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How To Fix The Vote Counting Problem

You’re probably asking yourself, how long does it take to count votes in Mendocino County?

The answer is: Longer, much longer than it should ever take in a county with only 90,000 people.

I liken this situation to the old saying about justice. “Justice delayed is justice denied.”

Obviously the voters deserve better treatment, not to mention a little bit of respect.

The problem started back in 2006 when then Assessor-County Clerk-Recorder Marsha Wharff made the move to close most of the county’s polling places and converted 201 of the 235 precincts into mail-in only precincts.

Prior to the closure of almost all of the old “walk-in and vote-by-machine” precincts, the Elections Office routinely had complete ballot counts done within a few hours past midnight on election day. The morning after election day, the voters actually knew the outcome of the election. Imagine that.

Sometimes, the old way of doing things is the best way.

Since fixing something that was never broke in the first place, counting ballots is now a complete mess. For example, the November 2014 election took a total of 17 days before the tally was completed.

Then in 2016 — a presidential election year — a new record for slo-mo vote tallying was set when it took 22 days to count 38,730 ballots, which was the total turnout in Mendocino County. That amounted to 75.89 percent of the 51,035 registered voters, an outstanding voter showing.

As I write this, we are now on day 9 of an incomplete ballot count. Two days after the June 5th Primary, the Elections Office sent out the following statement:

“Mendocino County Assessor-County Clerk-Recorder Susan M. Ranochak announced that as with every other election, there are ballots left to be processed as part of the official canvass. Mendocino County has 14,354 Vote By Mail ballots to process, and 410 Provisional ballots to review and process. Of the outstanding ballots left to count: the 3rd Supervisor District has 2,883; and the 5th Supervisor District has 3,828 ballots to count. Mendocino Coast Health Care District (Measure C) has 5,165 ballots to count; Fort Bragg Rural Fire Protection District (Measure D) has 1,835; Coast Life Support District (Measure E) has 814; and Southern Humboldt Community Health Care District (Measure F) has 31 ballots let to count. Per State law, we have 28 days to complete the canvass. The Statement of Vote, which breaks down results by precinct, will be available at that time.”

Since that update, there has been no further information released on election results.

Not to get preachy, but this is no way to run an election, but there is a simple solution to remedy that problem.

Following the November 2016 election, UDJ Editor K.C. Meadows wrote a series that examined the vote counting process utilized by the Elections Office. It read more like an illuminating grand jury report than a stock reporting piece. Her recommendations, if implemented by the Board of Supervisors and Elections Office, would solve, at hardly any cost to taxpayers, a two-decade problem of bureaucratic-erected barricades that unduly delay the counting of votes. Both the voters and the candidates deserve — and should demand — their basic right to a speedy election.

Here’s what Meadows wrote in 2016, and her recommendations are just as relevant an on-point today.

The Clerk legally has 28 days to complete the vote count. If Ranochak finishes Wednesday, she will have taken 22 of those 28 days to get it done. That’s a very poor result and having watched the process this election cycle I can tell you there is no reason for it.

Ranochak got 31,794 mail-in ballots in the November election. Of those, about 6,000 were voted before the election. A couple of days after the election, she sent out a press release saying she had a little over 25,000 ballots left to count. Most of those mail-in ballots – about 20,000 of them – she had on hand before Election Day. If the elections office had gotten all those mail-in ballots counted before Election Day, we would have had a clear – if not officially final – result election night.

One way to do that is to have lots more people opening and inspecting ballots before the election, and lots more doing it during and after. We could know who the winners are with some certainly election night, and almost finally within a couple of days of the election.

Needed Changes: More Balloteers

Before the election, Ranochak limits the number of people (who work in teams of two) opening and inspecting mail-in ballots to six (three teams). As the election neared she increased that one day to four teams and one day to five teams. She needs 10 or 12 teams at a minimum. She says she can’t do that because she doesn’t have the space. But she does. There are several large conference rooms in the administration building where this could be accomplished. Ranochak says she needs them close to her where she or Bartolomie can be ready to answer questions and supervise. Nonsense. Clearly they have, right now, about four people who have been doing this for years who could easily supervise groups of what I have named the “balloteers” in a large setting. You just need to train the balloteers and have people who have done it before, supervise closely. With four experts in the room you could easily have 20 teams of two going through mail-in ballots quickly. They would get about 100 ballots an hour opened and inspected. That would be 2,000 ballots an hour. In a couple of days all the mail-in ballots could be opened and readied for counting.

Remake Inspections Overkill

Part of the opening and inspecting process is looking over each ballot to see if there are any marks, tears or other things marring it that might cause the voting machine to spit it out. Those ballots are set aside to be “remade” by balloteers in teams of two at another time, after they have been inspected by Ranochak or Bartolomie. It seems to me this is an unnecessary step. While watching the voting machines in action I saw ballots being spit back out all the time – clearly not all marred ballots are caught by the balloteers. But more important, if the ballot can’t be read by the machine, it will spit it out. Why not just let the machine tell you which ones it can’t read rather than having groups of people guess which it can’t read and another group second-guess that guess before it even gets to the voting machine?

Use More Voting Machines

As for counting the votes on the ballots, again, Ranochak limits the number of people using the voting machines to two, maybe three. She has 11 voting machines. She says she won’t use more because it’s a small room (so move to a bigger room) and she’s afraid the machines will overload if used continuously. Sounds like time to get newer, more efficient machines.

And that brings me to another point. According to two county supervisors I have talked to during this election process, Ranochak has never asked for more funding to hire more balloteers or buy more, newer, or more efficient voting machines. It appears to me that she simply likes doing things the way she was taught to do them and doesn’t care that it takes almost a month for her to let the voters know who won an election.

As I said, these much-needed suggestions could be carried out without much impact on the county’s budget. Keep in mind, this is a county that thinks nothing of spending several million dollars every year to hire outside consultants and engage professional services for all sorts of — sometimes — questionable tasks and activities.

Surely, the voters are entitled to some small return on their taxes that would be spent to actually benefit them whenever they exercise their right to vote?

Who can argue with that?

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