[Image courtesy of mydesert.com]
My friend and colleague Paul Gronke of Reed College has a provocative piece up on his EarlyVoting blog in response to continued coverage in California of the ongoing ballot count from last month's Election Day.
The new clerk-recorder in Riverside County, CA, Kari Verjil, has apparently avoided the pothole that ended the career of her predecessor Barbara Dumore.
Riverside has the 10th fastest count among California counties, according to information just released by the Secretary of State's office.
Verjil attributes the improvement to a dedicated effort by her office to encourage citizens to cast their ballots by mail. Verjil did the smart thing by figuring out the best way to respond to the pressures placed on her by political actors.
It's the political pressure that bothers me. Buried down in the story is this revealing comment:
With paper ballots in widespread use after the state's decision years ago to eliminate electronic computer voting, Verjil had said a shift to heavy mail voting was the best strategy for speeding the count.
Let's be clear about this: the Secretary of State and other political leaders decided to move away from electronic voting machines. Then these same actors criticized local officials for a slow count which was almost exclusively a known consequence of the move to paper ballots.
If you move to paper ballots, then you are obligated in my view to accept the consequences. And in a voter intent state that also allows voters to drop absentee ballots at precincts on Election Day, the consequence is a slow count.
I made the same point I made back in 2010 when Dunmore's job was in jeopardy.
Apparently the response is going to be an even heavier emphasis on voting by mail [i.e., asking voters to mail ballots vs. dropping them off], not because it is the best system for voters, not because it is cheaper or more efficient, but just because political actors can't wait 12 or 14 hours for election results.
This is not a model for good policy making.
While I'm not sure that the shift to paper ballots is entirely the cause of the delays - as Gronke notes, voters' embrace of a variant of "anywhere" voting via ballot drop-off means the first task is to sort the ballots before counting them - his point about pressures on the pace of the count is dead on. As currently constructed, American election administration isn't built for speed - both because of the nature of the task and because of increasingly voter-centric policies like vote centers and vote-by-mail which tend to extend the counting process. The end result is, inevitably, calls on election officials for faster counts.
Unfortunately, absent any major legal or technological changes - which don't seem to be forthcoming in the foreseeable future - the only alternatives are to throw more resources at the count or manage expectations about how long it will take. That's a tough choice for election officials faced with dwindling budgets and an impatient audience, but it's a fact of life unless and until we can find a way to make voting accurate, inexpensive and fast.
Given how often that happens (hint: never) in other fields, election officials are likely going to have to learn the art of spin. Paul's right; that's not a good model for making policy in the election arena.