Photo: Employees work to sort ballots at the San Joaquin County Registrar of Voters office in downtown Stockton. (Scott Linesburgh)

San Joaquin County will release additional ballot tallies tomorrow evening, with additional results to be reported weekly until the count is complete. A far cry from what many in the county — and state — have been accustomed to in elections prior to the pandemic.

Before COVID, most ballots would be counted and reported just hours or, perhaps, days after polls closed. 

Sure, additional mail-in ballots would trickle in and results wouldn’t be certified for about a month. But those formalities didn’t stop most races from being called sometime in the early morning hours the next day.

Results for the county’s mail-in ballots received as of the Saturday before Election Day last week were the first to be released shortly after county polls closed at 8 p.m. Before the sun came up Wednesday, nearly 80,000 ballots had been counted and reported.

However, the county said before polls closed that it would be a week before any more result updates would be released following initial election-night reporting.

The increase of mail-in voting has made the process more intensive these days, San Joaquin County Registrar of Voters Olivia Hale explained Friday. Many voters waited until “E-Day” to turn in their vote by mail ballots, which Hale says take longer to verify and count

Stocktonia observed ballot counting Friday at the San Joaquin County election office in downtown Stockton. (Scott Linesburgh)

Since 2020, California voters are automatically mailed a ballot that can be either sent back in through the post or dropped off at a polling place. Voters can often also cast ballots in person up to several day or weeks before election day.

Only about 16,500 people voted in person at the polls this time around, Hale said. 

“We got dumped on with tons of vote-by-mail. People waited until Monday or Tuesday,” Hale said. “Which is perfectly fine. We have no problem with that. It’s just what I will tell people is that when we get this many ballots back this close to Election Day, we’re not going to update results every other day.”

Hale said Thursday that the county still had another estimated 60,000 to 80,000 ballots to go and that vote totals would “hopefully” only have to be updated about two to three more times.  

Technically, the county has 30 days to certify election results, Hale said. And the county had even certified the June Primary Election vote counts a week early, despite the widely reported delay to counting efforts caused by damage to some mail-in ballot barcodes. A problem she says they haven’t faced this time.

“Even on all the elections I worked here prior to being the registrar, it’s always been 27 to 30 days to certify,” Hale said. “So, it’s nothing new in that regard.”

2022 General Election results must be certified by Dec. 8. 

California Democratic Party delegate Gurneel Boparai was at the San Joaquin County Registrar of Voters warehouse Election Day, Nov. 8, 2022, to observe the ballot counting process. (Vivienne Aguilar)

But verifying mail-in ballots just takes longer because there are many additional steps in properly counting them, she said. Thus, getting results out takes longer.

“When you go to a polling place, you turn in your ballot, you sign the roster. You’re done,” Hale said. “When you turn in a vote-by-mail on Election Day, it has to come back here, it has to be accounted for, it has to be date stamped, it has to be signature checked. And then it has to be sorted down at the precinct, and then it has to be opened, and now it can go through inspection and then scanning and the other stuff.”

Ballots mailed in that are postmarked by Election Day and received by Nov. 15 will also be counted.

So why doesn’t the county just report results as they go? It’s actually faster to do less reporting.

Staff are required by law to complete an unprocessed ballot report each time results are updated for public viewing, which means they stop counting, Hale said. She wants to keep staff focused on accurately counting ballots, and not worrying later about recounting or overcounting ballots.

“It’s a knee-jerk response to try to get candidates answers, when in reality the candidates want results, but they truly, truly, truly want to know if they’ve won their contest,” Hale said. “It’s better for us to read a report slow and steady over the course of two weeks. Or we can take a whole month and hurry up and give them 50 ballots here, 100 ballots here and so on and so forth.” 

The county is also only required to report initial results at 8 p.m. on Election Day, and then every two hours until all poll-cast ballots are counted. 

“We’re looking for ways to be efficient, not cutting corners, but to be efficient, and to get the results sooner,” Hale said. 

Hale also invited the public and candidates to come down to the registrar offices during business hours to see the counting process for themselves, no appointment necessary, and staff will give them a tour. 

Though, Hale did suggest candidates call ahead so she could make time to be personally available.

“You’ve heard all this stuff out there in the world about elections, but come to your very own elections office and see how it’s really done,” Hale said. 

Election results will be updated every Tuesday at 7 p.m. until ballot counting is finished.

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