Ballot counting

Counting house — Workers prepare mail-in ballots for counting at the Sonoma County Registrar of Voters office. Record numbers of ballots were turned in late, setting back the certification of the final counts, and potentially altering the outcomes of close elections. 

Record number of ballots turned in late could change outcomes of close races

Sonoma County voters took their sweet time finalizing their choices for the 2018 fall election, and it means that it could be several weeks before candidates can feel comfortable in their victory.

“This year we counted everything that was received as of the Saturday before the election, and all of the ballots that were cast at the polling places. That’s what is reflected in the numbers we have now,” said Chief Deputy Registrar of Voters, Deena Thomson-Stalder, referring to the counts listed on the county’s website. “In addition to those numbers, we also had a bunch of vote by mail ballots that were dropped off at the polls and also vote by mail ballots that are trickling in. We can count any vote by mail ballots that are postmarked on Election Day and received by (Friday, Nov. 9). Then we also have provisional.”

According to Thomson-Stalder, provisional are ballots that are given to voters when a poll worker cannot either confirm they are registered to vote, or cannot confirm they have already voted.

“You don’t want to take someone’s right to vote away so you let them vote, and we work on it after,” she said. “If they are registered and didn’t vote, then we can count the ballot, but then we have to look at which type of ballot they are counting. There are 127 different kinds of ballots for this election. If they went to the right polling place they probably voted with the right ballot, but if they went to a different polling place we have to assess which contests they are allowed to vote on and which contests they are not allowed to vote on. That’s a long-term proposition because those (ballots) have to be handled by a person.”

Typically, provisional ballots are counted last. Currently there are approximately 500 provisional ballots awaiting count.

Thomson-Stalder said that the trend of voters sending in their ballots late started in June’s primary election, but is being reported in other counties as well.

Counties have 30 days to certify their elections. The certification date for the mid-term election is Tuesday, Dec. 6. While Thomson-Stalder hopes to have updated numbers and final counts well before that date, she is realistic about the amount of time that will be needed to count the tens of thousands — potentially as many as 100,000 — mail-in ballots.

“We try to get it done as soon as we possibly can, but I suspect we’ll take quite close to the time, because there are so many people who waited until the last minute to drop their ballots off. And then we have reconciliation activities and a manual tally and we need to verify the counting machines and there is a whole series of tasks to be performed after the election,” she said.

In addition, vote-watchers will have to wait until certification to find out the final answer, as the county will not be updating its website numbers prior to then. “As you know it’s not final, they are semi-official results and we don’t do updates,” Thomson-Stalder said. “Some counties do updates but our system is fairly antiquated and in the time it would take to run the ballots to get an update, we could be doing other things so we can certify earlier. It would delay our certification, so we just say here’s what we know now. We’ll let you know when we’re done — which is as soon as we possibly can — but is usually right up close to the certification deadline.”

In the meantime, workers are preparing the ballots for counting. Candidates, and voters, are eagerly awaiting the final word. 

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