A Riverside County Superior Court judge ruled Friday that 12,563 misplaced ballots that were not tallied during the June 8 primary election must be counted.
Tabulation started Friday afternoon with final results expected sometime Saturday.
“Voting is a right for which people have sacrificed their lives to protect,” Judge Mac R. Fisher said before announcing his decision. “The voters in question did their part, and the votes should be counted … This court will not disenfranchise 12,563 voters.”
His statement received a round of applause.
The ballots are to be counted “expeditiously and efficiently” and included in the county’s final vote tabulation no later than July 16, which is the California Secretary of State’s deadline for certifying all the results statewide, Fisher said.
Attorney James Harrison, who represented the plaintiffs in the case, said he and Riverside County Counsel Pamela Walls will draft an order for the judge to sign today regarding how to process the misplaced ballots.
“The counting could start before the end of the day,” Harrison told City News Service.
The Riverside County Democratic Central Committee and three residents filed a lawsuit June 30, asking the Superior Court to prohibit certification of the election on the grounds that the absentee voters whose ballots were lost had been disenfranchised, in violation of the state constitution.
On July 1, Fisher approved a temporary injunction barring Registrar of Voters Barbara Dunmore from reporting the county’s final vote tally until the question of whether the lost ballots were admissible could be answered.
“I am very happy my vote will be counted,” Naomi Ingram, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said outside the courtroom. “This reinforces my confidence in our American system.”
The lawsuit named Dunmore as the defendant. Along with the central committee, the named plaintiffs were Ingram, Sherry Lynn Riegel and Jennifer Christina Riegel — mother and daughter — all of Moreno Valley.
The petition also listed “Does 1 through 12,560” for the other residents whose votes were not tallied.
Ingram said she discovered her absentee ballot was among the lost mail- ins after checking with the registrar’s office.
Harrison argued his clients had complied with state law, sending their ballots in time to be processed by the U.S. Postal Service on the morning of the election.
The mail-ins were held by postal officials at the request of the Registrar of Voters’ Office, which preferred to send employees to retrieve late- arriving ballots on election day, Harrison said.
“There is no dispute the ballots would have been in the physical possession of the registrar and counted (in time) if they hadn’t been held,” the attorney said.
Under state law, ballots cannot be processed unless they are received by 8 p.m. on election night. The misplaced ballots were routed to a Moreno Valley postal station that Dunmore said her staff had never visited, then on to a Riverside post office, where they were discovered the morning after the election.
Harrison said Proposition 43, which amended the state constitution to mandate that every vote be counted as long as a voter complies with state law, as well as the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, justified tabulating the misplaced ballots.
Walls argued the registrar had complied with state law by not tallying the ballots.
“The election code constrains her ability to count them,” the county attorney said.
She said there was no “arrangement” with the postal service regarding whether to hold the ballots.
“The expectation of the U.S. Postal Service that the ballots be picked up is irrelevant,” she said, asking the court to allow Dunmore to certify the 226,000 votes already tabulated.
Fisher ruled there was “constructive possession” of the ballots before the polls closed on election night.
“There is no intent to assign fault,” the judge said. “Some may question the legitimacy of this ruling. But there is no agenda.”
Dunmore has drawn criticism for the laggard pace of the election tally, which took more than five days and left Riverside County last among California’s 58 counties to report results.
County officials have blamed the ballot mix-up on a lack of communication and “protocols” regarding ballot handling in the days leading up the election.
“Ultimately … the registrar’s office must assume responsibility,” Ingram said. “I hope they get the help they need.”
An Executive Office report on the reasons for the slow vote tally and ballot confusion will be reviewed by the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.