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Why California Takes So Darn Long To Count Its Votes

Photo caption:

Photo by Ben Adler / Capital Public Radio

Sacramento County election workers "remake" a damaged vote-by-mail ballot Monday afternoon. At left, the damaged ballot: partially crumpled and torn, and stamped "VOID." At right, the new ballot: a duplicate with votes marked in blue highlighter.

Two weeks after Election Day, two California propositions and numerous local races remain too close to call. That’s because counties estimate there are still more than two million unprocessed ballots.

So why does it take California so darn long to count the votes?

Well, for one thing, blame coffee.

“Coffee stains look just like an oval mark,” Sacramento County Assistant Registrar of Voters Alice Jarboe said. “So we have to remove all those coffee stains.“

Yes, it seems at least some Californians like to fill out their vote-by-mail ballots over breakfast.

And it gets worse: jam and jelly.

“We do find those on the ballot,“ Jarboe said. “Those gum up our vote counting machines, so we will remake those ballots.”

And remaking a ballot isn’t quick. Two election workers pair up to copy the votes from the damaged ballot onto an unmarked duplicate.

”One person will call, the other person will mark,” Jarboe said. ”And then they’ll double check their work to make sure that the calling and the marking compares.”

65 yes, 66 yes, 67 no,” a nearby election worker called out as she and a colleague compared a ballot's votes on three of California's statewide propositions.

After they check their work, a quality control team will check again. And then, the damaged ballot gets a big blue “VOID” stamp.

Other times, Jarboe said, there's a slightly quicker fix involving white-out tape: “We will take that white-out tape and white over the problem ovals — the voter crossed out the oval, and said ‘No not this one, this one.' We’ll cross out the one they didn’t want; we’ll white that out; and then a star stamp next to it. The star stamp is everybody’s indication that we touched that ballot and we corrected it in some way.”

Turnout will likely top 14 million Californians once all the ballots are processed. And as voting by mail has surged, so too has the time it takes counties to process mail ballots.

Plus, there are provisional ballots, which Jarboe said take even longer to process, because it’s often hard to verify a voter’s eligibility.

“We would prefer that you show up at your own polling place and that you be registered,“ she said. “But we’re not going to tell you to go away, that you can’t vote. We’ll go ahead and let you vote a ballot and put it in a provisional envelope, and then we true it up here.”

That’s because California provisional ballot laws are much more permissive than in other states. California counties have two more weeks to certify their final ballot counts. Other large states like Florida and Virginia have already done so.

California Counts is a collaboration of KPBS, KPCC, KQED and Capital Public Radio. Our coverage focuses on major issues and solicits diverse voices on what's important to the future of California.

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