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Two months to count the ballots? California's long numbers make Election Day weeks, months

Almost two months after the election, a recount decided the outcome of the U.S. House of Representatives primaries in Northern California

Most Californians vote by mail, and by pursuing accuracy, thoroughness and counting every vote, the country's most populous state has earned a reputation for allowing vote counts to drag on for weeks — and sometimes longer. Voting in the state's primary election ended March 5.

At a time when many Americans have doubts about the integrity of elections, a two-month timeframe for counting votes in a House race is “absolutely a problem from an optical perspective,” said Kim Alexander, president of the nonpartisan California Voter Foundation, which strives to improve the voting process.

No one has publicly questioned the accuracy of the tabulation, but “when you have ballots that are just sitting around for a while, it raises an eyebrow,” said Republican consultant Tim Rosales, who was not involved in the race.

“That's not to say there's anything untoward going on, but the average voter is becoming skeptical about the time and length of the process,” Rosales said.

Secretary of State Shirley Weber, who oversees elections, said in a statement: “I understand that people want finality, but accuracy is of the utmost importance.” The fact that in California and its counties it is taking a little longer to get everything Elections are held and accuracy is ensured should increase people’s confidence in the results.”

Eleven candidates were on the ballot in the heavily Democratic 16th District south of San Francisco, with one seat being vacated by retiring Democratic Rep. Anna Eshoo. Under California rules, all candidates appear on the same primary ballot, but only the two with the most votes advance to the general election, regardless of political party.

A vote count in early April showed former San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, a Democrat, in first place. Two other Democrats were stuck in second place with 30,249 votes each — state Assemblymember Evan Low and Santa Clara County Executive Joe Simitian.

That count was followed by a recount and disputes over disputed ballots that ended Wednesday. Low secured a five-vote lead in the recount and secured second place in the November vote.

The contest will not impact control of the closely divided House, which is decided in swing districts contested by Democrats and Republicans across the country.

Alexander, of the voter foundation, said one of the problems behind lengthy counts is tight budgets for the county election officials who do the tedious work. She said there is no direct funding from the state to run elections, leaving counties limited in how many people they can employ to verify ballots and what type of equipment is used. And close contests mean long vote counts.

There was a time when most residents voted in person on Election Day, but the increase in mail-in voting brought its own complications. Postal ballots postmarked by Election Day can arrive within seven days and remain valid. The heavy reliance on mail-in ballots — each voter receives one — also results in a longer count because each one must be opened, validated and processed individually.

For example, in 2022, it took nearly a month for Republican John Duarte to be declared the winner in the 13th Congressional District in central California. He defeated Democrat Adam Gray by 564 votes.

In 2018, Republicans raised questions about California's lengthy vote-counting process after Democrats captured a number of U.S. House seats in the state.

California also has requirements that voters must be contacted if a mail-in ballot is unsigned or the signature does not match official records, which in turn causes delays. And last-minute voting means poll workers can be overwhelmed with tons of ballots, even if mail-in voting begins a month before the end of the election.

Liccardo made several recommendations, including passing a law requiring automatic recounts in close races that are funded by the government — not candidates, outside donors or political action committees. Under state law, any voter can request a recount, but most voters also bear the costs, which can sometimes run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Anna Harden

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