Santa Cruz is still counting ballots. What’s taking so long?

Ballots at the Santa Cruz County Clerk's office on Election Day
Ballots at the Santa Cruz County Clerk’s office on Election Day.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

More than any other factor, Santa Cruz County Clerk Tricia Webber says voter behavior is the reason for the prolonged ballot tally in the wake of the Nov. 8 election.

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Nearly two weeks have passed since Election Day, and Santa Cruz County is still counting ballots.

A Q&A with Santa Cruz County Clerk Tricia Webber

By the end of the day Friday, the county clerk added 325 ballots, bringing the county’s total to nearly 104,000 counted ballots, with roughly 3,000 remaining to be tallied. Although the outcomes of many local races are fairly certain, Santa Cruzans are still unclear about the race for District 3 county supervisor, where Justin Cummings leads Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson by a razor-thin margin of 33 votes.

The close District 3 race puts additional pressure on County Clerk Tricia Webber to complete the count; however, Webber told Lookout, it is not that easy. Today, not only are most voters casting ballots by mail, but most are holding onto their ballots until the last minute. Webber spoke with Lookout as her team finished updating the numbers on Friday evening. She said it’s this kind of voter behavior that will extend the ballot-counting process into weeks, rather than days, after Election Day.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Lookout: To add only 325 votes feels like a low number with about 3,000 ballots left to count and a race for county supervisor still hanging in the balance. What are the obstacles keeping you and your team from finishing the count?

Tricia Webber: We have until Dec. 6 to certify the results. We are still adding votes to the totals but we’re also canvassing and auditing. I’ll be perfectly honest, we’ve been working every day straight since mid-October, and today we needed a change of pace. So we switched to doing the manual tally to do something a little different. We needed to change things up. It’s not like we took a break, we just shifted to a different activity that we have to do during this canvas period.

Lookout: What’s the difference between a manual tally and counting new ballots?

Webber: What we’ve been doing up until today was finishing signature verification, slicing open envelopes, extracting ballots, reviewing them for their ability to be read, remaking damaged ballots and putting them into the tabulator. What we switched over to was the 1% manual tally, where we are required to manually tally a minimum of 1% of the ballots in each of the contests in each of the precincts to validate that the voting machine tabulators are working correctly.

Lookout: Is there any added urgency when there is a race that is leaning on the remaining ballots? Or does that not affect the work in your office?

Webber: Whether a contest is close or has a wide margin, we still have to do what we’re doing. Adding ballots to the totals is only one of those activities we have to do before certifying an election. Even if I added all the ballots, I still wouldn’t certify an election until I’ve done all my audits, reconciliations and tallies. We will be adding ballots to the totals until the day we certify.

The Santa Cruz County Clerk’s office finished its vote count on Tuesday and certified the results of the Nov. 8...

Lookout: Since you can’t accept any ballots after Nov. 16, many in the community expected to know the outcomes of the races by now. Is that not a realistic expectation?

Webber: It was never a realistic expectation, and that’s what I’ve been explaining to the candidates and their campaigns.

Lookout: Why?

Webber: Vote-by-mail ballots take time to count because each ballot has to go through signature verification, which is a multilayer process. Multiple people have to look at the signature in order to deem a signature good or challenged. Also, when we have 1,200 same-day registrations, it takes time to go through the whole registration process of querying them against [state databases] to determine validity. Once the registrations are in, we have to find whether [a same-day registrant] is registered in another county and voted there. On top of that, we have to manually tally and complete 13 other audits that are required during the canvassing process.

Lookout: Should folks watching these close races not expect to have a sense of where the District 3 supervisor’s race is going until Dec. 6?

Webber: The reality of the situation is, until we’re finished with everything, doing the manual tallies, going through the curing period, reviewing all the challenges and everything else we have to do before Dec. 6, a contest is not final.

Lookout: Is this pace something that could be helped by more staff?

Webber: Anything can always be helped by more staff. But with that comes the need for more resources and that’s not something we have the luxury of having here.

Lookout: It sounds like the message to Santa Cruz residents is: In this era of vote-by-mail and the tedious work that comes with it, expect this kind of pace moving forward.

Webber: It’s not just voting by mail. Voter behavior is to wait until the last minute to return their vote-by-mail ballots. I’m not saying stop voting by mail. People need to vote the way that makes them feel most comfortable. But we send out vote-by-mail ballots 29 days before an election. We receive close to three times the amount of vote-by-mail ballots, sometimes even more, on Election Day than we received in the 28 days prior.

This is where we lose sight of what is happening. People look at how many vote-by-mail we counted on election night, but we had 28 days to go through the process of verifying those ballots. It’s a lot different when you receive 60,000 vote-by-mail ballots in one day.

Santa Cruz County Clerk Tricia Webber is all smiles despite a long night ahead of her on Election Day.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: So as long as voter behavior stays this way, people should expect this kind of pace?

Webber: Right. This is the way voter behavior has been trending for the past many years. Vote-by-mail is not new to us. Before we were sending everyone ballots in the mail, almost 75% of our county voters were requesting vote-by-mail ballots. But this voter behavior trend of holding onto their ballot until Election Day has become more prevalent over the past eight years. Receiving ballots in the mail is the No. 1 way we are receiving ballots.

Lookout: It’s not just that most voters using vote-by-mail wait until the last day to mail in their ballots, but it’s that most people voting in local elections are vote-by-mail voters who wait until the last day to cast a ballot?

Webber: Yeah.

Lookout: How is morale at the office?

Webber: My team is really happy and they’re working really well but we’re tired, you know? We needed a change of pace to give us a refresh. Everyone will get one day off over the weekend to do their home life, get some sleep or whatever they need to do, and then we just keep on going. We’re going to take [Thanksgiving and the following Friday] off but we’ll be back on Saturday to continue the work.


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