Why It Takes Longer for California to Count Ballots

A heavy reliance on mail-in ballots, and an extensive review process, can lead to a waiting game for results.

By Corina Knoll,
New York Times,
March 5, 2024


By Tuesday night in California, the ballots will be cast, but the results for many races may remain uncertain for days, even weeks.

It is a familiar waiting game that is unique to the state, tending to prompt public scrutiny and debate when major races or hot-button issues are at stake.

But the delay is largely connected to the fact that most of the state’s 22 million registered voters cast mail ballots — and to an extensive review process that requires more than placing a ballot through a machine.

In California, that means verifying each mail-in ballot through a series of steps, including checking signatures and making sure voters did not cast another ballot elsewhere.

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“We wanted the capacity to process more at a time, which you would think logically would be quicker,” he said. “But if we get 500,000 ballots on Election Day, it’s still going to take us time.”

California is one of eight states that allow elections to occur entirely by mail, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. California tested mail-ballot elections in select counties before the pandemic and permanently expanded the approach statewide after it had its highest turnout percentage in decades in November 2020.

Earlier, Republicans questioned California’s process after Democrats gained crucial votes in the 2018 congressional races as election offices processed ballots for weeks after Election Day. No fraud was found. In 2020, former President Donald J. Trump sowed doubt about mail-ballot elections, discouraging other Republicansfrom supporting the approach on a statewide basis.

Kim Alexander of California Voter Foundation, a nonpartisan group that seeks to improve the voting process, said that the vote count was in need of acceleration, even though elections were secure in the state.

“There’s a perception issue, you know, people see the results change and it raises fears among some people that something questionable has happened,” she said.

She noted that it was not helpful for voters or candidates to have to wait so long to hear the results, and that the process also shortened the available window for a recount.

But Ms. Alexander said that some counties, particularly those in rural settings where there is less help, relied heavily on the allotted days to count votes. And she said that California’s current method gave voters a number of fail-safes to make sure they are not turned away.

“There are all these restrictions that other places put on the voting process that may allow for a speedier election result but can disenfranchise a lot of voters in the process,” she said. “So it’s a trade-off.” (Full Story)