San Mateo County’s election storm is one to be remembered
San Mateo County has never seen anything like it. The Nov. 6 mid-term election has been one for the history books.
In the not-so-distant past, the county was a beacon of electionnight efficiency and a model of timeliness. Absentee ballots were already counted for the most part, precinct results, already tabulated by machine, poured in, and it was pretty clear who the local winners and losers would be well before midnight.
Not this time. A perfect storm of fresh circumstances conspired to gum up the works big-time. Firm results in a number of key races were not really ready until three weeks after the election.
The situation was frustrating, agonizing and, for some on the wrong end of certain results, rather questionable. There is skepticism and considerable unhappiness in several cases that involved shifting results at the very end.
Jim Irizarry, the county’s chief elections officer, feels your pain. A main reason for the myriad problems afflicting last month’s voting was the all-mail balloting involved.
For the first time in a mid-term statewide election, the county went to a system that, by its very nature, lent itself to a slow-down in the paper-ballot-counting. The only other metropolitan county in California that tried this setup was Sacramento.
Tabulating paper ballots quickly requires state-of-the-art equipment and lots of savvy manpower. The county didn’t have enough of either commodity, Irizarry explained.
“Dealing with paper, by itself, requires 15 stages of handling,” he said. “And some ballots have to be taken aside to be analyzed due to different issues … It’s labor-intensive.”
Furthermore, the county’s election technology tended to malfunction too often, he said. “It’s 12-years-old and out-of-date.”
What’s more, the level of voting was an unprecedented avalanche. Of 399,591 registered voters, a whopping 289,963 cast ballots (256,030 by mail).
For a comparison, at the last mid-term election in 2014, comparable numbers were 355,598 registered voters and 164,453 who cast ballots (109,419 by mail).
Four years ago, there were 54,056 ballots cast at 535 local precincts and 978 at voting centers. This time, there were no precincts at all. There were 39 voting centers instead. A total of 33,933 people opted to utilize voting centers, most on election day/night.
Irizarry pointed out another factor: conditional voting registration. A California rule permits a person to register to vote conditionally and to cast a ballot right up to 8 p.m. on election night. Just over 5,000 people did so. By definition, that slows down the final count dramatically because their voting legitimacy must be verified and that takes time.
And there was the ballot itself. It was long, caused, in part, by some local jurisdictions going to district-type elections that feature multiple candidates in each precinct rather than a limited overall number.
Furthermore, some elected bodies have moved their candidate elections to even-numbered years. This just happened to be one of those.
“We had a roughly three-fold increase in candidates,” Irizarry noted.
What about the complaints brought by some who fought tax increases, thought they had succeeded and then found out they hadn’t as the weeks rolled on?
“The results are virtually impossible to manipulate,” Irizarry offered. “They aren’t connected to the internet.” So, in theory, they can’t be hacked.
He did explain that last-minute conditional voting registration (what amounts to a form of instant voting by an unregistered individual yet to be verified) can be a mechanism utilized by a highly organized campaign to get out the vote to sway a close outcome one way or the
other at the 11th hour. But there’s nothing illegal
(at least not yet) about that in light of the state regulation that is designed to facilitate voting by as many legal voters as possible.
Irizarry said the county
and his office plan to do an analysis of the November election after the results are certified.
It seems highly likely that at least two key recommendations will come