In summary

It’s the price California pays to let procrastinators vote. Unlike most other states that allow mail-in ballots, it opts to count every ballot postmarked by election day—even if it arrives up to three days later.

If you’re thinking about staying up all night to watch election results come in, grab your coffee. It will probably be a long night or week or month, the price we pay for enabling more procrastinators to vote.

The holdup? Voters here prefer voting by mail and California—unlike most other states that allow mail-in ballots—counts every ballot postmarked by election day even if it arrives up to three days later. Typically mail ballots must be received before or by election day in order to count, according to a review by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Four years ago California was among the 36 states that required mail ballot to arrive by election day, with three states requiring mail ballots to arrive even earlier. But Sacramento lawmakers, on a party-line vote, enacted a Democratic proposal in 2014 to expand the window for voting.

Now, as the state increasingly moves away from polling places and toward vote-by-mail ballots, registrars in most counties are having a difficult time meeting the public’s impatience for instant results.

In this year’s primary election, more than two-thirds of California voters mailed in their ballots. But on election night, workers were able to tabulate only about 58 percent of what would be total ballots cast—another 3 million-plus arrived over the next three days to be tallied. That left many counties scrambling to handle the avalanche of mail-in ballots days after election night.

“There are just more tasks that we have to do after election day that we didn’t have to do years ago,” said Joseph Holland, president of the California Association of Clerks and Elections Officials.  “It’s more work. We’re having to hire more people. We’re having to train more people.”

Three states—Oregon, Washington and Colorado—eliminated polling places and conduct all their elections via the mail. But Colorado elections director Judd Choate says that unlike California, his state requires all mail-in ballots have to arrive at the to the registrar’s’ office by the time the polls close.

And Colorado’s system offers another incentive for voters to get their mail ballots in early, enabling a quicker count.

“The other thing that is a big advantage for mail-in early,” Choate said, “is you stop getting the robo calls, you stop getting the cardboard in your mailbox because we process that within 24 hours of the submission of your ballot, and then that information is released to the parties. And then, they stop bugging people.”

Counting ballots is a four-step process, which in California can begin 10 days before the election: 1) scan the barcodes on ballot envelopes to track received ballots 2)  process ballots by verify signatures, removing them from envelopes and ensuring they’re clean enough for the counting machines 3) machine-count the votes and 4) tabulate those votes into results. The last step cannot be done until after polls close on election night.

California lawmakers who supported pushing back the date by which ballots could arrive to be countable argued at the time that voters were often confused and thought they could just drop their ballots in the mail on election day. And proponents cited a 2010 case in Riverside County when more than 20,000 ballots were misplaced and discovered in a post office the day after the election.

But the bill analysis at the time noted that it would be difficult to predict what extending the tabulation time by three days might cost.

“If we really want to see these ballots counted faster, one hard question we will have to ask ourselves is how much money and support are we willing to give our registrars to do this,” said Mindy Romero, founder and director of the California Civic Engagement Project, a non-partisan research group.

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Byrhonda Lyons is a national award-winning investigative reporter for CalMatters. She writes and produces compelling stories about California’s court and criminal system. Her reporting has uncovered...