficult to process than absentees, because they require additional verification checks.
In short, the combination of late-absentee and provisional ballots makes for late election results. And, as we said, it promises to get worse in the future because more and more people are turning to absentee voting.

In fact, it was a minor miracle that Alameda County elections officials finished as quickly as they did this year. According to the Secretary of State, no other large county in the state — including San Francisco, Contra Costa, and Santa Clara — was done with its tabulations before Alameda. “We worked pretty hard,” MacDonald noted late last week. “Most of the staff here hasn’t had a day off for more than a month.”