’Everyone in America values the votes cast by our citizens … except the county of Sacramento.'

Is something wrong with elections in Sacramento County?

In Meigs County, Ohio, elections officials last month counted 697 missing absentee ballots, long after the election was over.

When they were finally found in a county storeroom, and eventually unsealed and counted, the result was this: 639 votes for Abraham Lincoln, 58 for George B. McClellan.

The long-lost ballots, cast by Meigs County soldiers serving in the Union Army and counted 149 years later, of course, don’t change a thing about that election.

But as Democratic campaign consultant and democracy enthusiast Bob Mulholland points out, “Everyone in America values the votes cast by our citizens, and they count them.”

“Everyone,” he adds, “except the county of Sacramento, California.”

Mulholland is, of course, referring to Sacramento County’s refusal to count 407 absentee ballots found in a storage area earlier this year.

County registrar Jill LaVine, along with Sacramento County legal counsel, decided the votes would remain secret, because they were in voting precincts where all of the races were decided by margins wider than the number of missing ballots that might affect each contest.

“Election Code does not authorize me to recertify an election if the outcome does not change,” explained LaVine at the time.

But the county’s math doesn’t add up, says John Maa, a surgeon from San Francisco who has been looking into election irregularities around the state, particularly when absentee ballots are involved.

Maa was involved in the Proposition 29 campaign—the tobacco tax measure that narrowly lost in June 2012. The doctor managed to force a partial recount in Los Angeles County, though the outcome was unchanged.

He recently contacted Bites to say that he heard about the missing ballots in Sacramento, and they piqued his curiosity.

Indeed, in almost every contest, there is no chance that any of Sacramento’s missing ballots could change the outcome of any election.

Almost. The only exception, according to Maa’s analysis, is in the contest for Sacramento City charter commissioners.

You’ll recall that Measure M, the charter commission, failed pretty badly at the polls. But, at the same time, voters chose 15 charter commissioners. Heather Fargo was the highest vote-getter. No. 15 was a guy named Shane Singh, a big supporter of Mayor Kevin Johnson. No. 16, just missing the cut off, was Democratic Party activist Tamie Dramer. Bites knows a bit about both of these folks, and it’s safe to say that they don’t agree on much in local politics.

The number of votes separating the No. 15 and No. 16 finishers is 201. The number of unopened ballots in that contest is 355.

To be clear: It’s very, very unlikely that counting the votes will change those outcomes. And voters rejected Measure M, anyway, so the folks who won the charter commission races wouldn’t be seated. (And yes, Bites is sure some readers are wondering, “Is he babbling about the charter commission again?” We all have our hobbies.)

None of that means the votes shouldn’t be counted fairly and accurately. And if Maa is correct, then LaVine’s reasoning—that no outcomes could change—simply doesn’t hold. It’s impossible to know that for sure until the votes are actually counted.

“In medicine, we would call this a ‘near miss’—an event where a patient wasn’t harmed, yet the potential was there, and much can be learned from analyzing the event further, in the interest of election integrity,” explained Maa.

He also said that in his work on the Prop. 29 recount, he saw some things in Sacramento County’s statement of the vote that concerned him—a high number of mathematical errors, voter turnout in some precincts of more than 100 percent, and other “unusual presentations.”

Perhaps the missing ballots are, by themselves, nothing to worry about. They aren’t going to change the course of history or anything.

But could missing ballots be a symptom, a sign that something else is wrong? There’s no reason to jump to that conclusion. But the first, most basic safeguard, the heart of the whole election system, is to count everybody’s vote.

The secretary of state has ordered the ballots to be held for 22 months, until September 2014. After that, they will be destroyed.

“In the interest of election integrity,” Maa says, “I think that [the registrar] has the responsibility to open the ballots and count the votes, and recertify the outcome if appropriate.”