Story of the Week: Registrar of Voters Criticized for Slow Results

Everyone who had a stake in one of the local races on Election Night was asking the same question: For the love of god, what is taking so long for the results?

OK, maybe that’s not exactly what everyone said, but it’s close.

The first polling returns from the Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters came in at 8pm on schedule. They were inconclusive, as expected, but they were on time. The next round of returns were supposed to be released around 9:30-10pm. So people waited.

Anxious candidates, political consultants whose work was finally done, friends and family who just wanted the night over, reporters and photographers who just wanted the night over, middle-aged men wearing cheesy buttons as they ate cheese cubes, labor party interlopers, crying toddlers.

They all waited, and then they waited some more.

The second round of results didn’t come out until about 10:30pm, and by that time most people were already calling it a night. Half the precincts’ results were still missing after midnight. Media reports the next morning were forced to hedge their bets by setting expectations, rather than declarations, of winners and losers.

It was an embarrassing showing from a ROV that has had its fair share of critics in the past. As one campaign consultant told San Jose Inside, “This is a frickin’ outrage that we have elections in Silicon Valley like this. San Mateo’s are up and down by 10 o’clock.”

Another campaign consultant put it even more bluntly: “Santa Clara County is the Florida of California when it comes to elections, because they’re so incompetent.”

But according to the newly minted Registrar of Voters, Barry Garner, his staff isn’t to blame, and people might as well get used to waiting in future years.

“Bottom line is, based on the system we have—and trust me, I’m not complaining— there’s not much we can do to make the process faster,” Garner says

The ROV uses a central counting system, which basically means that after a person votes they put their ballot in a rectangular bag that is locked once the polls close. That bag is then transported to the ROV, where a person hand feeds each ballot into a machine that tabulates results. On Tuesday, Garner says, the first ballots didn’t even arrive until 9:30pm, setting the process back substantially.

“Most of the precincts were checked in by 11pm,” he adds, “but then our work is just beginning.”

And here is the part where we trot out the clichéd rhetorical question: You mean to tell me that in Silicon Valley, the most technologically advanced area in the world, we don’t have a state of the art voting system?

It’s a cliché, but this appears to be one of those times where the complaint has merit. All of the surrounding counties have precinct voting, which allows votes to be tabulated almost immediately after a ballot is cast. All that’s left to be done is each precinct handing over a memory card to the ROV.

Garner came to Santa Clara County a year ago after running the ROV for Fulton County, Georgia, which includes the Atlanta metropolitan area. He says voters in that county use touch screens.

“I would love that system,” Garner says, noting that they’re not allowed in California. “If we had the system, we would have been done by 11:30.”

Replacing the antiquated vote counting method here in Santa Clara County will cost $17-20 million, Garner estimates. Until then, the plodding process will remain in place, and Garner has no intentions of keeping his staff in the office all night.

“I told people from the beginning, we will not be here until 5am,” he says. “If they want the results quicker, they need to a get a new voting system.”

Considering the county’s sales tax increase, Measure A, met voter approval, it’s a discussion worth having. Carving out $5 million each year from a $4.1 billion budget is not impossible. And, really, who wants to be compared to Florida?

Josh Koehn is a former managing editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley.

6 Comments

  1. This is not the 19th century.  We are Silicon Valley, nobody wants to get it wrong; but we have the technology to make the counting and reporting of ballots work. 

    By Rob’s logic, we should put down our IPADS, IPHONES and computers, what the hell is wrong with pencil and paper. 

    Antiquated thinking in my view.  More importantly, it costs less money over the long-run.

  2. About 60% of our voters are vote by mail voters.  Many turn in their ballots at their polling place on election day.  You’d have to find a way to speed up the counting of paper absentee ballots.  Electronic voting at the polls won’t solve the counting of the volume of paper absentee ballots received on election day.

  3. who really cares, voted were cast, results were counted.  Lets just get it right.  The parties could be held later.  So they did not make the 11 o’clock news.  You could always catch the mercy news 2 days after the fact.

  4. They count most of the AB before the polls close, results are not released until afterward.  So the only ballots we count are those that are turned in on Election Day. 

    Machines exist where voters could drop their Election Day ballot in a box, which would read the votes.  AB votes could be opened and counted the same way at the precincts.

    Then you could modem results to office by phone for unofficial tally.  Any verification could take place afterward.  Total time it would take would be less than 2 hurs after polls close.

    Even with paper ballots.

    • No.

      Right now the R of V says that they verify absentee ballots with the signatures they have on file before counting the votes.  Absentee ballots should not be opened and scanned at polling places. There is too much opportunity for tampering.  For example, too much opportunity for races farther down on the ballot which were left blank to have the arrow pieces connected.  This applies both to candidate races and propositions/measures. 

      The R of V does not now open and count AB votes at precincts, and it needs to stay that way.  People who now drop their ‘sealed in an envelope’ AB votes at their polling place would not feel safe doing so if the envelopes were opened at the polling places.

      The current way is safe for AB voters. Opening the envelopes at the polling places is not.

  5. Is it the unwillingness to spend the money to improve the system, or is it incompetence?  Who knows, but you’re not going to find out without spending some money first.