Two months to count election ballots? California's long tallies turn election day into weeks, months

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Nearly two months after the election, a recount settled the outcome in a Northern California U.S. House primary contest, breaking a mathematically improbable tie for second place but also spotlighting the lengthy stretch it took count the votes.

Most California residents vote by mail, and in the pursuit of accuracy, thoroughness and counting every vote, the nation's most populous state has gained a reputation for tallies that can drag on for weeks — and sometimes longer. Voting in the state’s primary election concluded on March 5.

At time when many Americans have doubts about election integrity, a two-month stretch to tally votes in one House race “absolutely is a problem from an optics point of view,” said Kim Alexander, president of the nonpartisan California Voter Foundation, which seeks to improve the voting process.

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

“Not to suggest anything untoward is going on, but for the average voter, they become skeptical about the time and the 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 utmost importance. The fact that California and its counties take a bit longer to have inclusive elections and ensure accuracy should make people more confident in the results.”

Eleven candidates were on the ballot in the heavily Democratic 16th District, south of San Francisco, a 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 tally of votes in early April showed the top spot was claimed by former San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, a Democrat. Two other Democrats were deadlocked for the second spot with 30,249 votes each — state Assembly member Evan Low and Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian.

That tally was followed by a recount and disputes over contested ballots that concluded Wednesday, with Low picking up a five-vote advantage in the recount to claim the second spot on the November ballot.

The contest will not play into control of the narrowly divided House, which will be decided in swing districts being contested by Democrats and Republicans around the country.

The voter foundation's Alexander said one of the problems behind lengthy counts is tight budgets for county election officials who do the laborious work. She said there is no direct funding from the state to administer elections, so counties are limited in how many people can be hired to review ballots and what kind of equipment is used. And close contests mean long vote counts.

There was a time when most residents voted in person on the day of the election, but the rise of mail voting has come with its own complications. Mail ballots postmarked by the date of the election can arrive within seven days and are still valid. The heavy reliance on mail ballots — every voter receives one — also results in an extended tally because each must be opened individually, validated and processed.

For example, it took nearly a month in 2022 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 ballot-counting process after Democrats captured a string of U.S. House seats in the state.

California also has provisions under which voters must be contacted if a mail ballot isn't signed or the signature does not match official records, again creating delays. And last-minute voting means election officials can be swamped by heaps of ballots, even though mail-in voting begins a month before the election ends.

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