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San Francisco Chronicle


November 07, 1996



How San Mateo County Got Fast Election Returns



Well before election day, Warren Slocum put together a D-Day-type plan.

Slocum, San Mateo County's top elections official, put polling workers through a dry run and had them pull the plug on electronic voting machines to make sure batteries and generators could keep everything running in case of an Election Day outage.

The result was results available by 9:30 p.m. -- far earlier than in most other California counties.

"On election night, things just don't occur by chance," he said yesterday. "It takes a lot of planning by a lot of people, and it takes people executing according to a plan."

Even Secretary of State Bill Jones has noticed the speed. "San Mateo (County) has been historically very fast in their returns," he said.

Unlike many counties where a punch-card voting system is used, San Mateo County's 355,000 registered voters fill out a ballot with a pen, then deposit it in a machine that looks more like an ATM than a ballot box. After polls close at 8 p.m., a polling worker presses a few buttons and the machine prints out the results.

Then a worker will remove an electronic "black box" from the machine and take it to one of three counting centers. Any discrepancies among the numbers can be settled by going through the actual paper ballots.

In remote mountain locations, voting results are transmitted via modem to the county's computers, Slocum said.

The technology is a far cry from the old-fashioned polling booths as big as refrigerators, with levers to crank to cast ballots and curtains to hide behind, which the county used until about five years ago. Only San Mateo and Amador counties use the same computerized ballot counters, Slocum said.

Slocum said speedy, accurate counting also increases voter confidence in the process.

"People think there's something wrong when you have a vote count that takes a day and a half to do", he said.

Slocum said using computerized vote counting is only natural in a county that encompasses part of Silicon Valley. Yet computers can't replace polling workers who understand the process, he added.

Secretary of State Jones said most counties finish counting ballots by midnight. Due to its sheer size, Los Angeles is typically one of the last to finish, and a computer problem this year delayed Orange County's results, he said.

In San Francisco, results were in shortly before 1 a.m., except for one precinct that didn't turn in results until 2.

About 12,000 ballots remained to be counted as of yesterday, mostly provisional ballots turned in by people not listed on the precinct rolls where they voted.