A late count of misplaced mail-in ballots in Riverside County has apparently resulted in a new victor for a state Senate nomination.
Assemblywoman Mary Salas edged 83 votes above former Assemblyman Juan Vargas in the 40th Senate district Democratic primary race, in an unofficial tally today of new votes counted 32 days after the election and added to results already posted by the California Secretary of State.
Adding the new results gives an unofficial total of 28,183 votes for Salas, and 28,100 for Vargas in the district, which includes southern San Diego County, the eastern Coachella Valley and all of Imperial County.
Officials said the 12,563 mail-in ballots had been routed to a post office in Moreno Valley that elections officials had never visited, then on to a Riverside post office, where they were discovered the morning after the election.
The Riverside County Registrar of Voters Office posted results at 6:05 a.m. Saturday. The tabulation began Friday afternoon at the order of Superior Court Judge Mac R. Fisher.
“We always wanted to count those ballots and the judge’s decision let us do it and I’m glad every vote has been accounted for,” county Executive Office spokesman Ray Smith told City News Service in an interview today.
Smith stressed that Riverside County officials could only address the vote totals for that county, and not the totals from Riverside, Imperial and San Diego counties.
But the only impact on Riverside County races apparently was in the Democratic primary for the 40th State Senate nomination. That apparently gave voters a new Democratic contender in the district, which includes Southeast San Diego, Imperial Beach, Coronado, National City and Chula Vista in San Diego County, all of Imperial County including El Centro, and the eastern Coachella Valley cities of Indio, Cathedral City and Thousand Palms. Before the disputed ballots were tallied, Vargas had a 12-vote lead over Salas.
Fisher said even though the absentee ballots were discovered after the 8 p.m. election day deadline, not certifying them would mean disenfranchising the voters who mailed them.
Fisher ordered that the ballots be counted “expeditiously and efficiently” and included in the county’s final vote tabulation no later than Friday, the California Secretary of State’s deadline for certifying all the results statewide.
Smith said county election workers worked around the clock to ensure the votes were counted promptly.
“They worked through the night to get it done and came in to work different shifts,” Smith said. “They are probably all at home now resting.”
Smith said Registrar of Voters Barbara Dunmore will send the certified election results to the secretary of state Monday.
The Riverside County Democratic Central Committee and three residents filed a lawsuit June 30, asking the Superior Court to prohibit certification of the primary election without first determining the fate of the lost ballots. The lawsuit named Dunmore as the defendant.
The plaintiffs’ attorney, James 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, according to Harrison.
“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,” Harrison said.
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.
Riverside County Counsel Pamela Walls argued the registrar had complied with state law by not tallying the ballots. Walls said there was no “arrangement” with the postal service regarding whether to hold the ballots and asked 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.
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.