Foon Rhee

Counting votes can’t get any slower, can it? Under the new voting system, it might

Felicia Thompson answers a voter’s question at Sacramento County’s elections office on Tuesday.
Felicia Thompson answers a voter’s question at Sacramento County’s elections office on Tuesday.

Sacramento County’s first test of a new voting set-up apparently worked in one big way – the projected voter turnout of about 47 percent would be the highest for a non-presidential primary in at least 20 years.

But speeding up the counting of votes, when slow results are a perennial complaint in California? Not so much.


As of the latest update on Thursday, 154,435 ballots had been counted in Sacramento County, but there were still nearly 190,000 to be processed. It could take until June 29 to finish counting; the final totals are due to the state before July 6. Statewide, there were 4.2 million votes counted and an estimated 2.6 million unprocessed ballots as of Thursday.

Sure, elections officials need to be as quick and efficient as they can to get final results. It’s frustrating for voters, and even more so for candidates in tight local races, waiting to see whether there is an outright winner or a runoff in November.

But we have to keep in mind that California goes out of its way to make it as easy as possible to vote, bends over backwards to make sure every vote is counted and lets voters have their say on many more issues than most states.

Expanding democracy, however, comes with trade-offs.

If we don’t want completely electronic voting – and why would we with the danger of hacking? – then we use paper ballots that slow the count.

If we want to wait as long as possible to turn in ballots in case there’s a big campaign news, that means more ballots have to be counted later.

And if we want to be able to vote directly on hot-button issues and allow more candidates to run, we get longer ballots that take more time to process.

The new voting system – with all voters receiving mail ballots – amplifies all those issues.

Sacramento County was by far the largest of the five counties testing the new system under the 2016 Voters Choice Act. Instead of traditional polling places – more than 500 in November 2016 – there were 78 vote centers, plus 53 drop box locations. Some opened as early as May 26.

The new set-up worked as expected in one way on Tuesday. Because voters could go to any vote center, there were thousands fewer provisional ballots – those cast at the wrong polling place that have to be individually verified.

What election officials didn’t expect is the surge in late-arriving ballots – which slows the vote count. On Nov. 8, 2016, about 140,000 people voted at polling places and another 89,000 dropped off mail ballots.

On Tuesday, 17,000 people voted in person, 100,000 mail ballots came in at vote centers and 50,000 arrived at drop-off sites. Another 65,000 ballots were turned in on Sunday and Monday. So two-thirds of all ballots came in the last three days of voting.

Alice Jarboe, the county’s interim Registrar of Voters, says that overall, she considers the new system a success and says it will work better as more voters “get it.”

Still, she says she’s glad the first test was in a primary so it can be improved for the bigger general election. The county elections office is already thinking about some tweaks for November.

For instance, county officials opted to scan all ballots at the main elections office, when before they were scanned at each polling place on election night. In November, there will be more frequent deliveries of ballots to the main office.

The public information effort will also be increased, funded by $133,000 in the new county budget approved Tuesday. There will be more outreach on social media.

To help voters with urgent questions, the elections office hotline will be more prominently promoted. To lessen confusion, vote centers and drop box locations will be listed on separate sheets that come with mail ballots. It also wouldn’t hurt to list drop-off sites by when they’re open as well as by location, so those who need early morning or evening hours don’t end up sliding ballots under the door of closed sites. Or better yet, drop box sites could be open the same hours as vote centers on election day.

Still, elections officials can’t control when voters turn in ballots – or how long the ballot is. With 27 candidates for governor and 32 for U.S. Senate, the Sacramento County ballot took three cards for the primary. With the number of statewide and local initiatives and measures headed to the November ballot, it could be four or five cards, Jarboe said.

So she has a message: With the mail ballot system, calling winners on election night will happen less often. That’s something all of us – candidates and voters – will have to get used to. And that’s going to take some time – just like counting ballots.

Foon Rhee: 916-321-1913, @foonrhee