Well, that’s a relief. For the last four weeks, Californians have ceased to be those goofy people on the left coast. For the last four weeks, we have been the people who can’t count. And now the votes from the June 7 primary, more than 8.5 million of them, have been counted; they are due to be certified by Secretary of State Alex Padilla on Friday. The lingering question isn’t who won the presidential primaries or the Senate race; the margins in those races, and most other regional and local contests across the state, were big enough that the winners have been known almost since primary day. No, this was the question: What took you so long? The answer: It’s complicated. More than voters know. But it may be about to get faster. For voters, the most time-intensive part of balloting is deciding which candidate to like. The act of filling in the answers at a polling place or mailing it in from home doesn’t take long. But this year, several factors combined to give elections officials a giant counting headache.
Elections officials say they understand that voters have been wondering what was up. Among other things, the delay fed countless conspiracy theories, particularly on the part of Bernie Sanders voters who saw in the extended count a false hope of eking out victory over Hillary Clinton. “I can certainly relate to the frustration of not knowing why it takes so long in California, but as an election official, if I had to choose I would err on the side of getting it right rather than getting it fast,” Padilla said. (Don’t blame him: The secretary of state’s office doesn’t count ballots; it certifies the ballots counted locally.)
The biggest complication is size. More votes were cast in California in June than there are residents of the entire state of Virginia, or in Kentucky and Oregon combined. Another issue: a state policy change that, this year, allowed ballots to be counted if they were received up to three days after the election, so long as they were postmarked by election day, the previous deadline. That added, Padilla said, hundreds of thousands of ballots to the mix.
Mail-in balloting has boomed in California because of its convenience. But those ballots have to be checked and verified, acts which take longer than simply spinning them through the counting machine. Perhaps the worst complication in June was that the usual number of election day mistakes — primarily, voters going to the wrong precinct, or not appearing on the rolls due to an error — were magnified by the boost in new voters and differing rules about presidential voting on the part of Democrats and Republicans.