Press Flak on California Tsunami Tuesday

It’s pretty certain that California is in for some serious flak from the press regarding how the Tsunami Tuesday primary election is conducted. Today we saw an opening salvo in the San Francisco Examiner on a refreshingly pragmatic issue of voting technology that has nothing to do with voting devices in precint — but rather how absentee ballots are counted.

In today’s editoral, the Examiner pointed out the bottleneck in counting "late absentee ballots" or to be more precise, vote-by-mail ballots that were mailed in time to meet the deadline, but arrived at county elections HQ on or after election day. The Examiner claims that a half (up from a third recently) of all ballots cast will be vote-by-mail. Given that percentage, a goodly number will in fact arrive after the pools close.

To that, I’ll add another factoid, which is that based on exactly one data point 😉 of the precinct where I am an elections worker. A lot of by-mail voters drop off their ballot envelope in person at a polling place because they’re not sure about the mail cut-off, timely mail arrival, etc. In my precinct, about a third of all ballots we sent to HQ were by-mail drop-offs — the leading wave of the tsunami of mail-in ballots arriving after the polls close.

Therefore, even if elections officials started the mail-in ballot counting process on a rolling basis before election day (as they are allowed to do), they are still going to have a lot of mail-in ballots in the in box on that groggy morning the day after the election. And on that day, Job One is to count the ordinary ballots that were cast in the polling place, and only thereafter to start the much more laborious process of examining mail in ballots and provisional ballots to determine validity.

Can technology help here? Yes, as a tool, not a solution. Counties have the latitude to decrease the rate of "late arrivals" (including the large number of them from drop-offs) so that those voters’ votes get counted in the main steam of tallying using both e-voting devices and computerized ballot scanning/tallying. The changes in practice would increase the leverage from technology. Whether those changes would be wise (if you’re interested in what the issues might be, please contact me) is another matter – but I do think that technology as a tool can contribute to information policy debate and decisions.


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