Here are a couple of questions that may have crossed voters’ minds during the two weeks between the election and Nov. 16, when Tuolumne County’s last ballots were counted and its tightest races were finally decided.
• How come it takes our elections office one night to count more than 20,000 votes and nearly two weeks to tally another 3,800 ballots that were either dropped off at polling places on election day or raised some eligibility questions and were classified “provisional”?
• Is there any way to speed the process, thus sparing candidates, the backers of bond measures and the interested public long days of suspense and anxiety?
Fair questions, acknowledged County Clerk-Auditor Debi Russell, whose departments runs our elections.
First, she explains, the county is divided into 60 precincts based on supervisorial, school, special district and legislative boundaries.
Voters who still go to the polls cast ballots by precinct, and theirs are easy to count. The rest of us vote by mail and, if we send them in early enough, the elections staff has plenty of time to verify them and organize them into precincts.
The problem is with procrastinators whose ballots arrive by mail on election day, or with voters who bring their mail ballots to the elections office in Sonora or to any county polling place on that day.
Those ballots — this year there were about 3,300 of them, representing 14.5 percent of the total vote — must be verified by signature, sorted by precinct, counted and added to the tally. The process takes about two days.
Next come the far more problematic provisional ballots — 524 of them this time around. These are typically cast at the wrong polling place, by voters whose registration status is unclear, by those who don’t live in the county and even by people who cast more than one ballot.
“This year we had one older lady who voted once by mail and again at the polls,” said Russell.”The second one didn’t count.”
Then there was the guy from Stockton who decided to vote in Sonora while here for the day. Although polling place workers were instructed to let him vote rather than argue, his ballot wasn’t counted either.
All told, 102 of the 524 provisional ballots were disqualified.
The bottom line is that each of these ballots is a mystery that must be investigated and solved. It is labor-intensive work that can take several days.
That Russell’s election staff was cut from four to two as part of budget cuts didn’t help. That Russell herself missed two days of work during the count due to sickness only stretched the process. So did Veterans Day, a holiday for county workers.
Bottom line: The count took nine working days to complete, which is far faster than some larger counties in which the tally may stretch beyond Thanksgiving.
Eliminating mail ballots? Not going to happen.They are convenient and popular. More than 80 percent of all Tuolumne County votes cast in the Nov. 2 election were mail-ins.
Hiring more election workers? Not unless the economy improves.
Russell says it lies in education: Letting citizens know that 11th-hour mail or drop-off voting will stall the count, and instead encouraging them to cast ballots early.
She also urges voters who have moved or are uncertain about their registration status to check it out early and resolve any problems long before election day. That could seriously cut into the time-consuming provisional ballot count.
Seems like sound advice to us.