Close California Races Require 10 Percent Manual Count to Verify Computer Tally

The registrar of voters of San Diego County sued the Secretary of State for imposing them, claiming that Bowen overstepped her authority and had issued "defacto" regulations.

by / November 6, 2008

Photo: Kim Alexander president and founder of the California Voter Foundation. Her blog entry is used with permission.

Folks who paid attention to California Secretary of State Debra Bowen's 2007 "Top-to-Bottom Review" of California voting systems and subsequent decertification of those systems may recall that one condition placed on continued use of mostly all voting systems in California, whether electronic or paper-based optical scan, was the requirement that additional hand-counting of ballots be conducted in extremely close contests. These requirements are summarized in the Secretary of State's Post-Election Manual Tally (PEMT) requirements.

These requirements were initially implemented as conditions for certification of most California voting systems. The registrar of voters of San Diego County sued the Secretary of State for imposing them, claiming that Bowen overstepped her authority and had issued "defacto" regulations. Bowen and her legal team argued they weren't regulations because they did not apply to all counties (Lake, Sonoma and Madera counties used older voting equipment that did not go through the 2007/08 recertification process). Bowen won in the lower court but that decision was overturned by an appellate court in August 2008. That decision led Bowen to seek emergency regulations to be approved by the state Office of Administrative Law, which would enact the Post-Election Manual Tally requirements as regulations. OAL granted the Secretary of State her request on October 20, putting the regulations into effect for 180 days.

Now that the PEMT requirements are in effect, they will in fact apply to some November 2008 contests.Under state law, all counties must select at random and count by hand, in public, one percent of their precincts' ballots and compare those hand-counted results to the computer-tallied results. Under Bowen's new PEMT requirements, in any contest where the semi-official results are within .5 percent, the counties where the contest took place must randomly select 10 percent of the precincts' ballots that included that contest and recount the votes in that contest by hand to further verify the accuracy of the computer-tallied results.

So far, it appears that Congressional District 4, the contest between Democratic candidate Charlie Brown and Republican Tom McClintock, will be subject to this escalated, ten percent manual tally. One legislative contest, for Senate District 19, between Democrat Hannah-Beth Jackson and Republican Tony Strickland, also appears subject to the 10 percent manual tally.

Congressional District 4 is a sprawling, Northern California district that includes the counties of Modoc, Lassen, Sierra, El Dorado, Plumas, Nevada, Placer, and parts of Butte and Sacramento counties. Senate District 19 is in Southern California and includes Ventura, Santa Barbara, and a small part of Los Angeles county.

There may also be other local contests around the state where the 10 percent manual tally is required. While candidates are always entitled to recounts, requesting one can be politically unpopular and paying for one can be an expensive proposition. The new Post-Election Manual Tally requirements enacted by the Secretary of State provide an important, new level of vote-counting security that should give all California voters and candidates, whether they were on the winning side or the losing side of a battle, peace of mind that the computerized vote count is accurate.