Thursday, July 25, 2024

Counting the Votes, Mendo-Style

Stacks and stacks of ballots on Low Gap Road awaiting tabulation [Pictures provided by Andrew Scully]

Three weeks have passed since the election held on June 7, and most statewide and local races, almost all of them in fact, have been decided some time ago. Yet here in Mendocino County, there has been only one update to the election results since the initial vote count of about 3,300 ballots was released on election night. On Monday afternoon, just before the update of about 4,000 additional ballots was posted, Mendocino County had counted fewer ballots than any of the other 58 counties in the state, as a percentage of total ballots cast. Even with the update on Monday, still, well under 50% of the total ballots cast on June 7 have been tabulated.

In an extensive interview, County Registrar-Recorder Katrina Bartolomie said that due to staffing shortages and equipment failures it will be many days yet before the counting is complete. Counties have until July 15 to certify their results to the Secretary of State.

Katrina Bartolomie in her territory

Despite the slowness, there is some positive news to report, according to the industrious Ms. Bartolomie. Perhaps most importantly she offers this unambiguous assurance: “Our (election) system is secure.”

To some extent, the challenges faced in counting ballots here are representative of election headlines nationwide. But in this isolated and sparsely populated county, things are a bit different. It can be a peculiar place, according to Ms. Bartolomie, and it is the people that make each day at the offices on Low Gap Road an interesting place to be– like the voter that cast his vote for the write-in candidate “Anybody But” in the race for Mendocino County District Attorney race this year. Unfortunately for that voter, Ms. Bartolomie explained that since Mr. But is not registered as a write-in candidate for DA, that vote will not be tallied.

Reno Bartolomie, the Mendocino County Sheriff from 1955-1975 [Photograph from the Anderson Valley Advertiser]

Ms. Bartolomie herself is an elected official, and both her experiences in that job and life give her a valuable perspective on the mechanics of elections in this place. Her family is old-school Mendo. Her father, Reno Bartolomie was elected and served for years as Mendocino County Sheriff, and after growing up near Ukiah, she stayed and began working on staff at the County Clerk’s office years ago. Then when her predecessor retired in 2018 Katrina ran for and won the post, beating two opponents. Her first-term performance was apparently good enough to discourage anyone from running against her. As she was unopposed in the race this year, despite the lack of updates, her reelection is a forgone conclusion.

Ms. Bartolomie’s job has a lot of responsibilities and functions. She helpfully unpacked the titles:

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  • Mendocino County Assessor, County Clerk, Recorder (elected)
    • Assessor – staff appraises the value of real property in the County to establish property taxes (note: In a state where private land ownership of land underpins all wealth, this function is crucially important and closely scrutinized by citizens)
    • Clerk – Official keeper of all “recorded documents” in the County (see “Recorder” below)
    • Recorder – Originates and maintains copies of official legal documents including land sales and conveyances, and vital records including births, deaths, and marriages.
    • Registrar of Voters – registers and keeps official records of all 54,000 legally registered voters, and finally;
    • Commissioner of Civil Marriages – In addition to issuing Marriage Licenses in her function as Recorder, she is also empowered to legally join couples in wedlock, a fairly regular feature of her job. One imagines one of the more interesting aspects as well.
An office brimming with work as a short-handed staff tabulates our community’s votes.

That’s a lot of things to do. Ms. Bartolomie said that Mendocino is one of only eight counties in the state that pile that many functions onto one person. That fact, combined with chronic county staffing shortages made worse by the COVID crisis, is the major reason for the slowness of election updates. To illustrate: She normally works an election with four teams of two ballot processors and two “tabulators” (people that actually run ballots through the optical scanning machines. That’s ten people total. This year she has eight. Add to that equipment challenges (one of three optical scanning machines is down), and she said it’ll be some time yet before final results are known. 

A tour of her offices during the vote count afforded a glimpse behind some of the scenes of ballot counts and election security in the United States. Ms. Bartolomie is unequivocal: “Our (election) system is secure.” She was referring specifically to Mendocino County’s system, but she contends that despite screaming banner headlines, the actual vote count in the US has a very tiny percentage of votes invalidated due to fraud or irregularities, especially considering the patchwork of local and state laws in the more than 5,000 counties in America.

Indeed, to an outside observer, the counting process seems quite airtight. Among other security and audit procedures in place:

  • Every stage in the counting process is recorded, documented, and witnessed by at least two people.
  • Teams of two ballot processors open and prepare ballots, but only Ms. Bartolomie, as the elected Registrar of Voters, and one other employee actually operate the image scanners that read and tabulate each ballot.
  • Ballots are counted on optical scanners initially. These results are confirmed by separate audits conducted by manually counting 1% of all ballots cast, as well as a full manual count of three entire precincts in each contested race.
  • Every one of the estimated 21,000 official ballot envelopes received will be imaged and recorded by an optical scanner. Then the signature on the ballot envelope will be visually matched by an employee to compare and verify with the registered voter card on file in Ukiah. In case of any discrepancy, one of her staff will contact the voter in question to verify the signature. She said that this is surely one of the few counties in the state that can make that claim. Only about 150 ballots are unable to be verified in most elections.

According to Ms. Bartolomie: “California leads the Nation in election security,” and some of the procedures for voter verification developed by her office have been adopted for use Statewide.

That is good news for the citizens of Mendocino County. It is comforting to know that. But it will also be nice to get those updates.

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Andrew Scully
Andrew Scullyhttps://mendocinoundercurrent.com
Wise beyond his years, Scully was a Reporter for his college paper, the UCLA Daily Bruin. He is thrilled to be working with Matt and Mendo Fever.

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