At least 418,600 Orange County ballots were left to count as of Wednesday evening, and “tens of thousands” more are estimated to be still traveling through the mail, so it will be days if not weeks before the outcome of a number of close races are known.
“This volume is crazy,” said Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley on the number of mail-in ballots his office is receiving.
Uncounted ballots account for an estimated 40 percent of the total ballots cast, and include vote-by-mail ballots dropped off at the polls Tuesday or received through the mail, provisional ballots and paper ballots.
That figure, which is just the Registrar of Voters’ best guess, doesn’t include vote-by-mail ballots postmarked on election day that may still be en route in the mail. Kelley estimated those mail-in ballots will number in the “tens of thousands.”
So far, 664,915 votes have been counted.
Orange County drew national attention this election season because of four key Congressional races where the Republican-held districts voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. It appears so far that Democrats have gained enough seats nationally to win a majority in the 435-seat House of Representatives.
Democrat Mike Levin defeated Republican Diane Harkey to represent the 49th Congressional District, which is largely based in San Diego but includes the southern tip of Orange County.
The outcome of three other Orange County congressional districts — the 39th, 45th and 48th — is unclear, and with hundreds of thousands of votes still outstanding, campaigns on both sides have yet to declare a winner.
A number of local races are also extremely close, including the race for fourth district county supervisor between Republican Tim Shaw, mayor of La Habra, and Democrat Doug Chaffee, mayor of Fullerton, who are separated by 1,507 votes.
Current estimates suggest more than 1 million people cast a ballot in this year’s general election.
“Turnout is about 40 percent right now, but considering everything we have right now, I think we are going to be closer to 65 [percent],” said Kelley. “I have to go back into the records but it’s going to be a record, through the 1970s, for a midterm election.”
In-person, early voting this election was 130 percent higher than the presidential election in 2016, Kelley said. On election day, “a couple thousand” voters lined up at the Registrar’s headquarters in Santa Ana to cast a ballot, with the last voter processed about 10:15 p.m., Kelley said.
“That is extraordinary, but consider the fact that this office is the only office where non-registered voters can vote [on election day],” Kelley said.
Voting on election day, by contrast, was hour-by-hour about the same as the last midterm election in 2014, Kelley said.
Because California accepts any absentee ballots mailed on election day, it normally takes a few days for the Registrar to receive all the ballots cast in the election.
All votes cast at the polls electronically have now been counted. Now the Registrar must begin the more involved task of processing and counting the nearly 250,000 vote-by-mail ballots, 160,000 provisional and 13,200 paper ballots sitting in their warehouse.
During that process, members of the public, political campaign workers and attorneys can observe poll workers and challenge the signatures on ballot envelopes if they believe they don’t match a voter’s original signature when they first registered to vote.
Ballots where the signature is not verified cannot be opened and counted. Under a new state law, SB 759, voters must be notified if their signature is being challenged so they can contact the Registrar and verify their signature before the election is certified.
In those instances, voters will be notified in writing and have until two days before the election is certified to verify their signature.
Kelley says his office is sending letters to voters on a rolling basis as they verify signatures, but the number of challenged signatures is “very small” and he does not believe it will impact races significantly.
Only poll workers handle the ballots themselves, and unless a candidate asks for a recount, members of the public and campaign workers can only observe counting from a distance.
About 80 percent of provisional ballots, which are used by voters whose eligibility is unknown (for example, if their name doesn’t appear on voter rolls or if they weren’t registered to vote by election day), are usually accepted, Kelley said. Those votes are counted last, after the vote-by-mail ballots are processed, so workers can determine whether provisional voters have already voted through other means.
Provisional ballots and vote-by-mail ballots dropped off at poll stations on election day tend to mirror electronic voting trends, said Kelley, meaning candidates who were gaining votes on election night generally expect to see those trends continue.
It’s impossible to tell at this point where ballots are coming from and what races they will affect until the ballots are sorted and counted, Kelley said.
The Secretary of State requires counties to submit and certify election results within 30 days of the election.
Kelley — who left the Registrar’s headquarters around 4:30 a.m. the morning after election day — said his office will likely work through the weekend until all the votes are counted, and expects that process will take 28, if not the full 30, days.
He will not certify any races until all votes are counted.
Contact Thy Vo at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.