Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Election certification deadline looms

Today is the deadline for counties to certify their results from the November 7 election. As this recent article in the Riverside Press-Enterprise by Jim Miller and Michelle DeArmond explains, the certification process is taking longer in some counties because of the increase in provisional and absentee voting. Excerpts are below.


By the close of business Tuesday, the count should be over.

For almost four weeks, election workers throughout the state have been processing the estimated 8.7 million ballots cast Nov. 7, including hundreds of thousands of absentee and provisional ballots that swamped counties on or just before Election Day.

Come 2008 and beyond, counting votes will get only more complicated, experts say. Elections nationwide have become a thicket of varied ballot types, new rules and some public skepticism about the process.

"It's taking longer than it used to, and that's a trend," said Steve Weir, Contra Costa County's registrar of voters and president of the California Association of Clerks and Elections Officials.

In California, the availability of touch-screen voting in 22 of the state's 58 counties -- including Riverside and San Bernardino -- feeds an expectation of quick results after the polls close. Counties, though, also have to process sacks of late-arriving paper absentee and provisional ballots.

Some California election offices effectively held three Nov. 7 elections: pre-election voting, Election Day voting and absentee voting.

"The job of running our elections has become increasingly complex," said Ray Martinez, former commissioner of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. "My concern ... is voter confidence. We've had a serious erosion in the trust that people have in the integrity of election outcomes."

Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, said critics should be concerned by things besides how long it takes to count ballots.

"What does concern me greatly is that there were sporadic problems throughout the state with voting equipment, and that was not isolated to Riverside County," she said. "I think that the registrars and the poll workers are, on the whole, in over their heads with the voting equipment and the procedures and the requirements that have been placed on them. We need to get a handle on that process."

Absentee voting used to be the exception. In the November 1978 election, 7.1 million ballots were cast statewide, but only 314,000 were absentee ballots.
Earlier that year, though, lawmakers had relaxed the rules to let anyone request an absentee ballot.

In 2002, absentee voting became even easier. A law took effect that allows people sign up to be permanent absentee voters. Before then, a permanent absentee voter had to have certain medical conditions.


People signed up in droves. Almost 4 million people were registered as permanent absentee voters before last month's election, a 16-fold increase from six years ago.

Election offices statewide had about 2.3 million completed ballots in hand before Election Day. Many more arrived in the mail or were dropped off at polling places on Election Day.

In addition to late-arriving absentee votes, counties received thousands of provisional ballots cast by people whose names were not on the precinct lists because they were in the wrong precinct, had failed to reregister at a new address or for other reasons.

Both sets of ballots created extra work for election officials. Each ballot has to be checked to ensure that it had come from an eligible voter. Workers have to verify that the voter didn't also vote at a polling place.

"Those provisional ballots can take hours to check -- each," said Ernest Hawkins of the Election Center, a Texas nonprofit that focuses on improving the voting process.


Requiring postmarks on absentee ballots poses problems. Some postmarks are hard to read. Also, ballots can be postmarked by the deadline but not arrive until after the election. That increases the risk of fraud.

Ballots could be shortened significantly if cities, counties, school boards and other agencies held their elections separate from congressional and state voting. But that would decrease voter turnout.

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