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Officials: Up to 35,000 Sonoma County ballots still to be counted


At the Sonoma County Registrar of Voters in Santa Rosa, Debra Russotti and Ibon Suazo sort out mail-in ballots by hand, Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012.
(Kent Porter / Press Democrat)

By JEREMY HAY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Sonoma County workers Wednesday set about the laborious task of counting and verifying tens of thousands of mail-in ballots.

Bins of uncounted ballots in the Registrar of Voters’ warehouse vividly illustrated the numbers of envelopes yet to be opened and examined by a staff of up to 24 election workers committed to the task.

It likely will take the full 31 days permitted by law to count them, said Janice Atkinson, county elections chief.

That will delay the naming of victors in at least three local elections, and none of the results for any race or ballot measure will be official until that final certification.

In recent general elections, roughly 35,000 mail-in ballots arrive in the mail or hand-delivered to one of the county’s 194 polling places on Election Day, making them the last to be counted.

It appeared Wednesday that those numbers would hold true again, said Atkinson, a 40-year veteran of the registrar’s office.

“Does it seem to be about usual? Yes, so far,” she said.

At the Santa Rosa Veterans Building — Precinct 3112 — 618 mail-in ballots were turned in Tuesday, a record for a single polling station, Atkinson said.

“That’s an incredible number,” she said.

In total, 184,671 absentee ballots were mailed out to Sonoma County voters — or 71 percent of the county’s registered voters — and about 122,000 of those were returned in time to be counted Tuesday.

But the number remaining means that some close races may hang in the balance for weeks:

• The 10th Assembly District race, where San Rafael Councilman Marc Levine claimed victory Wednesday with a 468-vote lead, but Assemblyman Michael Allen refused to concede.

• The Sebastopol City Council race, where incumbent Councilwoman Kathleen Shaffer trailed challenger John Eder by nine votes in a battle for the final contested seat.

• The Santa Rosa school board race, where newcomer candidates Jenni Klose and Brian Noble were separated by 1,055 votes, with Klose leading.

“Those are the highlights,” said Gloria Colter, assistant county registrar of voters.

A large number of provisional ballots, filed by voters who said they hadn’t received mail ballots or whose status as registered voters couldn’t be verified at a polling place, also must be verified and counted.

Many voters requesting provisional ballots had moved residences without re-registering and, said Atkinson, “our lobby was full of them, and I know the polls were full of them” on Tuesday.

Signatures on every ballot are verified by “eyeball,” Colter said, a demanding task in its own right. Then, a sampling of ballots from 1 percent of all precincts — or five out of the county’s 433 precincts — is manually checked against the computerized tally of votes.

That ensures vote tabulators are functioning correctly, Colter said.

“We always like it not to take that long,” she said. “We put our best effort into getting this done.”

But the wait has grown longer since 2002, when state law changed to allow all voters to register as permanent absentee voters, pushing up the number of mail-in ballots in circulation, and that can frustrate candidates or people invested in the outcome of a ballot measure.

Still, say experts, the price of lowering barriers to voting is worth the reward.

“We’ve tried to make it easier, which makes it more likely that people will vote and that’s good,” said Ed Costantini, a UC Davis professor emeritus of political science. “Anything that enhance the opportunity of people to vote, well, that’s a plus to democracy.”

The boost in voter activity that mail-in ballots can spur also makes the inconvenience worthwhile, said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.

“If you can increase voter participation and also guard against potential fraud, then waiting an extra couple of days for election results seems like a fairly good trade off,” Schnur said.

(You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com.)





6 Responses to “Officials: Up to 35,000 Sonoma County ballots still to be counted”

  1. Que Sera says:

    With 24 employees working 8 hours a day it should take about a day and a half to complete counting of all ballots at a reasonalble pace!

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  2. GAJ says:

    How can Levine claim victory with tens of thousands of votes yet to be counted and with an under 500 vote margin??

    Bizarre.

    Thumb up 5 Thumb down 4

  3. MOCKINGBIRD says:

    We had 186 absentee ballots turned in where I worked and 400 people walking in to vote. I’ve worked that polling place for years and I can say that was an outstanding turnout. It’s a small polling place and we usually have lots of boring lag time. Not this time. I’m proud of Sonoma County residents.

    Lots of people we had to send away because they weren’t registered. Many said they registered through the DMV. That needs to be investigated. Some also did not show up on the rolls yet I recognized them from the primary election. We gave them provisional ballots but that also needs to be investigated.

    Overall things went well.

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  4. Vinyl Rules says:

    I fail to see why Assemblymember Allen would concede now with so many outstanding votes. He may not overtake Levine, but why throw in the towel with tens of thousands of still uncounted votes?

    Thumb up 4 Thumb down 6

  5. Reality Check says:

    Schnur has a fair point. It would be worth it to accept an extra day or two of vote counting in exchange for increased voter turnout. But 31 days more?

    Most of this would be eliminated if we required registration verification before election day. I appreciate the inconvenience involved, but the sanctity of our elections are worth a little inconvenience, I think.

    Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  6. Critic at Large says:

    Why does all of this smell like the hanging chad elections of Florida fame?

    Thumb up 4 Thumb down 2

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