Riverside County supervisors are considering legal action to prevent 12,500 ballots found after the voting deadline in the June 8 primary from being thrown out.
During their meeting Tuesday, the supervisors discussed joining a lawsuit to have a judge review the validity of the ballots.
“My question is, is there not some duty on the part of the county to go to court to request that those votes be counted?” asked Supervisor John Benoit.
“I understand three- to five-thousand ballots typically arrive (too late) after an election to be counted, but this is double that.”
Benoit, who represents desert communities on the five-member board, raised the issue in response to numerous complaints to his office over the past week.
County Counsel Pamela Walls said the county had been notified of plans for a private party lawsuit over the misplaced ballots, which were discovered the day after the primary at a Riverside post office, well past the 8 p.m. election night deadline.
With only three-fifths of the board present – Supervisors Jeff Stone and John Tavaglione were absent – and minimal time to research the issue, Walls asked that a decision over whether the county has grounds for a lawsuit be postponed until next Tuesday’s board meeting.
Registrar of Voters Barbara Dunmore was prepared to certify the county’s election returns Wednesday, but Executive Officer Bill Luna directed her to delay certification after confirming with California Secretary of State Debra Bowen that there was no legal requirement for the process to go forward now.
Benoit had worried such a step might forfeit the county’s ability to pursue legal recourse.
Under state law, a county has 31 days after an election to certify its results. The deadline in this election cycle is July 9.
“We’re getting to an issue of fairness,’’ said board Chairman Marion Ashley, whose district includes Moreno Valley, Perris and Romoland. “If you go by the letter of the law, we can’t count (the late ballots). But the registrar should process and provisionally count them, so we know what they are, and then let the court decide whether they can be counted or not.”
Ashley favored participating “to the full extent possible” in the legal action.
However, Supervisor Bob Buster felt the county should stay out of it, instead emphasizing remedial steps the county, U.S. Postal Service and voters themselves can take in the future to avoid repeating similar mistakes.
“When we have more information, hopefully … we’ll have more understanding,” Buster said, noting that an Executive Office internal review of what went wrong on election night is due July 13. Buster represents Lake Elsinore, Wildomar, De Luz and other communities along or near Interstate 15.
According to Benoit, the misplaced absentee ballots bore ZIP codes from one end of the county to the other. They were apparently gathered at the Post Office’s Redlands distribution center and transported to Moreno Valley, then onto a postal station in Riverside.
Dunmore said in an interview last week that she couldn’t understand why that occurred, given that in previous elections county officials had always retrieved late-arriving mail-in ballots from the Redlands facility.
According to the registrar, her office fell behind in its vote tally because of a crush of last-minute absentee votes, which have to be processed by hand.
Of the roughly 226,000 ballots cast in the election, 43 percent – 98,000 – were not counted the day after the June 8 primary.
The registrar’s office then needed another four days to complete the tabulation. The county was the last in the state to report its results.
One state legislator and two civic groups have called for Dunmore’s resignation, while a group of state and federal lawmakers wrote a letter to Ashley raising doubts about her “policies, procedures and performance.”
Dunmore has said she and her staff have done their best to meet expectations in the face of budget constraints and changes in voting behavior.