News

New mail-in ballot system triggers delays in election results for San Mateo County

Woodside, Menlo Park council race winners still uncertain

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

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Comments

15 people like this
Posted by Robert
a resident of another community
on Nov 8, 2018 at 2:50 pm

This is colossal joke. In this unprecedented age of technology, we're relying on 1800s-era methods to count ballots by hand? If there aren't enough people to count ballots, hire some temp workers and train them. There's absolutely no excuse not to have all ballots received on or before election day counted. Someone needs to be fired over this, and we need to go back to polling places and electronic balloting.


25 people like this
Posted by Make America Greater Amigo
a resident of Woodside: Family Farm/Hidden Valley
on Nov 8, 2018 at 2:57 pm

I could care less how long it takes to count. It's how long it takes to VOTE, and having a transparent, verifiable paper trail that matter.

Inexcusable to have people around the country waiting in line for hours.

This is America, not a banana republic,

Yet.


14 people like this
Posted by whatever
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Nov 8, 2018 at 4:52 pm

M.A.G.A.
I'm sure you didn't intend to make a racist comment.
Perhaps you were referring to the clothing store chain.


8 people like this
Posted by Brian
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Nov 8, 2018 at 5:42 pm

Brian is a registered user.

I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that the system that they are trying out is not yet ready for primetime. There has to be a way to speed up the voting process and also get timely results. It's almost 48 hours after the close of the poles and we still don't even have decent results on most of the races. This is a clear sign that we need to do better


3 people like this
Posted by Make America Greater Amigo
a resident of Woodside: Family Farm/Hidden Valley
on Nov 8, 2018 at 5:46 pm

@whatever

It's not a racist statement. In fact it has been used by President Trump.


8 people like this
Posted by whatever
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Nov 8, 2018 at 6:42 pm

M.A.G.A.
"It's not a racist statement. In fact it has been used by President Trump."

I rest my case.


9 people like this
Posted by David
a resident of another community
on Nov 8, 2018 at 8:00 pm

Robert, San Mateo County hires close to 100 temporary workers just to process the Vote By Mail ballots and none of them deserve to be fired for not meeting your personal standard.


4 people like this
Posted by Brian
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Nov 8, 2018 at 8:44 pm

Brian is a registered user.

Robert,

I do think expecting election results to be nearly complete 48 hours after an election is a "personal standard". The vote by mail system, at least as implemented by the County of San Mateo, is a step backward in regards to getting results quickly. I think they need to go back to a different solution while they work out the problems.


14 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Nov 9, 2018 at 6:48 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Since vote by mail ballots must be counted if they are postmarked on or before election day there is NO WAY that those ballots will all be received by the Election Office within 48 hours much less counted.

Why do we have to have instantaneous election results?

The votes were each finalized when they were cast and knowing what the exact number is is more important that knowing the wring number right away.

Just look at the current Arizona Senate and Florida Senate and Governor's races.


2 people like this
Posted by Make America Greater Amigo
a resident of Woodside: Family Farm/Hidden Valley
on Nov 9, 2018 at 8:10 am

Not a racist phrase - wiki:

"In political science, the term banana republic describes a politically unstable country with an economy dependent upon the exportation of a limited-resource product, such as bananas or minerals.

In 1901, the American author O. Henry coined the term to describe Honduras and neighbouring countries under economic exploitation by U.S. corporations, such as the United Fruit Company. Typically, a banana republic has a society of extremely stratified social classes, usually a large impoverished working class and a ruling-class plutocracy, composed of the business, political and military elites of that society."

Please offer more than your opinion if ye seeks to continue.

.

re: late count and duration - I'm with Peter. Late and accurate is better than alternatives. But go ahead and raise taxes to pay for it if you want results efficiently tabulated faster. For sure - having a transparent, verifiable paper trail.

We may not YET be a banana republic, but clearly our ADHD society demands faster results.


26 people like this
Posted by Roca Thompson Welch
a resident of another community
on Nov 9, 2018 at 12:09 pm

Having a verifiable paper trail is more important than speed of results. Please check into how programmable scanners and voting machines are not tested well and can bias the results. The election process can be improved, not doubt. But speed should not be the requirement. While less than 40% of eligible voters show up because they don't think their vote matters, we must do everything we can to prove their vote is counted properly.


7 people like this
Posted by Lunch out Front
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Nov 9, 2018 at 12:20 pm

Roca nails it.

