Judge rules against Lynn Compton — election office can process mismatched signature ballots

SLO County Clerk-Recorder shows what it’s like to count thousands of ballots

San Luis Obispo County Clerk-Recorder Tommy Gong talks about the process of counting ballots on June 6, 2018, the day after the California Primary. Thousands of ballots remain after Election Day in SLO County.
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San Luis Obispo County Clerk-Recorder Tommy Gong talks about the process of counting ballots on June 6, 2018, the day after the California Primary. Thousands of ballots remain after Election Day in SLO County.

A judge on Wednesday denied San Luis Obispo County District 4 Supervisor Lynn Compton's request to order county election officials to stop processing certain ballots, saying that he won't rewrite election code as Compton's lawyers requested.

The judge also lifted a temporary restraining order, meaning SLO County's head election official can now legally continue to receive corrections from voters whose ballots have not yet been counted because election workers had determined the signature on the ballot envelope did not match the one on file.

There are 34 such ballots remaining, which is too few to sway the election in which Compton, the incumbent, leads challenger Jimmy Paulding by 55 votes as of the last count Wednesday afternoon.

Find out if your ballot was counted or challenged by checking the SLO County voter status page or by calling 805-781-5228.

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San Luis Obispo County, California, District 4 campaign representatives for Supervisor Lynn Compton and Jimmy Paulding watch ballot counting at the SLO County election headquarters.

In response to the ruling, county Clerk-Recorder Tommy Gong said, "That's nice to hear. I feel vindicated."

Election code is silent on when officials have to stop processing vote-by-mail ballots with mismatched signatures. Processing the ballot involves allowing a voter the opportunity to confirm the signature is theirs and, if the ballot is found to be valid, counting the vote.

The issue is the subject of a lawsuit brought against the state of California by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, which argued that some election officials' practice of not counting such ballots and not giving voters an opportunity to correct the problem is unconstitutional.

San Francisco Superior Court Judge Richard Ulmer Jr. agreed, ruling that "no ballot may be rejected based on a mismatched signature without providing the voter with notice and an opportunity to cure before the election results are certified."

But the ruling did not affect the June 5 primary election.

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With more voters choosing vote-by-mail ballots, "this is becoming more of an issue," Gong said. He estimates that "there will certainly be more clarification statewide, with new standards, new regulations."

There are "several reasons why a person's signature may differ on two occasions," Ulmer says in his ruling, "physical disability, injury, a primary language that does not use Roman characters (e.g. many Asian Americans), or simply the passage of time."

Compton's attorneys, Charles Bell and Stewart Jenkins, argued in a June 15 lawsuit that Gong did not have the authority to continue processing vote-by-mail ballots with mismatched signatures passed a certain deadline.

The deadline they identify is eight days after Election Day and only applies to envelopes with no signature. The attorneys argued it should also apply to those with mismatched signatures to "harmonize" code sections.

"Petitioner's cited authority does not support its request to apply the deadline in section 2019, subdivision (f) to mismatched signatures," La Barbara writes in his opinion. "The court, therefore, declines to rewrite the statute as requested by Petitioner."

The attorneys tried a different argument in court Monday, arguing alternatively that if the judge thought it was beyond his power to rewrite election code that he should instead find that any corrected vote-by-mail ballots received after the Election Day deadline are untimely.

"Petitioner offers no authority for this latter proposition, and there is no evidence offered that the VBM ballots at issue were not timely received in the first instance," La Barbara says.