Officials fear tallying Tuesday election could take weeks

Election cliffhangers might remain hanging considerably longer than usual after Tuesday's balloting as a result of new election requirements by Secretary of State Debra Bowen.

Unofficial election results could come hours later on election night, and final tallies could be delayed beyond the 28-day deadline after the election, county officials say. That's despite county election officials adding staff and volunteers to handle the election load, according to Paul McIntosh, executive director of the California State Association of Counties.

The regulations are causing a growing feud between Bowen and several county election officials around the state.

Among the regulations is a requirement that counties do a 10 percent manual count of votes in races where the apparent victor is ahead by a half percent or less on election night. This is in addition to current state law that requires a 1 percent hand tally after each election as a check of the accuracy of the vote.

The new regulation drew a lawsuit from San Diego, Kern, Riverside and San Bernardino counties. The Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors voted two weeks ago to support the lawsuit.

A San Diego County Superior Court upheld the regulation a week ago. San Diego County Registrar of Voters Deborah Seiler said the decision would be appealed.

Another point of contention in the 14 counties with Election Systems and Software Inc. equipment, including Stanislaus County, is a list of 40 new regulations aimed at making sure there is an accurate count.

Stanislaus County Clerk Lee Lundrigan said several requirements are unnecessary, expensive and time-consuming. Stanislaus County's equipment uses paper ballots, which create paper records that make many new requirements unnecessary, Lun- drigan said.

Nicole Winger, a spokeswoman for Bowen's office, said the requirements come because Election Systems and Software did not cooperate with the secretary of state's office's review of the equipment and software. Without the information the office had on the other election systems, Bowen believed additional security measures were necessary, Winger said.

The optical scanners used in the system are computers, Winger said, with software that can cause problems.

In the case of the hand tally requirement in close races, accuracy is paramount, she said.

"We don't want California to be another Florida or Ohio," Winger said. "In a very, very close race, every single vote could be swinging the outcome either way. Secretary Bowen's highest priority is accuracy. It's more important that those results be right than fast."

Lundrigan said the 10 percent tally is unnecessary and burdensome and could cause counties across the state to miss the state-mandated deadline for finishing the vote canvass. The canvass must be completed 28 days after the election.

The canvass is the official certification of the election results and includes the absentee ballots and contested ballots that were not counted election night.

Election night results include about 80 percent of the total vote, Lundrigan said. Mail-in votes dropped off at polling places and arriving election day in the mail and provisional votes cast at the wrong precinct are included in the 20 percent not counted on Election Day, she said.

Requiring election workers to hand tally up to 20,000 ballots in the middle of trying to complete the canvass is a wasted effort, Lundrigan said.

"I doubt we would be able to make that deadline if this (10 percent hand tally) takes place," Lundrigan said.

Seiler agreed the requirement doesn't make sense.

"On election night, we might have seven or eight contests within a half of a percent, but when we finish the certification, three or four of them wouldn't fall into the half a percent. Another two or three that were not close on election night will be that close," Seiler said.

The hand tally required by state law is designed to check the accuracy of the software and hardware used in the election, Lundrigan said. That also is assured with logic and accuracy testing before and after the election, she said.

The 10 percent requirement doesn't enhance that accuracy test, Lundrigan and Seiler contended.

Winger disagreed, saying the higher percentage reduces the risk of error.

Bowen's contention that the cost of the hand tally and some of the other new requirements should be paid by the suppliers of the election equipment is another point of controversy.

Lundrigan and Seiler said the equipment vendors have contracts with the individual counties. Because the secretary of state's office is not a party to the contracts, it cannot impose conditions on the vendors, they said. That means taxpayers will be picking up the tab, they said.

The two sides also disagree over whether Bowen has the authority to require a higher standard than state law requires.

"The secretary of state is trying to circumvent legislated law," Lundrigan said. "She's overstepping her authority."

Not so, Winger said.

"California law is crystal clear: The secretary of state has authority to set security and auditing procedures," she said.

Contra Costa County Clerk Steve Weir, who heads the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials, said election numbers might not be ready until early Wednesday morning, and June and November elections could be even later.

Bee staff writer Tim Moran can be reached at tmoran@modbee.com or 578-2349.

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