Could more than 60,000 votes make a difference in Contra Costa County? We'll have to wait and see — because that's how many vote-by-mail ballots County Clerk Steve Weir says have yet to be counted. And that number doesn't include provisional ballots, which Weir says should be tallied by 5 p.m. Thursday but take up to Nov. 14 to verify.
Here's how Weir explained the reason for so many uncounted ballots two days after the election:
With the liberalization of vote-by-mail and provisional ballot casting, a very large percentage of the total vote cannot be tallied Election Night. (Statewide in November 2008, there were 3.2 million ballots cast that did not make the Election Night count. That represented 24 percent of the total vote cast.)
Because tens of thousands of vote-by-mail ballots arrive at the polls on Election Day, we do not have those ballots on site until until well into the night on Election Day and not in our hands until late that night or the next day, when we sort them out from the precinct supply and material returns.
Our focus on Election Night is to get the precinct count totals into our system and to the public as soon as possible.
California law gives registrars 28 days to certify an election (after Election Day). This is called the canvass. The canvass is a methodical and precise accounting process, which includes counting ballots, but is much more involved and must be handled in a specific sequence. We are required to start this process on Thursday after the election.
Contra Costa has a philosophy to get as much of the count as possible in on Election Night (If you compare the turnout for the top 15 counties in the state, Contra Costa has the highest turnout posted Election Night. This is for two reasons. First, we traditionally rank among the top turnout counties in the state and second, we work hard in the weeks leading up to Election Day to prepare and count as much of the vote as possible on Election Night.)
As noted earlier, vote-by-mail has grown with each major election. Over 55 percent of our registered voters received a vote-by-mail ballot for the Nov. 6th presidential election. This election was not characteristic of the past two presidential general elections in terms of the timing for the voter to return their vote-by-mail ballot. (We'll have an analysis of this in our summary report which we'll issue in December.)
This is what we do on the Wednesday after a major election: As part of breaking down the materials returned from each precinct on Election Night, we isolate the provisional ballots and the vote-by-mail ballots. By Thursday at 5 p.m., we should have a spreadsheet list, by precinct, of the vote-by-mail ballots and the provisional ballots from each precinct.
Remember that not all provisional ballots will qualify for the tally -- 81.5 percent of returned provisional ballots qualified in November 2008 and 83.6 percent qualified in November 2004.
In 2008, qualified provisional ballots represented 3.8 percent of the total vote cast. In 2004, qualified provisional ballots represented 3.5 percent of the total vote cast.
Not every vote-by-mail ballot will qualify as well (typically, 98.5 percent will) and not every vote-by-mail ballot turned in at a particular poll site will contain a ballot that is the same ballot type as the voter’s precinct (vote-by-mail ballots can be turned in at any precinct within the voter's county).
For Contra Costa, traditionally, about 15 percent to 20 percent of the total vote cast is not included in the Election Night semi-official tally.
My rough estimate of outstanding vote-by-mail ballots is 60,000 (this will be verified Thursday afternoon). This includes vote-by-mail ballots that arrived by mail or at the polls on Election Day (typically this is about 20 percent of the total vote-by-mail ballots cast), parts of Saturday's mail and all of Monday's mail.
Our goal is to process most, if not all, of the outstanding vote-by-mail ballots by Wednesday, Nov. 14th. Remember, this is an estimate. We'll update our election night totals when this is complete.
Processing provisional ballots (including emergency or 7-day ballots) are part of the process that can only occur toward the end of the canvas. Many steps including crediting each vote-by-mail ballot and each precinct vote must take place before we can touch the provisional ballots.
Did you use a provisional ballot this Election Day, or vote by mail? Does the lag in counting your vote make you want to vote a different way in future? Share your thoughts in the comments below.