Deluge of late absentee ballots, mail changes blamed for vote counting delay

Riverside County Registrar of Voters Barbara Dunmore said Tuesday a “deluge” of absentee ballots that arrived late and a change in U.S. Postal Service policy were to blame for the delayed tally of votes in last week’s primary election.

Dunmore, whose office has drawn criticism for its handling of the June 8 election returns, said she remains confident her staff has done its utmost to “serve the public and will continue to serve the public going forward.”

Delays in counting the remaining ballots did not affect the outcome of any key races.

During Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, county Executive Officer Bill Luna notified the board that an inquiry will be conducted over the next four weeks into why more than half of the roughly 226,000 ballots cast in the election remained uncounted for days.

“We live in a world of instant information, and the shift back to paper ballots is complicated,” Luna said. “We can do a better job of handling the process.”

According to Dunmore, 57 percent of eligible voters in the county cast absentee ballots, about 4 percent less than the June 2008 primary.

“What was different this time is they came in closer to Election Day, and we were deluged,” Dunmore said in an interview. “We couldn’t get them counted fast enough.”

To make matters worse, the U.S. Postal Service changed its forwarding procedure, sending thousands of mail-in ballots to the Moreno Valley post office for pickup, instead of leaving them at the post office’s Redlands distribution center, where the registrar’s staff typically goes to retrieve them, according to Dunmore.

By the morning of June 10, there were 98,000 ballots still not processed, said Dunmore, who kept staff working around the clock, in shifts, to finish the tally.

Earlier this week, there remained 7,445 provisional ballots – which voters ask for at polling places when their names aren’t on the registrar’s rolls – and roughly 5,500 damaged ballots uncounted.

Dunmore said some of those ballots will be disqualified, and final certification of the county’s election results won’t be done until next week.

Those remaining ballots are not expected to change any outcomes, the registrar said.

Democrats of the Desert and the Palm Springs Lincoln Club have called for Dunmore’s ouster because of the delays in tabulating the election returns.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers also wrote a letter to the board expressing “concerns regarding the policies, procedures and performance of the county registrar.”

Signatories included U.S. Rep. Mary Bono Mack, R-Palm Springs; Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Riverside; Assemblyman Paul Cook, R-Beaumont; and Assemblyman Manuel Perez, D-Coachella. They noted that Riverside County was the last to report its results to the California Secretary of State.

Supervisor Bob Buster placed some of the blame on a federal lawsuit against the county that was settled in February and requires more bilingual speakers at polling places, at county expense.

Buster said that and the loss of electronic touch screen voting machines, which the county shelved after the Secretary of State’s Office declared the units susceptible to hacking, had placed undue burdens on the registrar’s resources.

“There’s plenty of blame to go around,” said Buster, who represents Lake Elsinore, Wildomar, De Luz and other communities near of along Interstate 15.

Supervisor John Benoit, who represents desert communities on the five-member board, said the county must adapt to the “new reality” of more mail-in ballots.

Board Chairman Marion Ashley said recommendations need to be drafted to avoid similar problems in the November general election, which Luna promised would be done. Ashley’s district includes the Moreno Valley, Perris and Romoland areas.

“We must count quickly and accurately,” Luna said. “We’ve always been accurate. Now we have to be quicker.”

Dunmore said she anticipates making changes based on Luna’s report.

“I’m sure their findings will enhance the process, and we’ll move forward from there,” Dunmore said.

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