Accuracy, verifiable thru paper trails.


2 people like this
Posted by Michael G. Stogner
a resident of another community
on Nov 9, 2018 at 1:06 pm

A most important number in this election is How many Ballots did Mark Church mail out?

We know former San Mateo County Harbor District Commissioner Will Holsinger received two.

San Carlos Councilman Mark Olbert is calling for an Audit.

We know the DOJ had observers in SMC this election.

Web Link


4 people like this
Posted by Michael G. Stogner
a resident of another community
on Nov 9, 2018 at 1:08 pm

As of today there are at least 146,378 ballots to be tallied


Like this comment
Posted by gina
a resident of Menlo Park: Stanford Weekend Acres
on Nov 11, 2018 at 3:06 pm

gina is a registered user.

Why can't they just go back to the good olden days were X's and O's marked the spot. And separate them in their respected piles. Or punch hole cards were officials just put the voted cards in an automated counting machines like the ones the casinos and banks use to count the money. Get rid of the system of matching people to signatures and addresses. Count machines would give us a faster idea of who's ahead or not. What happened to the days when we voted early in the morning by 8 am and have all the results in before the day was over. Current system sucks and needs a complete overhaul. When it comes to the way we vote and they are tallied I am ashamed to call myself an American when I go cast by votes. Should have remained a Canuk and stayed in the mother country instead of becoming an American Citizen. At least our way of voting up in Canada we had results come in faster.


8 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Nov 11, 2018 at 6:27 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Gina - the mail ballot system allows many more people to actually vote than the old voting place procedure. And counting all ballot that were mailed on or before election day is much fairer than what the State of Flrida does which requires that mail in ballot must be received by the close of election day - that system has invalidated thousands of votes cast in Florida because they arrived too late.

A democratic election depends on high participation, accurate and complete counting - not on a speedy result.


2 people like this
Posted by Brian
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Nov 14, 2018 at 9:31 am

Brian is a registered user.

Is anyone else surprised and disappointed at the slow vote counting happening in San Mateo County? There was an update yesterday, 1 week after the election was held, and the number of votes counted in District 2 went up by a whopping 22. The other districts also barely changed in number. We should have had fully a fully certified election at this point but instead the votes are trickling in in drips and drabs. What is going on? How long until we actually get full results of the election?

This is what it says on the official election site for the update yesterday:

"Results include: a portion of Vote by Mail ballots received in the mail, electronic votes from all the Vote Centers, and a portion of paper ballots cast at Vote Centers.
Still to count: a portion of Vote by Mail ballots received in the mail, Vote by Mail ballots dropped off at Vote Centers or Drop Boxes, a portion of paper ballots cast at Vote Centers and all provisional ballots."

Is this what we can expect for future elections?


1 person likes this
Posted by Lunch out Front
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Nov 14, 2018 at 11:29 am

Who cares? Mail takes awhile.

Accuracy, verifiable thru paper trails - that's what 'counts'.


Like this comment
Posted by Brian
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Nov 14, 2018 at 11:34 am

Brian is a registered user.

While I agree accuracy is important, it should not take weeks to get results in. Mail within the county should take at most 3 days. The process seems to have 15 steps to it which is amazingly slow. I think the county needs to back up and find a better, more efficient way of counting the ballots.

In fact many people care, wouldn't you like to know who won the elections? If Measure W passed? I certainly would.


5 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Nov 14, 2018 at 11:47 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

By law the County MUST include military ballots that were postmarked on or before election days. Depending on the individual's duty station such ballots could take weeks to arrive at the elections office.


1 person likes this
Posted by waiting game
a resident of Atherton: other
on Nov 14, 2018 at 12:01 pm

Two years ago, Taylor received 1,195 votes from the precincts that are now in District 1. With only 330 votes for her so far, we can assume that 25% to 30% of votes have been counted so far.


1 person likes this
Posted by bean counter
a resident of Menlo Park: Felton Gables
on Nov 14, 2018 at 3:50 pm

Has her highness Kirsten Keith made any comments on the election results?


3 people like this
Posted by Jack Hickey
a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills
on Nov 14, 2018 at 4:30 pm

Jack Hickey is a registered user.

