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George Boardman: California’s slow vote count erodes the public’s confidence in election results

George Boardman

Observations from the center stripe: Election edition

IT’S RIDICULOUS that Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina — about 4% of the nation’s population — have so much influence picking presidential candidates … DONALD TRUMP proves that crime pays, as long as it’s white collar crime … PAUL MANAFORT, Michael Flynn and Roger Stone will have to wait until after the November election to receive their “get out of jail” cards … FANS WHO buy tickets to games of the Golden State Warriors are paying a lot to watch auditions for supporting roles on next year’s team … WE’VE LIVED in western Nevada County for almost 20 years, but this was the first February I wore shorts outside …

Californians will finish voting Tuesday in the primary election but thanks to laws that make it super easy for people to exercise their franchise, we won’t see the election results anytime soon.

Officials say California’s voting laws, the most liberal in the country, are designed to enfranchise voters and count as many ballots as possible, but the resulting slow count undermines the integrity of the process and the confidence of voters in the outcome.

Officials still had more than four million ballots to count four days after Election Day in 2018, and it was weeks later before we knew the outcome of several tightly contested congressional races. When every one of those races was won by a Democrat, Republican partisans were rightly skeptical.

But what can you expect when people can change their party affiliation or register to vote on Election Day, and your mail-in ballot will be counted if it is postmarked on Election Day and is delivered to election officials no more than three days after that date?

In 2018, more than 4.5 million Californians sent in their ballots in the final days before, or on, Election Day. Paul Mitchell, who runs a political data management firm, said that meant state officials received about 40% of all ballots cast on or after Election Day.

Every ballot mailed back has to be checked to ensure it comes from the proper voter, a laborious process that involves inspecting millions of voter signatures. The signature verification process takes even more time because any problem with a voter’s autograph is handled by high-ranking election administrators.

A new law implemented for the first time in 2018 gives voters with a mismatched signature more hope of having their votes counted. County election officials can now follow up with voters to resolve any mismatch issues — a process known as “curing” — increasing chances the voter’s ballot will count.

All of this takes place after a voter has actually filled out a ballot, an increasingly complex process because California also makes it relatively easy to qualify local and statewide initiatives and propositions for the ballot. Combine that with candidates for everything from the mosquito abatement district to the governor’s mansion, and you end up with multiple, complex ballots.

San Diego County had 594 different ballot combinations in 2018, according to Michael Vu, the county’s registrar of voters. The longest, a multi-card ballot, was 4.5-feet long when laid end to end. (Another good reason to live in Nevada County.)

When a voter goes to the wrong precinct or casts a provisional ballot, election officials determine which races that voter is eligible to vote on and counts those votes, rather than throwing out the entire ballot. “All of these are inclusive policies so that administrators like myself are considering more (ballots) to be valid,” Vu said. “So it’s naturally going to go against the grain of time.”

None of this seems to bother Secretary of State Alex Padilla. “We’d rather get it right than get it fast,” he said in an interview. “We have many policies in place to ensure that every eligible voter has a right to cast a ballot.”

More “help” may be on the way. Assemblyman Marc Levine (D, San Rafael) has proposed legislation that would require everybody who is registered to vote to actually hand in a ballot, even if it is blank. What’s next? Robocalls on Election Day reminding you to vote? Transportation to the polling place if you’re too lazy to get there yourself?

Still, not everybody is onboard. About 4.8 million (19%) of Californians eligible to vote are not registered. Nevada County, which historically has a high voter participation rate, has over 10,000 eligible residents who can’t vote.

Some good government types are unhappy with these numbers. YubaNet noted in a headline that “13.5% of eligible voters are not even registered to vote in Nevada County” (emphasis mine).

I’m OK with that. If you can’t be bothered to register, you’re probably uninformed about the issues and candidates anyway. We already have too many people who vote based on emotion, blind loyalty, or shaky, fear-driven arguments. Stay home to minimize the damage you can inflict.

But I also think we’ve gone overboard in making it easy for people to vote. Perhaps we should follow the lead of Oregon, which pioneered vote-by-mail. There, you have to register 21 days before an election, and mail your ballot at least six days before Election Day. After that, you can either deposit your ballot in a drop box or vote in person on Election Day.

A slow vote can raise serious concerns about the integrity of the count at a time when people have little confidence in government operations. A recent Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll revealed that two-thirds of the public have at least some concern about the security and integrity of elections. A record vote is expected in the November general election, and a slow count in the country’s most populous state will provide plenty of fuel to the bad actors who want to create more division in our country.

It’s too late to make any changes for November, but we need to do something before we start resembling Afghanistan, which took six months to determine the winner of its presidential election. Of course, they have to deal with the Russians, the Americans, the Taliban, and a war that’s lasted 19 years. What’s going to be California’s excuse?

George Boardman lives at Lake of the Pines. His column is published Mondays by The Union. Write to him at boredgeorgeman@gmail.com.

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