Late ballots equal extra wait on close contests

Late ballots equal extra wait on close contests

Michele Ellson

Election Day may feel like a distant memory for weary voters and candidates who lived through a lengthy campaign season, but the closing of the polls heralded a fresh round of ballot counting for elections officials – votes that could determine the fate of some close races.

Voters turned in an estimated 100,000 vote by mail ballots at Alameda County polling places on Election Day and cast another 42,000 provisional ballots, information submitted to the California Secretary of State shows (though the actual counts show the numbers may be higher). In this election, those ballots made up nearly a quarter of the estimated 590,000 votes cast.

“What we report on Election Night could be pretty different in the final results,” Alameda County Registrar of Voters Dave Macdonald said.

As of early Wednesday afternoon, county elections officials had about 16,000 provisional ballots left to count, Macdonald said – a process that involves researching each ballot to make sure the person who submitted it was registered to vote and, in some cases, copying their choices onto the proper city’s ballot.

Macdonald said he hopes to have the election results certified by Thanksgiving. California’s county elections officials have until December 4 to finish counting votes.

The popularity of “convenience voting” options like vote by mail has been on the rise. Nearly two-thirds of the ballots cast statewide in the June primary vote were submitted by permanent mail voters, a chart on the California Secretary of State’s website shows, while 330,000 of the ballots cast in Alameda County were mail ballots that were either sent ahead of time or walked into the polls.

The disputed vote count in Florida in the 2000 presidential contest helped spur the use of provisional ballots, which voters fill out at polling places when they lose their vote by mail ballots or have registered to vote but don’t see their name on poll workers’ lists. Macdonald said most of the provisional ballots being counted now came from voters who went to the wrong polling places.

The rising number of permanent vote-by-mail ballot holders may mean that early absentee results released as the polls are closed are more indicative of the eventual outcome of election, since their demographics more closely mirror those of the electorate than they once did. Doug Linney, president of The Next Generation, a political consulting firm that works on local, regional and state campaigns, said absentee voters used to be older and more conservative, but that’s changed as the popularity of the voting method grew.

“In the old days, there was a much bigger difference between the absentee vote and the poll vote. But now because so many people vote absentee, there’s not a stark difference,” Linney said.

Even with such a high percentage of votes left after the early absentee and day-of vote counted, the results of most contests are clear-cut because the likelihood that there would be enough differing votes to overcome a candidate or ballot measure’s initial lead is slim. Proponents of Alameda’s Measure D, for example, had captured 78 percent of the vote after about 20,000 votes had been counted – and the result wouldn’t have changed even if every single late ballot counted since November 6 had contained a “no” vote on the measure.

But in close races, the additional ballots can make a difference, as they did in the 2010 City Council race. Councilwoman Lena Tam trailed Councilwoman Beverly Johnson in initial results by 189 votes, a difference she made up over the course of a week’s worth of ballot counting, earning her a four-year term while Johnson took the remaining two years of Marie Gilmore’s term as she became mayor.

Fewer than 500 votes separated second-place City Council candidate Tony Daysog from the third-place finisher, Stewart Chen, at the end of the Election Night count. But as of Wednesday, Daysog’s lead was 125 votes – a gap that means the difference between four years on the council and two.

The wait has been “a little nerve wracking” for Chen, who is waiting on the results of both the council contest and the Assembly District 18 race. If Alameda Vice Mayor Rob Bonta wins that race, the remainder of his term on the council will go to the third-place finisher.

“This is a nail biter,” Chen said of the vote count in the council race. Both candidates, who have congratulated each other, said they'll just be happy for the opportunity to serve.

California Secretary of State Debra Bowen’s website contains a list of close contests where the difference between candidates is two percent or less – a list that includes the Assembly District 18 race between Bonta and Peralta Community College District Trustee Abel Guillen. Guillen conceded the race late Monday; as of Wednesday, Bonta was still leading, 74,574 votes to 72,551.

Macdonald said past candidates in close races have conceded, only to win. But others, like California State University, East Bay assistant professor of political science Elizabeth Bergman, said that with more than 90 percent of the vote counted, the likelihood that the results of most races will change is “extremely remote.”

Even so, Bergman and Linney say it’s possible that some close races could end differently when all the ballots are counted. Linney said Chen’s rising standing in the council race could be the result of a late campaign start and late ballots being walked into the polls on Election Day.

“Everybody just kind of has to sit tight and wait,” Bergman said. “It’s exciting. Or it’s not, depending on where you sit.”