Editorial: Suspicious sales tax vote should be investigated

DAILY POST EDITORIAL

We’re suspicious of the vote counting for Measure W, a half-cent sales tax that would fund SamTrans and various transportation projects in San Mateo County.

For two weeks after the election, county workers counted the ballots, and updated totals were posted every few days. Throughout that period, the measure — which needs two-thirds to pass — was hovering at 65% or 66%, not enough to pass.

Then an odd thing happened last weekend during the final stages of the vote-count. Another 15,652 ballots were counted. And lo and behold, that batch of ballots was overwhelmingly in favor of the tax, by 72%. It pushed Measure W over the two-thirds threshold.

Think about that for a second. The county tabulated 254,428 ballots in the two weeks after the election, and 66.55% of them were in favor of the tax.

Then the county Elections Division, in the final moments of the campaign, counts 15,652 ballots, and those ballots are in favor of the tax by 72%.

Why?

Why would this batch of 15,652 ballots be so different from the earlier 254,428 ballots? Shouldn’t the 15,652 ballots look like a random sample of the earlier ballots?

What made them different?

For one thing, the weekend batch of ballots included some ballots that had been re-created by election workers. Apparently a few voters had damaged their ballots in some way — maybe they spilled coffee on them or made errant marks on the paper. These ballots couldn’t go through the optical scanners used to tabulate votes. So election workers transferred the votes on these damaged ballots to new ballots by hand and fed them through the machine.

This re-creation process was done by two people — one would read the damaged ballot and announce how the voter had marked the ballot, and the second person would mark the substitute ballot.

No video

The process was done inside a county building without any video cameras present that would have ensured the process was done accurately and prevented any mischief.

We don’t want to cast aspersions on the county employees who re-created these ballots, but we think there should have been outside observers or video surveillance just to keep everybody honest. It’s hard to believe they wouldn’t be using video — it is 2018, not 1968.

Now questions are being raised by the opponents of Measure W, who feel an election is being stolen from them.

The opponents are strange bedfellows — a group of local Republicans and the Loma Prieta chapter of the Sierra Club. They’re usually on opposite sides of issues. But together they’re looking into the vote-counting process and may request a recount.

The county could potentially ask for hundreds of thousands of dollars for a recount. The price will be so steep that it probably will never happen. The county Board of Supervisors should have a policy saying that in close races, a recount is automatic and without charge. Santa Clara County has such a policy.

But in this case, a recount might not identify the problem because the re-created ballots would be the ones fed into scanners.

What the Republicans and Sierra Club need to do is ask a judge for a court order to:

1. Require San Mateo County Assessor-County Clerk-Recorder and Chief Elections Officer Mark Church to preserve all records for the election including the allegedly damaged ballots.

2. Appoint a neutral third-party to examine the damaged ballots to see if they were faithfully re-created by the county election workers.

Big money

Measure W, if approved, would add a half-cent to the sales tax and raise $2.4 billion — that’s billion with a B — over 30 years. Big money was on the line here.

That’s why the county and SamTrans spent $1 million in tax dollars before the election promoting Measure W with their “Get Us Moving” campaign. It’s legal for the government to use tax dollars on a political campaign as long as the money is spent before the measure officially goes on the ballot, but it’s not ethical.

You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to wonder if the people who acted unethically before election would continue to act unethically after the election as votes were counted.
An investigation is warranted. People need to be put under oath. The original “damaged” ballots should be examined by a neutral third party.

We don’t expect the county Board of Supervisors will look into this issue because they voted to put Measure W on the ballot. They’ve got a dog in this fight.

Instead, we would hope the county’s two top political leaders — state Sen. Jerry Hill and Congresswoman Jackie Speier — would call for a thorough investigation into the counting of votes for Measure W.

Hill and Speier each have a long record of insisting on integrity and transparency. And neither supported Measure W, so they would be considered fair.

They need to use their influence in the county to make sure this election was handled properly to preserve the public trust.

7 Comments

  1. This was obviously rigged. Law enforcement needs to investigate and find those responsible. In government, everybody is related to somebody else, so it’s probable the county employees who “re-created” ballots had some family members at SamTrans.

  2. It’s wildly irresponsible of the PA Daily Post to fan the flames like this. This exact same thing happened with the Measure K parcel tax in Belmont in the spring – it was trailing and ended up winning by 30 votes.

    Further, at least three US House races in California, and one state Assembly race, have had the lead flipped since Election Day. No foul play is suspected in any of those races.

    The simplest and most obvious explanation is that Democrats are more likely than Republicans to mail their votes later on, and Democrats are more likely to support taxes for better public services. There is no elaborate conspiracy necessary to address this.

  3. I agree with the editorial position. There are too many “coincidences” in this scenario. The odds of a “batch” of ballots being that far out of the statistical norm is close to the same odds as winning the lottery. The explanation that Democrats mail ballots in later than Republicans has nothing to do with these ballots. These ballots were all allegedly ballots that couldn’t be scanned or there were questions about the legitimacy of those people submitting the ballots in question.

  4. There’s nothing unusual about blocks of votes being correlated. And don’t forget that in the end, the clear message is an overwhelming majority of voters supported W. We can debate how a few hanging chad ballots were counted, whether it’s 66.6% or 66.7% support, but the will of the voters in either case is clear.

  5. It’s silly to expect Hill and Speier to investigate this. They’re part of the team that puts these transportation sales tax measures on the ballot in every election. And didn’t Hill vote for high-speed rail? No, they’re not going to investigate this.

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