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05 Mar 2020

Too Early to Call … for a While: Embrace the Uncertainty While Waiting for California Election Results

Written by  Ben Christopher, CalMatters

As you read this article, Proposition 13, the $15 billion school-construction bond, either failed by a historically wide margin, or it didn’t.

Likewise, Bernie Sanders bulldozed the competition, beating out California’s second-place Democratic finisher, Joe Biden, by hundreds of thousands of votes. Or he didn’t.

And turnout might have been historically high—who knows? 

Like Schrodinger’s Cat, the ambiguously fated feline in the physicist’s thought experiment who is both alive and dead simultaneously, California election results currently exist in a kind of quantum state of uncertainty. Hundreds of thousands—or is it millions?—of ballots remain to be counted.

“California has election month, not election day,” said Mike Young, political director at the California League of Conservation Voters. So strap in.

Why the delay? California’s votes now arrive and get tallied in slow motion. That’s largely by design. (Not by design: Thousands of voters more were apparently stymied by long lines and administrative gridlock across Los Angeles County’s new vote centers.) The state opts to make it very easy for Californians to vote, allowing them to register to vote or change their party registration on Election Day. And it permits any voter for any reason to mail in a ballot postmarked as late as Election Day, and have it counted so long as it arrives within three days.

We’re now in that window, during which an untold number of mail ballots are on their way to county registrars.

So, no, we really don’t know what most of the results are.

We don’t even know how many ballots still have to be counted, which would at least allow us to say how little we know about what the results are.

“This is not like Iowa, where there was pandemonium,” said Young, referring to the bug-ridden reporting process after the Iowa caucuses. “That’s a lot of room for improvement on the vote centers, there’s no doubt about that. But the election results are going to take time and that’s California’s process.”

The California process is a particular source of anxiety for political reporters who, in the days immediately following election night, invariably run out of ways to say “it’s too soon to say for sure” and “we’ll just have to wait and see.”

An example: On Wednesday, about 24 hours after the polls closed, the Prop 13 school bond was down 56 to 44 percent— a 593,013 vote deficit. 

To be clear, that’s a big gap. Could the remaining votes close it? We have no idea, in part because we don’t know how many ballots remain uncounted.

We may know at least that much soon. Counties are required to begin publishing their estimates of “unprocessed ballots” at the end of day Thursday (March 5). The estimates are rough (some county offices use scales to measure the stacks of paper ballots), and even then, many more votes that were postmarked at the last minute will continue to pour in. 

After the first uncounted ballot estimates were published after 2016 and 2018 primaries, roughly 35 percent remained to be tallied. This year, with so many voters casting their ballots by mail and registering to vote on Election Day, the share could be significantly higher, said Paul Mitchell of Political Data Inc.

With an emphasis on “could be.”

What we can say about these yet-to-be-counted ballots, said Mitchell, is that they tend to come from younger, lower income, non-white voters, which almost certainly means more Democrats. Thus, a good rule of thumb: in a clear Democrat versus Republican race, expect the results between their current estimates and their certification in mid-April to move reliably into the Democratic column.

It’s a pattern we saw in the aftermath of the 2018 midterms when a number of contested congressional races initially seemed to favor the Republican candidate only to creep steadily leftward as more results came in.

That isn’t a conspiracy; it’s just late voters having their ballots counted.

“An older, Republican homeowner who has been voting in every election for decades doesn’t have to go to a same-day registration or mail their ballot in at the last minute,” said Mitchell.

Another unique dynamic this year: Moderate voters in the Democratic presidential primary may have gone down to the wire before deciding which presidential candidate to support. That surge of ballots may still be on the way.

With an emphasis on “may be.”

And while there is some evidence that participation rates were high, it’s still far too early for confident assertions about turnout in California.

That’s the point that Chief Deputy Secretary of State James Schwab was perhaps trying to make when he published this tweet Wednesday: “Turnout in the California Presidential primary will be around.”

No, a word is not missing. Which is yet another way to say, “We’ll just have to wait and see.”

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

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