San Luis Obispo elections officials put accuracy before speed

Hard-to-read, absentee and improperly cast ballots slow vote-counting process

tstrickland@thetribunenews.comNovember 16, 2012 

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of provisional ballots cast in San Luis Obispo County in 2008 and 2012.

As San Luis Obispo County election staff continues to count and verify the remaining batches of ballots from last week’s election, they’re focused on doing it correctly.

Like many others across the state, antsy local voters and candidates yearn for final totals.

“It’s understandable some people want election returns immediately, but it’s more important than ever to get results right rather than get results fast,” Secretary of State Debra Bowen said in a statement. 

In California, counties have until Dec. 4 to finish processing ballots and until Dec. 7 to report their certified results to the Secretary of State.

In San Luis Obispo County, preliminary totals of provisional and duplicate ballots that are holding up totals for the closest local races could be posted Wednesday, Clerk-Recorder Julie Rodewald said. 

The public is often surprised to learn after a major election that thousands of ballots countywide remain to be counted, according to the county Clerk-Recorder’s Office. 

Certified election results from the county’s 2010 and 2008 elections also were announced in late November. 

To those who wonder what takes so long, Rodewald invites them to watch the election office’s tallying work at the County Government Center.

“For people to understand the whole process is really helpful,” Rodewald said. “I’ve had plenty of observers come in and say, ‘Boy I will be more careful next time to make sure my ballot is OK and that I don’t write a random name on those write-in lines.’ ”

Those things matter because it can take several minutes per ballot among heaps of forms to make sure every verified vote counts.

Changes in voting methods also lead to longer waits for totals.

In San Luis Obispo County, provisional ballots shot up from 3,771 cast in 2008 to 6,533 in this election.

“And that was just a shock for us, to have it almost double,” Rodewald said.

Verifying the accuracy of provisional ballots — those issued to people with new addresses, voters who were registered in the county but didn’t go to their assigned polling places or who changed their minds on Election Day — takes an average of about 3 minutes each and hundreds of hours of staff time, Rodewald said. 

“This does not include the double check that we do on those that are rejected or the time it takes to open the envelopes and prepare,” she added. 

The duplicating process for torn or stained ballots that can’t be read by the machines takes more than four minutes for each, Rodewald said.

Ballots also need to be duplicated for voters who used provisional ballots at unassigned polling places but weren’t eligible there, such as an Arroyo Grande resident who voted on the Grover Beach city measure.

For the current election, the county elections office had to duplicate 1,684 ballots as of Friday morning, equating to 126 staff hours.

The growing number of vote-by-mail ballots also is a factor.

In San Luis Obispo County, nearly two-thirds of county residents who voted this election cast vote-by-mail ballots — around 65 percent as of Friday.

“It’s just been increasing, and it doesn’t ever go backwards,” Rodewald said, noting that people who opt for mail-in typically don’t return to the polls in future elections.

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