California counties predict slow returns Tuesday

Top California election officials predict election returns will be delayed Tuesday in the wake of Secretary of State Debra Bowen’s decertification of election equipment in some counties.

Those delays could be even worse in June and November, they said, which have far more contests to count.

This is the classic tug-of-war that election officials face on Election Night: Fast results vs. trusted results.

Activists want paper-based ballots and oppose electronic voting machines on the grounds that clever hackers could hijack election outcomes. But many election officials have argued that Bowen went overboard and instituted reforms with little or no proof of voter fraud.

Bowen spokeswoman Kate Folmar said the secretary has every confidence that California county election officials will conduct a professional and accurate election. Changes in election equipment law impacted 21 of the state’s 58 counties.

(As a side note, I laughed at the quote from Contra Costa Registrar of Voters Steve Weir about how numbers won’t be ready until early Wednesday morning. Does that mean I’ve been working for no reason in the past until the wee hours of the morning reporting on election results?)

Here’s what a press release sent a few minutes ago from the California State Association of Counties said:

SACRAMENTO – California’s county election officials are warning that the state’s election results will be delayed, despite bulking up on staff and volunteers needed to carry out the February 5th Primary Election – a result of actions taken by the Secretary of State last year.

“Counties are well prepared to conduct this election, and report results as soon as they become available,” said CSAC Executive Director Paul McIntosh. “However, because the Secretary of State decertified many counties’ electronic voting systems just six months ago, election officials have been scrambling to change election-day procedures for counting votes. Even with the sizeable number of additional volunteers who work tirelessly in precincts throughout the state, the process will take significantly longer this year.”

In addition, with close to 50 percent of the expected vote to be cast by mail, between 1 and 2 million ballots cast in this election will not be reported in election night totals. And, in any close race, it will take one to two weeks to have most of these ballots included in updated totals, according to elections officials.

“With the changes the Secretary of State has put into place, the fact is that it’s going to take us longer to get votes counted,” said Rich Gordon, CSAC President and a San Mateo County Supervisor. “We realize that California is a pivotal state in this election, and all eyes will be on our numbers, but, the fairness and accuracy of the election remains our primary concern. So, while our reporting may be delayed, we want to ensure that our results are correct.”

There are approximately 25,000 precincts throughout the state’s 58 counties, and about 16 million registered voters in the state. Counties need to recruit an estimated 100,000 poll workers across the state for this election, including more than 24,000 in Los Angeles County alone. The estimated statewide cost for counties to administer the February election is $110 million. Governor Schwarzenegger vowed to pay counties for these costs when he signed the law creating this extra election, although there is no mention of it in his January budget proposal.

“There are very few contests on the February ballot, which will help expedite the counting process,” said Steve Weir, Contra Costa County Clerk-Recorder and president of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials. “However, we are still looking at early Wednesday morning before we’ll have our numbers ready. This does not bode well for the upcoming elections in June and November, when the number of contests will be substantially higher.”For more information, please visit the Elections section of the CSAC Web site: www.csac.counties.org/default.asp?id=301.

Lisa Vorderbrueggen