WatchSonoma Watch

Record number of vote-by-mail ballots expected in Sonoma County


Sonoma County has issued nearly 185,000 vote-by-mail ballots for Tuesday’s election, a new record that represents 71 percent of registered voters.

But it also means that any close race — such as the 1st District supervisorial contest between Santa Rosa City Council members Susan Gorin and John Sawyer — may remain unresolved for up to four weeks after the election.

Sonoma County registrar of voters extract absentee ballots from envelopes for processing at the Sonoma County Registrar of Voters in Santa Rosa in June. (PD File)

The burgeoning number of absentee voters, along with high voter participation and a lengthy ballot in the presidential election, virtually guarantees that officials will need the full 28 days allowed by law to tally the vote, county elections chief Janice Atkinson said Thursday.

“It will take everything we can do to make that (deadline),” she said.

One of the major delays will be the painstaking process of verifying an estimated 35,000 vote-by-mail ballots expected to arrive in Tuesday’s mail or be turned in at polling places on Tuesday.

Only vote-by-mail ballots returned by 5 p.m. Monday can be counted on Election Night, along with the traditional ballots cast at the polls on Election Day, Atkinson said.

She is expecting about 186,000 votes to be counted on Election Night, based on an estimated 85 percent overall turnout by county voters.

If her forecast is correct, nearly 16 percent of the total vote — the 35,000 vote-by-mail ballots delivered Tuesday — will not be counted for at least three weeks after Election Day, potentially clouding the outcome of races with razor-thin margins.

In the June primary, about 23,250 vote-by-mail ballots came in on Election Day, and it took 22 days to report the county’s final results, including Gorin’s 186-vote advantage over Sawyer.

With 184,671 absentee ballots issued and 260,448 registered voters, Sonoma County had one of the highest rates — 71 percent — of absentee voting in California.

Neighboring Napa County had 86 percent, Mendocino County 80 percent and Lake County 61 percent, compared with a statewide absentee ballot rate of 50 percent, according to the latest report on Thursday.

“It’s a different ballgame,” said Valerie Brown, the outgoing Sonoma Valley supervisor.

In 2008, when she won her third term on the board, Brown said she was on “tenterhooks” for three weeks awaiting the final results — a delay attributed to high voter turnout and mail-in ballots arriving on Election Day.

Herb Williams, a veteran Santa Rosa political consultant, said he finds no fault with the registrar’s office in taking weeks to determine election results.

“I like the integrity of the process,” he said, referring to the verification of signatures on vote-by-mail ballots.

Atkinson said the verification process is partly automated, but also involves a visual comparison of signatures on the mail-in ballots with those on file in voter registration records.

The process could be expedited, she said, but Sonoma County makes a major effort to validate every possible mail-in ballot.

Back when most people voted at the polls, election results were tallied much quicker, said Atkinson, who is retiring in December after 36 years in the elections office.

Tom Higgins, a Marin County political consultant, said the liberalizing of vote-by-mail standards over the past 20 years has led to slower vote counts in California. Sonoma and Los Angeles counties were the last two to complete their counts in June, he said.

But promoting mail-in voting is “absolutely the right thing to do,” Higgins said, and it’s not just procrastination that causes the flood of absentee ballots on Election Day.

Some absentee voters intentionally wait until the last day to take account of “late developments” in a campaign, he said.

9 Responses to “Record number of vote-by-mail ballots expected in Sonoma County”

  1. Reality Check says:

    Electronic vote counting machines that also verify signatures at up to 19,000 ballots per hour are in use in many places, if not Sonoma County. This reduces the need for a human to verify questionable signatures by about 99%.

    If vote fraud isn’t yet a major problem, it’s only because of luck. Our current system invites it.

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  2. MOCKINGBIRD says:

    You have to understand that the reason it takes so long to count and verify the vote is that EACH absentee ballot has to be vetted. Signature registers and the envelope the ballot comes in are compared to the registration signature. More than half of Sonoma County votes by absentee ballot. In my tiny polling place people bring in their absentee ballots. Out of 1400 possible voters more than half were absentee and we had more than a hundred absentee ballots dropped off during the voting day.

