An ongoing investigation into 65 ballots that were not found or counted for months after the November election points to human error as the cause, Chief Elections Officer Mark Church has indicated.
On April 12, San Mateo County election officials discovered a vault containing uncounted provisional ballots and announced the discovery the next week. Of the 65 ballot envelopes, only 35 were eligible votes, and they did not affect the election results.
The investigation launched by Church uncovered that employees placed the ballots inside a covered container within the security vault. As a result, Church said in a statement, the election staff did not see the ballots, which should have been sent to the main elections office for processing, Church said.
Although the uncounted votes did not alter the results, they remain a source of concern, according to officials and election observers.
“It’s extremely serious when someone’s vote isn’t counted,” said Ben Turner, a spokesman for state Assemblyman Kevin Mullin, a Democrat whose district includes many San Mateo County cities. “Even though it’s a small number, everybody’s vote is vital to democracy. It’s still a very big deal.”
All of the found ballots were provisional, which is the type cast by people who do not appear on a voter registration list. Once received, election officials determine if provisional ballots are cast by eligible voters and ensure there aren’t duplicate votes. Of the 65 ballots in question, 30 were disqualified for at least one of those reasons. San Mateo County received a total of 19,776 provisional ballots in the November election, including the missing 65, according to Church.
Keally McBride, a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco, said provisional ballots are in many ways good for democracy, but the missing votes demonstrate that there are circumstances where additional checks may be needed.
“With increasingly close elections, we really can’t take the electoral process for granted,” McBride said. “When there are human beings involved, there are bound to be errors.”
She said that despite the small number of votes that went missing, events like this underscore the need for officials to start paying attention to how different entities are handling provisional ballots.
The county has modified election policies and procedures to ensure a similar error does not occur in the future, Church said. It has also provided additional training for elections staff.
“Assemblyman Mullin has a lot of confidence in the San Mateo County election folks,” Turner said. “They’ll be extremely careful and vigorous in whatever action they pursue.”