Millions of California voters had the same question after the March 3 primary: “What is taking so long?”
Secretary of State Alex Padilla, who has the responsibility for overseeing elections, said it could be weeks before the outcome of some races is known. He called that “a good thing.”
Padilla has been at the forefront of an effort to enact new laws that almost forcibly register people to vote and effectively drag them to the ballot box, or drag the ballot box to them. The cross-pollination of all these changes has given us a new type of election in California in which large-scale voting begins a month before Election Day and results are uncertain for weeks afterward.
Early voting and vote-by-mail have been expanded beyond their old limits. And California added a New Motor Voter Act that now automatically registers people to vote when they obtain or renew a driver’s license or California ID card, or when they change their address.
But that wasn’t enough. California enacted a law allowing same-day voter registration at all polling places, followed by a law that allows voters to change their party registration or home address by simply signing a statement at the polling place when they checked in.
All of that is in addition to the Voter’s Choice Act, signed into law in 2016 and in use in 15 counties for 2020. Under this law, local polling places are replaced by a smaller number of vote centers that offer voting and all voter registration services for up to 11 days. Californians can go to any vote center in the county and vote, or register to vote, or change their registration information. New electronic pollbooks connected the Secretary of State’s voter database are supposed to catch any duplicates.
In case that is not convenient enough, the Voter’s Choice Act counties mail a ballot to every registered voter. It can be mailed back without a postage stamp, dropped off in unattended drop boxes, returned to a vote center or handed to any individual to turn in.
Los Angeles County, with about 5.5 million registered voters, was granted an exemption from the requirement to mail a ballot to every registered voter. But after Los Angeles County experienced long lines at vote centers on Election Day, Padilla sent a snippy letter to county Registrar of Voters Dean Logan demanding that a mail ballot be sent to every registered voter before the November election. Logan fired back that this would require “an evaluation of the costs, contractual authority, capacity and reliability of the providers and systems needed to meet legally required timelines for vote by mail, sample ballots and other required election notices.” He told Padilla that 2 million of L.A.’s registered voters have never requested or voted with a mail ballot.
Logan inaugurated a new system of electronic ballot marking devices that experienced all kinds of problems, but L.A. wasn’t the only Voter’s Choice county that had issues. The e-pollbooks had intermittent trouble connecting to the Secretary of State’s voter registration database, which struggled with high volume on Election Day. Many voters who couldn’t check in used back-up paper ballots, on which they had to hand-write the candidates and measures.
All these changes contributed to the long, slow vote counting that we’re seeing now. Under California law, vote-by-mail ballots are on time if they arrive three days after the election. Same-day registration and late changes to a voter’s information require provisional ballots, verified and counted after the vote-by-mail ballots are tallied.
This is like a restaurant that decides to put four entrees on the table in front of each customer hoping it will be more persuasive than a written description on a menu. The quadrupled food preparation will overwhelm the staff, there will be a lot of waste, and if too many customers show up for dinner at the same time, it’s likely to end in a pie fight.
Elections are serious business, with billions of dollars and the future of California, and perhaps the nation, at stake. It’s fine to try to make voting more convenient, but there has to be a better way that doesn’t leave voters waiting hours to vote and weeks to find out the results.
Susan Shelley is an editorial writer and columnist for the Southern California News Group. [email protected] Twitter: @Susan_Shelley
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