San Ma­teo County’s elec­tion storm is one to be re­mem­bered

The Mercury News - - Local News - John Hor­gan Colum­nist

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 “It’s 12-years-old and out-of-date.”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

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