Mark Church should be recalled. The all mail ballot is a disaster. And, it lends itself to fraud. Voters can easily sign their ballots and sell them to unscrupulous organizations or individuals. Since thumb prints are now required for drivers licenses in California, we should require such identification at the polls. And, absentee ballots should be notarized for authenticity.

See: Web Link


Like this comment
Posted by Jack Hickey
a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills
on Nov 14, 2018 at 4:43 pm

Jack Hickey is a registered user.

See also: Web Link


6 people like this
Posted by Make America Greater Amigo
a resident of Woodside: Family Farm/Hidden Valley
on Nov 14, 2018 at 4:51 pm

jack: "And, it lends itself to fraud."

How much ballot fraud has occurred in this county due to mail ballots in the last decade?

How much ballot fraud has occurred in this county *in any manner* in the last decade?


jack: "Voters can easily sign their ballots and sell them to unscrupulous organizations or individuals."

Has there been ANYTHING like this in San Mateo County in the last ten years? Voters easily selling ballots to unscrupulous organizations?

Twenty years?

Thirty years?

Forty years?


Other than arch-conservatives Dinesh D'souza (guilty of campaign-finance violations) and Ann Coulter (falsified voter registration), who are the most famous illegal voters in the the US in the last decade?

Breitbart? That's your source?




6 people like this
Posted by Make America Greater Amigo
a resident of Woodside: Family Farm/Hidden Valley
on Nov 14, 2018 at 4:55 pm

jack's last link:

"Voter fraud, by any method, is still rare. A study by News21 — a consortium of journalism schools — found 867 cases since 2000 in which someone had admitted guilt or been convicted of a voter-fraud offense. That was out of about 146 million registered voters."

"But some kinds of fraud seem rarer than others. Just seven of these cases involved “voter impersonation” at the polls."


867 cases since 2000 ... out of about 146 million

7 cases of voter impersonation


2 people like this
Posted by Mission Accomplished
a resident of another community
on Nov 14, 2018 at 6:06 pm

Wait -- you expect Jack Hickey to read the links he cites???


2 people like this
Posted by Jack Hickey
a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills
on Nov 14, 2018 at 10:35 pm

Jack Hickey is a registered user.

How many people work for cash and don't report it as income? That's illegal! How many get away with it?


18 people like this
Posted by Mission Accomplished
a resident of another community
on Nov 14, 2018 at 11:27 pm

Jack Hickey -- "How many people work for cash and don't report it as income? That's illegal! How many get away with it?"

And this has to do with with voting in what way, exactly?

Let's face facts here: Aaron Nayfack won election for the Sequoia Healthcare District seat for Zone C. No evidence exists that election fraud was involved in the outcome.

So stop insinuating otherwise.


2 people like this
Posted by Jack Hickey
a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills
on Nov 15, 2018 at 2:42 pm

Jack Hickey is a registered user.

It is so easy to just sign your "all mail" ballot and swap it for something you want. The fact that there are few prosecutions is not surprising. It's virtually undetectable. The system needs to be more accountable.


12 people like this
Posted by Make America Greater Amigo
a resident of Woodside: Family Farm/Hidden Valley
on Nov 15, 2018 at 3:27 pm

"The fact that there are few prosecutions is not surprising."

No, not surprising at all. Same reason as sightings of pigs flying - it doesn't happen.

PROVE IT.


Please answer the other questions about your ridiculous accusations that you ignored:
- How much ballot fraud has occurred in this county due to mail ballots in the last decade?
- How much ballot fraud has occurred in this county *in any manner* in the last decade?
- Has there been ANYTHING like ballot selling in San Mateo County in the last ten years? Voters easily selling ballots to unscrupulous organizations?
- Twenty years?
- Thirty years?
- Forty years?
- Other than arch-conservatives Dinesh D'souza (guilty of campaign-finance violations) and Ann Coulter (falsified voter registration), who are the most famous illegal voters in the the US in the last decade?



Like this comment
Posted by Mission Accomplished
a resident of another community
on Nov 15, 2018 at 4:11 pm

He can't answer your questions, for the simple reason that he has NO evidence to back his "assertions."

He's still in shock over the fact that he lost the election he thought he had won, and instead of acknowledging what happened and moving on, he's coming up with crazy conspiracy theories.

Nayfack definitely won't be doing any of that while in office.


Like this comment
Posted by Lunch out Front
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
10 hours ago

Virtually zero ballot fraud around here. What an absurd notion.

Disgraceful.


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