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June 6, 1998





When Speed Counts for Something
Quick election results in San Mateo County



In San Francisco, where Kafka wrote the official guide to City Hall, Tuesday's primary election vote count was finished about 3 a.m. Wednesday.


In Santa Clara County, where the elections department is very well run, the vote count was finished about 2 a.m. Wednesday.


In San Mateo County, the count was finished shortly before 10 p.m. on Tuesday -- less than two hours after the polls closed.


San Mateo County's rapid tally is, as one veteran political consultant put it, simply unbelievable.


For more than two decades, San Mateo County elections officials have enjoyed a statewide reputation for being the first major county to wrap up its election count.

It began under the late elections chief Marvin Church, who devised a system of compiling a ``semiofficial'' tally at the precinct polling places, and having those reported to his office in Redwood City.


Under Church's successor, Warren Slocum, the emphasis on speed has continued.


One of the reasons they're fast in San Mateo County is that they want to be.


This election's rapid tally results directly from a commitment by officials to have the right technology in place.


San Mateo County voters fill out a ballot printed on a broad sheet, marking votes by connecting an arrow with a black pen.


The sheet then is fed into a small, squat machine. It takes about a second for the form to zip into the machine. In that second, the ballot is counted.


At the end of the day, poll workers take a black box out of the machine. Inside the black box is a microchip. Stored in the microchip are the totals of all the votes in that precinct.


The black box is taken to one of three collection points in the county. The numbers inside the box are downloaded into a computer, and the computer tallies the total vote.

In other words, officials in San Mateo County are collecting vote totals at each polling place and adding those totals up at a central office.


In most other counties, the count doesn't begin until the uncounted ballots are carried from the precinct polling place to a central office.


The benefits of counting quickly are unmistakable.


Elections officials are in the integrity business.


It's their job not just to count the ballots, but to do so in a manner that is widely perceived as reliable.


Part of that equation is timeliness.


The longer it takes to count the ballots, the more uneasy voters are about the reliability of the count.


Take long enough -- appear screwed up enough -- and it's inevitable that accusations of fraud and incompetence will arise and call into question the integrity of the outcome.


Provide election results quickly and efficiently and in a timely fashion -- so that most people can go to bed on election night knowing who won -- and you enhance the public's perception that the election was on the up and up.


Of course, not every area can be as fast as San Mateo County.


As noted at the top, San Mateo County completed its vote count before 10 p.m., more than four hours ahead of Santa Clara County.


Santa Clara County has twice as many voters as San Mateo County -- any vote count is bound to take longer.


But, certainly, the vote count in Santa Clara County could be faster, and the count in San Francisco could be more confidence-inspiring.


It's not just a matter of technology. It's a matter of wanting to do a good job faster.


Instead of marveling at San Mateo County's speed, maybe it's time for the other counties in the Bay Area to get up to speed.


Slocum said the vote count on Tuesday was the result of technology and carrying out a detailed plan, including a schedule of when poll workers should arrive at the collection points.


He thinks with the same kind of planning and execution the November election vote count can be completed by 9:30 p.m.

A completed vote tally 90 minutes after the polls close.


Only in San Mateo County.


Mark Simon writes from The Chronicle's Peninsula Bureau; he can be reached at (650) 961-2485, by fax at (650) 961-5023, or by e-mail at


This article appeared on page A - 17 of the San Francisco Chronicle