Why it can take time to certify an election

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

It is well documented that final official election results in California take longer than other states.

Although the state’s shift to voting by mail is a driving force, there are other reasons why the final certification of an election takes time in Yolo County.

New laws and changing voting habits have lengthened the time needed for election officials to finish certifying local elections, particularly the primary and general Presidential elections where many candidates and parties are vying for votes. Many voters wait to watch certain debates or await announcements before casting their ballots.  

This means that while all elections are complicated, presidential elections may be doubly so. It is the job of the Yolo County Elections Office and those in other counties across the state and nation to ensure the public can have faith in the final reported election results and the methods and means it took to certify those results.  

The popularity of voting by mail requires extra verification steps that election workers must complete before counting each vote-by-mail ballot. Since the November 2020 election, 85% to 90% of Yolo County voters have participated by casting their mailed ballots.

Each signature on a vote-by-mail ballot envelope must be compared and matched with a signature on file for the voter before that ballot can even be opened. If the signature does not match, additional reviews and extra steps must be taken to try and contact the voter to cure the issue with their signature. All of this takes staff time and lengthens final certification.

Vote-by-mail ballots received early and whose signatures are verified along with ballots that were voted at a Vote Center prior to Election Day, will be included in the first batch of results released shortly after the polls close at 8 p.m. on Election Night.

By law, we must wait until 8 p.m. to tabulate and post that first batch of unofficial results. 

The updates that are provided Election Night reflect the ballots that were cast in the ballot box at a Vote Center that same day. To get those ballots to our election headquarters for processing and counting, two election workers safely and securely transport all ballots back to our election headquarters for processing and counting.

Once the final Election Day unofficial results are posted for the night, election workers spend the next day organizing and preparing for post-Election Day work to finalize results and ultimately certify the election.

The official post-Election Day period, commonly referred to as the canvass period, begins the Thursday following Election Day. State election law provides elections offices a 30-day period to certify an election.

There are specific tasks of the canvass and associated deadlines required to legally certify an election in California, all of which extends the time it takes to officially announce final results. Each step of this process ensures every legal vote is counted and counted accurately.

Vote-by-mail ballots mailed to the elections office at the last minute can, by law, still be accepted by the elections office up to seven days following Election Day, as long as it has an Election Day postmark. Of course, we encourage voters to mail their ballots early or drop them off at the Yolo County Ballot Drop Boxes and Vote Centers.

In fact, California voters may return their vote-by-mail ballots to any California county official Ballot Drop Box or voting location. By law, vote-by-mail ballots returned in other California counties can be accepted at our office up to eight days after Election Day. All of these laws and deadlines require additional resources and time before election officials can provide certified results.

Additionally, Yolo County’s student population of some 37,000 individuals also provides a unique reward and challenge. Although Yolo County is not the only California county with college students, at 16%, our county has one of the highest per capita student population in the state. 

I am proud to say that the elections office’s past partnership with UC Davis has been a model for the state and has resulted in historic voter turnout. For example, UC Davis’s past engagement in Presidential elections has been truly significant as demonstrated by their national award in 2021 against 300 or more colleges for the highest percentage increase in voter turnout from 2016 to 2020.

This high engagement and per capita college student population, coupled with the historical trend that most student age voters typically cast their vote late in the election voting cycle, creates a significant post-Election Day processing crunch for our elections office that is unique across the state.

Another unique element of college-age voters is that they significantly increase the number of provisional/conditional votes our office must process after Election Day when compared to other counties our size.

Provisional voting has been used in California since 1984. Provisional ballots are those cast by voters who believe they are registered to vote, even though their names are not on the official voter registration list where they are voting.

This is one of the tenants of the California Voter’s Bill of Rights. The submitted Provisional Ballot will be reviewed and only counted after the election’s office has confirmed that the voter is registered to vote in Yolo County and that the voter did not already vote in the election.

In 2017, Conditional Voter Registration (CVR) became available to state voters, which allows voters to register and vote the same day. The CVR ballots, just like Provisional Ballots, must be processed after all the in-person votes have been counted and all the vote-by-mail ballot envelopes have been reviewed to ensure no voter votes more than once.

Depending on the volume of these provisional and conditional ballots, this review process and need to register CVR voters to ensure there are no duplicate votes cast can take more than a week to complete.

By law, the certification date for the election must be announced with a 10-day notice during the canvass period. During this period voters who forgot to sign their vote-by-mail ballot envelope or whose signatures were challenged will have the opportunity correct their respective issue. The final cut-off for voters to resolve all such issues is two days before the election is certified.

As one can see, there are a many legal requirements and unique conditions in Yolo County that require our office to take anywhere from three to four weeks to finalize results and certify an election. Our office will be providing ongoing unofficial election results every Tuesday and Friday throughout the canvass period until the election is certified.

The elections office is committed to getting our final certified results completed accurately and as soon as possible, while ensuring all legal requirements are met and that the integrity and transparency of the election process is successfully achieved in every election.

Written by Jesse Salinas - Yolo County Assessor, Clerk-Recorder and Registrar of Voters.