When the first, much anticipated vote counts were released by the San Mateo County Elections Office at 8:05 p.m. Tuesday, the numbers, while telling in some instances, were in many cases so low that key races were undetermined.
Candidates and voters frantically refreshed the county's online vote-count report throughout the night in 30-minute increments; the initial numbers inched up little by little, but the count was clearly incomplete at the close of election night well after midnight.
When the next vote count report was published Nov. 8, numbers in many small races barely budged. The next round of election results was scheduled for release at 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 13, after The Almanac's press time.
The sluggish turnaround time for the vote count doesn't reflect the round-the-clock work of about 135 people in three shifts at the county Elections Office. Up to 200 workers planned to step in until the vote count is complete and certified which must happen within 30 days, according to law.
During a Friday afternoon (Nov. 9) visit to the Elections Office at 40 Tower Road in San Mateo, The Almanac witnessed a hive of workers diligently working to count the reams of purple envelopes surrounding them, a labor-intensive process that requires multiple levels of review by human eyes.
The delays are also partly the consequence of a statewide effort to make it easier for people to vote. San Mateo County is one of five counties in the state to conduct an all-mail election as part of the Voter's Choice Act, a 2016 state law that allows counties to use a different election model that gives voters more options over how, when and where they cast their ballots. Key aspects of the election model are that every registered voter is mailed a ballot; people can do in-person voting at designated voting centers before Election Day; and voters can submit their ballots at any voting center within the county.
This is San Mateo County's first state general election using this model, and if last June's primary was any example, it appears that people tend to wait until the last minute to submit their ballots, according to Jim Irizarry, assistant chief elections officer for the county. In the three-day period after the June primary, "our office received tens of thousands of Vote by Mail ballots each day," he said.
As of 5 p.m. Nov 7, the Elections Office reported it had received 231,805 ballots, and more were still arriving. By comparison, in the last statewide general election in 2014, county voters cast a total of 164,453 ballots.
"You'll see ballots coming out of our ears here," Irizarry said.
The delays have meant that, especially in small local races, comprehensive election results won't be known for some time, with more substantial counts anticipated by the end of next week, Irizarry said.
In elections covered by The Almanac, only the Menlo Park City Council race for District 1 has a wide enough margin of lead to determine the winner: Cecilia Taylor garnered 75 percent of the vote among early voters and others whose ballots were tallied on election night.
The race for the Woodside Town Council District 7 seat, on the other hand, is not so safe to call, with Ned Fluet leading Frank Rosenblum by only 25 votes in the preliminary count.
Other races whose results are are in the air because of the slower process include District 2 and District 4 in the Menlo Park council race, although Drew Combs and Betsy Nash have significant leads; the race for three seats on the Menlo Park Fire Protection District board; and the Measure Z bond measure put on the ballot by the Portola Valley School District.
An extensive process
Ballots that are received by mail or dropped off at vote centers have to go through a 15-step counting and verification process, Irizarry explained. Ballots are run through what's called an Olympus scanner for an initial count. Then people remove by hand a privacy tab on the outside of the envelope to expose the voter's signature before the ballot is scanned again. People then have to verify the signature by comparing it with the voter registration signature.
If there is no question about the signature, the ballot is scanned again to sort for possible damage, and then again to sort the ballot by precinct. After that it is extracted from the envelope and counted.
Ballots that aren't 100 percent clear about the voter's intent whether the voter filled out something wrong, smudged something or even spilled coffee on the ballot are then reviewed by a separate group of people to figure out what was intended.
"It's a process that's designed to be precise, accurate and time-consuming," Irizarry said. "With this complex process, and the increasing number of mailed ballots received, it may take some time to call a very close race."
It doesn't help, he noted, that the elections technology used in San Mateo County both the Olympus ballot sorter and the "E-Slate" electronic voting machines are about 12 years old, and bordering on obsolete. The county plans to get new elections technology in place before the 2020 elections, but the elections this year raised the question: Should the county wait to deploy the new elections model for another two or three years, or adopt it now with the existing technology, acknowledging the vote counting will take more time? The county opted for the latter, Irizarry explained.
In addition, the elections office this year has received an "unprecedented" number of provisional ballots and those cast under conditional voter registration. Both of those types of ballots must be processed by hand, he said.
Provisional ballots are those cast by voters who think they are registered to vote even though their names are not on the registration list, or people who vote by mail but instead want to vote at their polling place or a vote center and don't have their ballot with them.
Conditional ballots are for people who missed the Oct. 22 deadline to register to vote or update their registration information. They can vote at their county elections office or a satellite location, and their ballots are processed once the elections office verifies their information.
Those voters who reported having to wait in long lines, he said, were probably conditional voters who in previous elections before the 2016 Voter's Choice Act may have been excluded from the voting process. While he didn't yet have an exact count of the number of conditional voters, he said, he expects numbers of several thousand more than in the June primary, which had about 900 conditional voters.
A new normal?
San Mateo County was one of five California counties this year to conduct all-mail elections, along with Sacramento, Napa, Madera and Nevada counties. The Almanac contacted the other counties implementing this voting system, and while all agreed that the new system has increased voter turnout, San Mateo County appears to not be alone in struggling with the new system to release substantial vote counts on election night.
According to Janna Haynes, communications officer for the Sacramento County elections office, some races in that county also had too few votes counted on election night to call particularly council races in small cities, and races whose outcomes rely strictly on county votes.
"We have bags and bags of drop-off and mail-in ballots that are being processed now," she said.
"I do think that election night results those are over," she said. "It's kind of the tradeoff for opening up accessibility and convenience to include more voters."
According to Napa County Registrar of Voters John Tuteur, there are two factors that impact how fast election results are released: having to verify signatures on the vote-by-mail envelopes, and when voters decide to cast their ballots.
At 8 p.m. on Election Day, Napa County released the results of about 21,732 ballots, which he said he estimates to be about 45 percent of the total number of ballots. That county has been about 90 percent vote-by-mail for about 10 years, Tuteur said in an email.
In the past, about half of the ballots had been collected in time for the results to be released in the first round of election night numbers; more recently, the trend has been for voters to wait longer to return their ballots, he said.
"We had thousands of ballots returned at our vote centers, our drive-through voting locations and our official ballot drop boxes on Monday, November 5, and Tuesday, November 6. The later we receive ballots the more time it takes to process those ballots and get them into the results stream."
He added that he believes some of Napa County's consistently high voter turnout about 12 to 14 percent above the statewide average comes partly from the flexibility provided by mail-in ballots, and partly from community engagement.
"I was pleased in this election that we had throngs of younger and first-time voters participating, which is a good sign that Americans are concerned about protecting our precious, democratic ideals," he said.
Madera County Clerk-Recorder Rebecca Martinez pointed out in an email that "regardless of the voting method, certifying election results is never done on election night."
"In Madera County election results are usually certified 2-3 weeks after the election but the law allows up to month or so," she wrote. "The process of certifying election results is not any harder because of the Voter’s Choice Act."
She added that she believes the change is increasing voter participation.
Nevada County Registrar Gregory J. Diaz said that the all-mail system has boosted voter turnout in his county, which had the highest turnout in the state in the June primary election. For the November elections, he said, the county is "closing on 80 percent, which again may be the highest in the state."
When the results are finally counted, Irizarry said, he expects to see a historically high turnout for a statewide election. "It really is cutting-edge," he said. "It will impact how elections are conducted in the state of California."
• Related coverage: Long, slow lines frustrate San Mateo County voters