Skelton: Election day is now election month in California

Ironically, as our cyber-driven world accelerates, vote counting is slowing to a crawl. Are we ready to accept that?

A patient assent would defy human nature.

It is undeniable that nowadays we wait much longer to find out who won or lost.

When I started covering elections an eon ago, smartphones didn’t exist and a desktop was a typewriter. Cyberspace was a blackboard where we updated the latest numbers from election night dialed in by a reporter at the local voter registry office or the California Secretary of State.

It was an old school system that worked. We usually knew the results by election night or early morning. Maybe two days later at most.

Now we’ve got all this semi-sophisticated tip-tap shenanigans and we’re still waiting for the results of some races, about two weeks after the June 7 primary ends.

It has become the latest cliché: we no longer have election day. It’s election month. In fact, it’s a two-month process – the first month for voting, the second for counting.

What happened? Mainly, we made it easier to vote, and that made it harder – and trickier – to count.

That’s because the vast majority of votes are now cast by letter. You need more time for billing and fraud protection.

Voters must sign the back of the envelope containing the ballot. And it’s compared to the signature they submitted to the electoral register. Yes, all signatures are really checked and this is time consuming.

Decades ago, only a tiny fraction of voters submitted a mail-in ballot. You had to apply for it and justify it. “My grandma will be ill and I will come to visit.”

Later, voters were allowed to be permanently absent. Then the postal ballot was picked up.

Beginning with the 2020 pandemic, a general election ballot was mailed to every registered voter in California. Postal voting increased dramatically — and the count slowed.

This is the trend in the recent general election: in 2014, 59% of California’s votes were cast by mail. In 2018 it was up to 66%. And in 2020 87%. Mail-in ballots make up more than 80% of the total in this area code.

It is easier. You can vote while sitting in an armchair watching a ball game on TV. No stamp required. And you get to vote for a month until Election Day. The ballot papers must be stamped by 8:00 p.m. after the close of voting. And it has seven days to reach the registrar.

So a week after the election, ballots were still coming in, and they were piling up. Counties have issued periodic tallys, but don’t have to report final results until July 8.

Some pundits and pundits say we must learn to live at a snail’s pace.

“We have to stop being so impatient,” says Darry Sragow, a former Democratic strategist who edits the bipartisan California Target Book, which charts congressional and legislative races.

“What if we don’t have final results by election night? What harms democracy? Insiders should cool their jets. We live in a world where everyone wants everything immediately. Getting people to vote is more important than having everything ready by election night. That’s an antiquated way of thinking.”

Maybe not on election night. But much faster than now.

With a fundamentally boring primary, in which not all party offices will be filled by the November runoff anyway, patience may be enough.

But what about November? It is then more urgent to know the results.

A new legislature will meet on December 5 and counties will continue to count for three days after that. If the sluggish tabling repeats, we may not know who should fill some seats.

Four years from now, there could be a hot run for governor when Gov. Gavin Newsom’s term expires, assuming he wins re-election in November. The governor-elect in 2026 will have a short time to organize an administration and prepare a state budget before taking office in the first week of January.

“Unless they change that system, we’re going to be sitting around on Thanksgiving not knowing who got elected to what office,” said Tony Quinn, editor of Target Book and longtime political analyst.

Slow counting of votes leads to inappropriate analysis in post-election reporting and polling.

“Check out the coverage of the LA mayor’s race; it was, ‘This newcomer kicked his ass.’ But he didn’t kick ass,” says Sragov.

First, developer Rick Caruso led Rep. Karen Bass by five percentage points. But on Friday, Bass had turned the results around and led by six percentage points.

“There was all this coverage of the low turnout — before the registrars even got the votes,” notes Quinn.

The final turnout of registered voters is expected to be in the 33% to 35% range. That’s low, but about average for a non-presidential elementary school.

Mailing a ballot to all 21.9 million registered voters didn’t appear to increase turnout, as Democrats had suspected. But postal voting is super safe, despite Donald Trump’s demagogy.

One way to speed up counting is to reduce absentee ballots and only send out ballots on request. In last year’s gubernatorial election, it cost the state $54 million to mail ballots to all registered voters.

Encourage more people to vote in person again.

But they’ve gotten used to the simple life of postal voting.

So the state should consider spending some of its ridiculous $97 billion budget surplus to help counties hire more tellers.

Maybe that’s too easy. Skelton: Election day is now election month in California

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