California’s election results typically come out at the full speed of its sclerotic highways, so each national vote brings a new round of guesswork about the reasons for the state’s long count. At its worst, this discourse degenerates into the lazy or pernicious claim that the main goal of vote-tabulation is to do it as quickly as possible — and that any failure to promptly accommodate the wishes of politicians and pundits is evidence of incompetence or insidiousness.
Prompted by a Fox News personality who found waiting for West Coast results “extremely frustrating,” congressional candidate Kevin Kiley shook his head over the weekend and said, “Hopefully we’ll finish counting the votes when the 2024 election begins.” . The Placer County Republican went on to argue that the tally took a while for the same reason that the state’s “roads are among the worst in the country” and his employment agency was a “total disaster,” namely, “We have one government that does not work.”
Aside from the fact that different governments are responsible for each task he mentioned, it’s no wonder Kiley was upset. The Rocklin congressman was supposed to run away with the race in the Republican-leaning 3rd congressional district. That it was too close for the Associated Press to call by Tuesday afternoon was an indication that it wasn’t California but Kiley that was underperforming.
While Kiley’s (Republican-dominated) home county seems to be processing thousands of ballots at an even more deliberate pace than the rest of the state, California’s count is dragging on, for mostly good reasons. The state makes it extra easy for many people to vote, and it makes sure that all those votes are counted accurately — which is, or at least should be, the whole point.
Much of the time spent is due to the increase in mail-in voting, which the state is making easier and voters are increasingly embracing. The majority of California voters have been using mail-in ballots for a decade, and the pandemic has accelerated that trend.
In 2020, Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Legislature ensured that every voter received a mail-in ballot — a move to protect public health and encourage participation that Kiley rejected in court. Those and other legal challenges ultimately failed, and remote voting has since surged from 65% of voters in November 2018 to 91% in this year’s primary.
California accepts ballots postmarked by Election Day as long as they arrive within a week, meaning many valid votes are in the hands of officials days after polling stations close. The state also allows for same-day registration, provisional voting, correction of missing or incomplete signatures, and redirection of ballots that turn up in the wrong county. And all this, by the way, in the most populous and third largest state in the Union.
These procedures work against the speed of counting, but in favor of participation – and rightly so.
Additionally, verifying signatures on mailed ballots and manually verifying a portion of ballots requires additional time. So Kiley and others who advocate speed also argue against verification, which is ironic given Republicans’ alleged concern for election security.
Given all the benefits of California’s comprehensive and deliberate vote count, the case for a faster count is unconvincing at best. A new Congress isn’t convening until the new year, nearly a month after California required counties to certify results, so a few weeks of waiting has little practical impact on government business.
One of the most prominent proponents of instant election results is no coincidence Kiley enthusiast Donald Trump, who has often called for the vote count to be halted while he and his allies are ahead. Many of those who express unfounded doubts about California’s census are driven by the fear that the majority of the votes will be for someone else.