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Must California Take Two Months To Resolve a House Race?

Walter Olson

One big theme of my recent paper on election policy for the Nevada Policy Research Institute is that states need to make it a policy goal to tabulate and report election results promptly. I write:

Speedy reporting of election results is considered a hallmark of good election practice worldwide; it’s not just some quirk of Red‐​Blue politics in America. Candidates and many others want to know who won so that they can begin planning for matters of governance. Should there be later political stages to navigate—a recount, or later rounds in a primary season—the relevant parties can embark on this process once they have accurate information. Without quick results, as we have recently witnessed, the atmosphere is conducive to rumor and misinformation. Slow reporting of results comes at a real cost.

It’s sometimes argued that slow result reporting is an inevitable consequence of mail voting, but that’s not actually a good excuse:

With the right laws and procedures, there’s no reason an all‐​mail state can’t count votes reasonably quickly after the polls close. At present, however, the eight states in this category mostly take a relaxed approach in their methods, often sacrificing speedy tabulation in hopes of eking out a bit of extra convenience or flexibility for last‐​minute voters. Voter interactions that could have been accomplished earlier instead contribute to a last‐​minute crunch, in which they are most likely to distract from smooth operation and perhaps contribute to hasty errors.

More here on how the state of Florida, which lets people vote by mail if they wish, also reports the outcome of most races by the time residents go to sleep on Election Night.

Now the Associated Press reports on a case in which California took nearly two months to resolve, through recount, a top‐​two primary for a Bay Area House seat in which there was an initial tie for second place. (All candidates were Democrats, so partisan control of the seat was not at issue.) While ties are quite unusual, a 2022 California House race decided by a wider margin, 564 votes, still took nearly a month to resolve.

The AP does mention some of the policy choices that make vote tabulation in the Golden State so slow, including an indulgent “cure” process for imperfect (e.g., unsigned) votes and a reluctance to discourage or dis‐​incentivize voters from waiting until the very last minute to post mail ballots.

Conspiracy theories can fester during the long reporting delays. If counting is paused overnight, some will see that as suspicious, while if it continues around the clock with the result that some totals get reported in the middle of the night, some will see that as suspicious. Other advanced democracies get the job done much more speedily, and we should too.

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