    This is to PREVENT voter fraud. You can’t complain about voter fraud and then complain about the processes in place to prevent voter fraud.

    You can always volunteer to work the polls next time. See how it’s done, then complain. I, personally, can’t say anything negative about our registrars office EXCEPT the maps you give us to find polling places are useless.

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  3. Skippy says:

    “Voting needs to be made easier, not more difficult.”

    Every move to make voting “easier” only makes voter fraud easier to conceal.
    Let’s get a few things straight.
    Voting is restricted to living citizens only.
    The tens of thousands of illegal aliens and corpses registered as and voting Democrat are the direct result of making voting “easier”.
    Every native-born citizen has been exposed to our Big Govt education system and has learned to speak and read in English.
    Every naturalized citizen had to pass an English-fluency exam prior to being granted citizenship.
    Therefore there is NO REASON(over-capitalization hat-tip@Mockingbird)for any ballot info to be in any language other than English.
    When voting becomes even more of an exercise in fraud than it is now, the citizenry will have two choices; submit and surrender or fight for our country.

    “Sounds like a threat to me.”

    Consider it a promise.

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  4. Steveguy says:

    I live in a vote by mail only precinct, therefore no poll workers. Can’t they get poll workers to verify for a few days ? The counting can be done by the Registrar’s office, it is just the verification that any poll worker can do. After all, the article states that any ballots received by Monday 5 PM will be counted election night.

    Oregon has only vote by mail. I wasn’t able to find any source that mentioned delays like this, and am curious to see how long it takes them to count the votes.

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  5. Critic at Large says:

    Why don’t they just let everyone vote electronically with a computer of their choice?

    The election bureaucrats seem to have no trouble letting people use on line registration, register at the DMV and everwhere else, but they are completely baffled when it comes to counting the ballots cast.

    They seem to put great stock in just getting voters to sign up, but they totally drop the ball when it comes to finishing the most important part of the process, the final vote count.

    There is something really wrong with this picture. Taking 28 days to count the ballots is just crazy.

    There is minimal concern about ineligible or illegal voters. The whole process is just get those voters signed up.

    This whole process needs to be reviewed to make sure it is not allowing people, dead or alive, illegal or unqualified from casting votes. The whole credibility of the system is suspect.

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  6. George says:

    @Skippy – “Voting in America has become an exercise in Democrat fraud.”

    What world are you living in?

    Despite well hyped anecdotes, voter fraud is extremely rare. Penalties are already imprisonment and large fines.

    Time and again the problem is shown to be low participation rates. Voting needs to be made easier, not more difficult.

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  7. Dick Tracy says:


    “Without faith in our Electoral system, the next step is Revolution: an American tradition.”

    Clearly, there will be no satisfying you regarding democratic processes. Sounds like a threat to me.

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  8. Skippy says:

    Voting in America has become an exercise in Democrat fraud.
    The methods and systems Democrats use to steal elections have been institutionalized.
    No election result can ever be trusted again until we as a nation set logical rules for voting.
    1. Valid photo ID required at the polls.
    2. All voting on Election Day only.
    3. All ballots and info in English only.
    4. Absentee ballots available but strongly discouraged.

    Overseas and Military voters would be the only exceptions, and only re: timing.

    No motor-voter registration,
    No online registration either,
    no early voting,
    no electronic voting machines,
    cleansing of voter rolls annually.

    Without faith in our Electoral system, the next step is Revolution: an American tradition.

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  9. Reality Check says:

    Once upon a time almost all Americans voted on the same day at a polling station in their neighborhood. Within 4 or 5 hours after the polls closed the ballots were counted and results known. Occasionally a close election delayed the results until the following day.

    Now, the ballots are sent out two weeks before election day and the county officials say they will need 28 days after Nov. 6 to complete counting the ballots.

    Is something wrong here? A quick way to undermine the public confidence in the electoral process is to turn what was once a simple process over about 36 hours into something lasting weeks.

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