CLOSE ELECTIONS often continue to be contentious long after the voting has taken place. Such is the case with the tight race in the 11th Congressional District between Republican David Harmer and incumbent Democrat Jerry McNerney.

More than two weeks after Election Day, the California Republican Party is pursuing a lawsuit against Contra Costa County over whether vote-count observers have the right to challenge specific signatures on mail-vote ballots.

With increasingly large numbers of people voting by mail, the GOP believes observers should have the right to challenge signatures.

Contra Costa County Registrar Steve Weir disagrees. He believes that state law allows signature challenges only before the election and only by poll workers at the precincts. Weir said, "We cannot allow a 'casual' observer to challenge a voter's right to participate when he or she is not present."

GOP attorney Charles Bell argues that if observers do not have the right to challenge, then the purpose of the 2009 law that allows observers into election offices during the counting process is defeated.

That is not necessarily so. Observers can serve a valuable purpose just by being there to make sure the clerks counting the ballots are attentive and there are no shenanigans.

However, Weir did agree with Bell that the issue needs to be resolved either in court or with legislation so that there is a clear standard.

A sensible standard that safeguards the accuracy and honesty of the vote-counting process makes sense. But any final solution should not be so cumbersome that challenges by observers delay the final count for weeks or longer.

Also, we believe that whatever the standard is, the final decision on voter signatures and the count should be made by the county elections offices in a timely manner.

Bell pointed out that some counties allow informal challenges but agree with Weir's interpretation of the law. Perhaps that could be a solution to the argument over the role of observers.

A standard that allows representatives from political parties to watch the vote counting and make suggestions to the clerks if the observers notice anything unusual would make sense. It would add credibility to the final results, reduce charges of misconduct and allow the tally to be made without undue delays.