From the Sacramento Bee via email:
1 million votes still untallied in California
By Dorothy Korber - email@example.com
Last Updated 6:07 am PST Thursday, February 14, 2008
Story appeared in MAIN NEWS section, Page A22
Leticia Valdez, 19, processes mailed-in ballots for counting Wednesday at the Sacramento County elections office. One of 100 temporary workers brought in for the count, Valdez said she was surprised at how rigorous the process is. "I didn't know there were so many steps," she said. "I figured we marked a ballot, it went through a machine, and that was it."
Super Tuesday seems long gone as the nation turns its hungry eyes to the next round of presidential primaries – but for nearly a million Californians, the votes they cast in the presidential primary are yet to be counted.
This mountain of absentee and provisional ballots – 960,000 of them by one estimate – equals the total number of Democratic votes cast in Virginia this week and far exceeds Maryland and the District of Columbia.
"In California, we're sitting on almost a million votes still to be tallied – and meanwhile the pundits are going on and on about states that don't have a million votes, total," said Steve Weir, who keeps a running tally of "unprocessed ballots" in his role as president of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials.
California's slow count is the product of a couple of factors: the state's growing love affair with absentee ballots paired with a high-voltage primary that drew inexperienced voters who were enthusiastic but sometimes careless.
In Sacramento County, 90,000 ballots remain unprocessed, while 277,000 had been counted as of Wednesday afternoon.
Los Angeles County has 200,000 unprocessed ballots – and that's not counting the 50,000 presidential votes it discarded because a quarter of the decline-to-state voters improperly marked the county's ballots.
Statewide, Weir said, most of the uncounted votes – about 600,000 – are absentee ballots turned in on election day. Still to be vetted, he reckons, are 400,000 provisional ballots, which typically are valid about 85 percent of the time.
He estimates 10,000 more uncounted ballots are damaged: shredded in the mail, mutilated in vote-counting machines, or gummed up by sloppy voters who dribbled coffee or ketchup on their absentee ballots. Election workers must pry them open, try to figure out the voter's intention, and then create a fresh ballot to feed into the machine.
No matter the obstacle, they're looking at a deadline of March 4 to have the results of the more than 7.1 million ballots cast in the state's presidential primary to California's secretary of state.
A question almost as big as the pile of ballots is what difference they might make in the national presidential race.
"It's not over till all the votes are counted," said Robert Stern, head of the nonpartisan Center for Governmental Studies based in Los Angeles. "To have a million votes not counted a week after the election is extraordinary, especially in an election when people wanted so much for their vote to count."
Stern has been keeping a sharp eye on the evolving situation in California. In the great hunt for Democratic Party delegates, he figures, all those uncounted California ballots probably will translate into a mere handful of the state's 370 delegates that are pledged to primary results – seven at most, in districts that were close to begin with (none of them in the Sacramento region).
But, with Hillary Rodham Clinton (who garnered 2.3 million votes in California) and Barack Obama (with 1.9 million votes) still battling for their party's nomination, every delegate is hard-fought. On Wednesday, the Associated Press calculated that Obama's delegate total stands at 1,275 to Clinton's 1,220.
Stern believes the uncounted votes won't change results for state propositions. Nor will they affect Republican primary results in California, since Mitt Romney's decision to drop out made John McCain the clear winner.
The national political scene is fluid and exciting, but down in the trenches, California election workers are slogging through a herculean task.
At Sacramento County election headquarters Wednesday, dozens of workers diligently dealt with the details: checking and double-checking signatures on absentee envelopes, validating write-in candidates (few were valid), deciphering mutilated ballots and carefully substituting clean ones.
Every ballot sent to a precinct must be accounted for. Even the empty absentee ballot envelopes – more than 80,000 of them – are documented, filed and saved for at least 22 months.
Nineteen-year-old Leticia Valdez sat at a big table, patiently checking mailed-in ballots to make sure precinct numbers were recorded correctly. She sorted out damaged ballots, including those with stray pen marks. She put write-ins in a separate pile, to be checked by teams of other workers.
Valdez, one of 100 temporary workers brought in for the count, said she was surprised to learn how rigorous this process is.
"I didn't know there were so many steps," she said. "I figured we marked a ballot, it went through a machine, and that was it."