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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

If you’re thinking about staying up all night to watch California election results, grab some coffee: It will probably be a long night … or week … or month—the price we pay for enabling more procrastinators to vote.

The holdup? Voters here prefer voting by mail, and California—unlike most other states that allow mail-in ballots—counts every ballot postmarked by Election Day, even if it arrives up to three days later. Typically, mail ballots must be received before or by Election Day in order to count, according to a review by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Four years ago, California was among the 36 states that required mail ballots to arrive by Election Day, with three states requiring mail ballots to arrive even earlier. But Sacramento lawmakers, on a party-line vote, enacted a Democratic proposal in 2014 to expand the window for voting.

Now, as the state increasingly moves away from polling places and toward vote-by-mail ballots, registrars in most counties are having a difficult time meeting the public’s impatience for instant results.

In this year’s June primary election, more than two-thirds of California voters mailed in their ballots. But on election night, workers were able to tabulate only about 58 percent of the total ballots cast—another 3 million-plus arrived over the next three days to be tallied. That left many counties scrambling to handle the avalanche of mail-in ballots days after election night.

“There are just more tasks that we have to do after election day that we didn’t have to do years ago,” said Joseph Holland, president of the California Association of Clerks and Elections Officials. “It’s more work. We’re having to hire more people. We’re having to train more people.”

Three states—Oregon, Washington and Colorado—eliminated polling places and conduct all their elections via mail. But Colorado elections director Judd Choate says that unlike California, his state requires all mail-in ballots to arrive at the registrar’s office by the time the polls close.

Colorado’s system offers another incentive for voters to get their mail ballots in early, enabling a quicker count: “The other thing that is a big advantage for mail-in early is you stop getting the robo-calls; you stop getting the cardboard in your mailbox, because we process that within 24 hours of the submission of your ballot, and then that information is released to the parties,” Choate said. “And then they stop bugging people.”

Counting ballots is a four-step process, which in California can begin 10 days before the election: 1. Scan the barcodes on ballot envelopes to track received ballots. 2 Process ballots by verifying signatures, removing them from envelopes and ensuring they’re clean enough for the counting machines. 3. Machine-count the votes. 4. Tabulate those votes into results. The last step cannot be done until after polls close on election night.

California lawmakers who supported pushing back the date by which ballots could arrive argued that voters were often confused and thought they could just drop their ballots in the mail on Election Day. Proponents cited a 2010 case in Riverside County, when more than 20,000 ballots were misplaced and discovered in a post office the day after the election.

The bill analysis at the time noted that it would be difficult to predict what extending the tabulation time by three days might cost.

“If we really want to see these ballots counted faster, one hard question we will have to ask ourselves is: How much money and support are we willing to give our registrars to do this?” said Mindy Romero, founder and director of the California Civic Engagement Project, a nonpartisan research group.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics."

Published in Politics

California is politically lopsided: Most of the people live in the south, but most of the political power is based in the north.

In recent years, the majority of politicians elected to statewide offices have been northern Californians—including the governor, lieutenant governor, schools superintendent and both U.S. senators.

That could change after November’s election, because a striking number of statewide races this year pit a NorCal candidate against SoCal candidate, testing the political power and competing priorities of the Golden State’s two most populous regions.

But don’t count on it.

Northern California is likely to continue to dominate for reasons that largely boil down to this: People in the Bay Area just vote a lot more than those in Los Angeles. Economic and demographic changes overlap with voting trends, together situating California’s political nucleus in the heavily Democratic region in and around San Francisco.

“There is some built-in disadvantage for statewide candidates coming from the Los Angeles area,” said Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California. “The voter turnout and participation is disappointing in L.A., compared to the rest of the state.”

Even though Los Angeles is the state’s most-populous county, it has the lowest turnout rate for registered voters. Of the 58 counties, L.A.’s turnout was dead-last in the 2014 election and second-to-last in the June primary. Participation is so abysmal in Los Angeles County that voters there actually cast fewer ballots than voters in the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area—even though Los Angeles County has 1.2 million more people registered to vote.

Turnout is better in other populous SoCal counties such as Orange, San Diego and here in Riverside, but still not as strong as in the Bay Area.

“It’s a tale of two economies. Where you have a declining middle class, you have fewer voters and less civic participation,” said Mike Madrid, a GOP political consultant with expertise in Latino voting trends.

Southern California is home to a greater share of Latinos than the Bay Area, and has many more people living in poverty—both characteristics correlated with low voting. Per-capita income is much higher in the Bay Area, and jobs there are being created faster. That not only means people are more likely to vote; it also gives candidates from the region a stronger network for fundraising.

“As the economy has separated, so has our democracy,” Madrid said. “The nine-county Bay Area is becoming whiter, wealthier and older. And that’s creating a power base that is driving the political leadership and discourse for the rest of the state.”

Of course, voters don’t always choose the candidate from their own region, and a home address in the Bay Area is no guarantee of a candidate’s success. Other factors—such as politics, fundraising and the power of incumbency—also come into play.

But with seven of the nine statewide races on November’s ballot featuring a north-south matchup, the question now is whether voters will defy the recent trend.

In the race for governor, the dominance of Northern California was clear when the primary was over in June. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the former mayor of San Francisco, beat out two fellow Democrats from Los Angeles to face Republican John Cox of San Diego on the November ballot. Newsom is far ahead in the polls and fundraising in a state where just one-quarter of voters are registered GOP.

Given their advantage in voter registration and fundraising, Democrats—no matter which end of the state they live in—are favored to win in statewide contests against Republicans. One test will be in the race for insurance commissioner, which features a Democratic legislator from Los Angeles against a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who is running with no party preference. Steve Poizner, who was insurance commissioner from 2006-2010, used to be a Republican but changed his registration to run this year. He splits his time between Silicon Valley and San Diego, and is facing state Sen. Ricardo Lara, a Los Angeles Democrat, in this down-ticket race.

Because of California’s nonpartisan election system, some races feature two Democrats, making the outcomes harder to predict. Voters could choose a lieutenant governor who lives in San Francisco—real estate developer Eleni Kounalakis—or one who lives in Los Angeles, state Sen. Ed Hernandez. They could pick a statewide schools superintendent who hails from the Bay Area—Assemblyman Tony Thurmond—or one who helped run schools in Los Angeles, Marshall Tuck. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein—a former mayor of San Francisco—is fighting a challenge from the left from state Sen. Kevin de León, a Democrat from Los Angeles.

“All else equal in terms of platform, and political leanings, if you have connections to the Bay Area, that is considered to be an advantage,” said Mindy Romero, director of the California Civic Engagement Project at the University of Southern California. “It’s both the voter strength in the Bay Area and the (fundraising) money that’s present in the Bay Area.”

The dynamic is different for legislative races—where the state is broken into districts with equal populations. Southern California’s large population means the region has many representatives in the Legislature, including the leaders of both the Senate and the Assembly.

But because of the voting trends, many SoCal lawmakers are elected with fewer votes than their NorCal colleagues. Even though Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, who lives in Los Angeles County, is one of the state’s most powerful politicians, he was elected by about 89,000 voters in 2016, while several Bay Area legislators got at least 130,000 votes.  

Mike Trujillo, a Democratic political consultant in Los Angeles, said he’s hoping the energy this year over control of Congress will prompt more Southern Californians to vote. With several contested House races, the region is being blitzed by ads and volunteers reminding people an election is coming up.

“We do have a lot of those swing seats,” he said. “We’re hoping that is influential.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California’s policies and politics.

Published in Politics