In the undecided race for San Luis Obispo County District 4 supervisor, lawyers for candidate Lynn Compton demanded on Wednesday that the county clerk stop processing a group of problematic ballots, which the county said it will not do.
At last count on Monday, Compton was 81 votes ahead of challenger Jimmy Paulding. The next return will come out Friday afternoon.
At issue now is 35 vote-by-mail ballots with signatures that election workers determined don't match the voter signature on file. The question is whether the elections office can legally continue to process those ballots until the vote canvass is over to allow those voters time to verify their signature and have their votes counted.
That's what county Clerk-Recorder Tommy Gong plans to do — and what Compton's attorneys say is not allowed.
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"We've been doing this to enfranchise the voter," Gong said. "Why penalize them? They got their ballot to us in the right amount of time — but there was a question about their signature."
Compton attorneys Charles Bell and Stewart Jenkins disagree.
"There is no legal authority to do this," they said in a June 13 letter to Gong. "Your approach would extend the election voting period in a discriminatory and unlawful manner in order to favor one candidate."
Gong provided both campaigns voter files with information about ballots that had no signature or mismatched signatures, and the campaigns attempted to contact those voters to cure the problems and have those votes count.
Some were remedied, but as of Wednesday night, 31 remained.
"Your proposed extension past the bounds of time mandated by statute subjects persons who purportedly voted into being manipulated by a losing campaign into confirming ballots which were not legitimate at the time they were delivered to the Post Office or the polling station," the letter says.
New state law clearly dictates how the county handles ballots with no signature on the envelope: Voters are given until eight days after Election Day to sign validation forms and have their vote counted. That timeline expired at 5 p.m. June 13.
But ballots with mismatched signatures are another issue and the subject of an ongoing lawsuit about voter disenfranchisement filed by the ACLU against the state of California.
In their letter, Bell and Jenkins also point to election code that says if "the signatures do not compare, the identification envelope shall not be opened and the ballot shall not be counted."
Compton's attorneys demand Gong stop processing those ballots and, if he continues to process those ballots, identify what legal authority he has, for the purpose of litigation.
Gong, in a written response, said he will continue to accept comparison signature verifications until all votes countywide are tallied, adding that "the vote-by-mail county procedures implemented by my office in no way favor one absentee voter group over another."
He said that no time limit is stated in the election code for the process of validating signatures, and that election code "mandates that the vote-by-mail provisions 'shall be liberally construed in favor of the vote-by-mail voter.'"
Paulding called the attorneys' letter "Compton's intimidation tactics" to disenfranchise voters, and he commended Gong "for standing up" to them.
In a written statement to The Tribune, he alleged that Compton took issue with the process only after her campaign realized that more of those ballots included votes for Paulding.
"Now she is trying to stop the process to gain an electoral advantage at the direct expense of her 4th District constituents," Paulding said.
Compton did not respond to a request for comment.
Gong said he expects to see this problem occur more often in future elections.
"In some ways it's an unintended consequence of the vote-by-mail ballots," Gong said, and "it will continue to be an issue as more and more vote-by-mail ballots are cast.
"This process will continue to refine as we go through it."
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the correct number of ballots with mismatched signatures that have not yet been cured.