Voting woes an embarrassment

Throughout California, worried elections officials have been telling The Associated Press that more than one out of 10 presidential primary ballots are likely to remain uncounted on the night of the Feb. 5, possibly delaying our result announcements until last of all 24 “Tsunami Tuesday” states. Could anything be more embarrassing for California’s stature as world leader in high-tech?

This time the accused bottleneck is late absentee ballots, not the vulnerabilities of all-electronic voting machines. About half the ballots cast for theelection are expected to arrive by mail, up from 33 percent in the 2004 presidential primary. And the unsettled drama of both the Republican and Democratic campaigns may tempt many absentee voters to wait until the last minute before submitting their ballots.

Any absentee ballots not received at a county election headquarters until Election Day are unlikely to be counted for as long as a week after polls close, warned the voting registrar of San Diego County.

About 4 million of California’s 15.5 million registered voters have applied for “permanent absentee” status, which means they automatically receive all their ballots by mail. That total could grow to at least 4.3 million by the time registration for the presidential primary closes tomorrow, according to the statewide registrars association. In addition, regular one-time absentee ballots for this specific election are likely to be requested by some three-quarters of a million voters. There were more than 700,000 of such nonpermanent mail voters in the 2006 state election.

Yet another complicating factor for Tsunami Tuesday is California’s system of allocating party delegates by congressional districts, which often cross county lines. So the final results of a closely contested election might remain unknown for days if some counties within the district cannot keep up with their neighbors’ tallies.

A mess like this simply is not acceptable in California. Our state is the home of Silicon Valley, birthplace of the modern computing that continues to transform the world from right here in the Bay Area. Could it really be true that the armada of brilliant thinkers responsible for Google, the iPhone, Oracle, Hewlett Packard, et al., would be unable to quickly create a practical, tamper-proof method of tallying a database on some five million paper ballots? That is actually a relatively manageable data total by 21st-century standards.

Under state law, registrars can begin feeding absentee ballots received before Election Day through the counting machines a week before polls open. The problem of delayed vote tallies arises when a mass of late-arriving absentee ballots must be put aside on the night of Election Day in order to count the ballots cast in person at individual precincts. We say there has to be a better way for California, of all places, to bring out prompt, accurate and final vote totals.

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