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Jason Walsh: Sonoma is no ‘Dixville Notch,' that’s for sure

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“The people who count the votes decide everything.” — Joseph Stalin, on the importance of an efficient registrar of voters

Sonoma may want to take a page from Dixville Notch.

That’s the New Hampshire township renowned for its jaw-droppingly efficient electoral system.

The town has been credited with being the first in the entire nation to declare its results in each presidential election and New Hampshire primary since 1960. Its polls open at midnight on Election Day and there have been years when they’ve closed at 12:01 a.m. – because every registered voter in town had cast their ballot.

When it comes to getting out the vote, Dixville Notch doesn’t mess around.

Granted, there are typically only about two dozen residents of Dixville Notch at the time of any given election – and the residents are known to line up in front of the ballot box waiting for the clock to strike 12 so they can all quickly drop their ballots in. But, hey, Sonoma County’s gotta have something to model itself after.

Because when it comes to speedy elections, Sonoma County is no Dixville Notch.

That much was clear once again this season when the county certified its final results from the June 5 election on July 2 – a full four weeks (minus a day) after county ballots were cast. Sonoma was the 52nd out of 58 counties in the state to process all its votes. We beat the rural Tuolumne County by a day, and at press time the Secretary of State was still waiting on Lake County, though our neighbors to the north might have a fair excuse for their belated results – they’ve been fighting a 15,000-acre wildfire.

According to county elections officials, Sonoma’s tallying tardiness is partly due to its large number of voters who fill out absentee ballots – yet still wait until Election Day to turn them in. It’s the voter equivalent of completing your 1040A in February, but still waiting until April 15 to click the electronic filing in order to savor the great American tradition of Tax Day. In Sonoma County, 134,458 ballots were cast in last month’s primary – a pretty respectable turnout of about 49.7 percent. And nearly 82 percent of those cast ballots by mail. Because of this, after Election Day, the county still had to tally about 60,000 outstanding ballots – and most of those were mail-in, which involves verifying signatures, checking against voter rolls and other rigmarole not necessary for old-fashioned in-person democracy.

“It’s great that Sonoma County voters like to vote by mail,” county Registrar of Voters Bill Rousseau told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat this week. “But they need to get their ballots in earlier if they want to see early results. That’s the biggest factor. You have to change voter behavior.”

Of course, Sonoma County is also known for sluggishness in reporting returns on election night itself – of particular bane to reporters on deadline. When asked about Sonoma’s reputation for delayed accounting, none of the three candidates running in the June 5 primary to replace the retiring Rousseau – Ray Leonard, Rod Marusic, nor the eventual winner Deva Marie Proto – cited Election Day mail-in ballots as a culprit in the perennial late results. But they were unified in their agreement that the county elections office is awash in outdated technology. The good news is that a new system is planned for rollout next year, starting with a “soft launch” in some of the smaller 2019 elections. The new system, according to Rousseau, will enable officials to quickly add election-day results to early-returns, instead of having to count the whole enchilada a second time as is necessary under the current system. It could speed up certifying the final results by a week, says Rousseau.

Additionally, the new system will improve the county’s ability to provide periodic updates while ballots are being processed. Proto has mentioned that the county Registrar of Voters website in the past has needed to be “refreshed” by viewers in order for the updated vote counts to appear. “Which is ridiculous to expect someone to do,” she rightly pointed out.

All three candidates said that, while speed is important, providing accurate results is the Registrar’s number-one priority. And we agree. But timeliness and accuracy of election results should not be mutually exclusive. We’re in an age when news and information is delivered far more expediently than it was 20 years ago – it’s what people have come to expect.

We look forward to seeing how the new election system plays out next year in Sonoma County. Because the bottom line is that we shouldn’t have to wait four weeks to finalize who’s running our county following an election.

Not only should Sonoma County not be 52nd in the state – we should be the Dixville Notch of California.

The line forms at the ballot box on your left, Sonoma.

Email Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.