With about 40 percent of the ballots still uncounted, victory is not a sure thing for backers of a hotly contested campaign to repeal Mendocino County's liberal marijuana guidelines.

Measure B appeared to win Tuesday by a 52-48 percent margin, amounting to 701 votes, in a closely watched election that has attracted national attention.

But county Clerk Susan Ranochak said Wednesday the preliminary results don't include 10,385 absentee ballots not yet tabulated. In addition, 439 "provisional" ballots that voters Tuesday dropped by polling places or the county's election office also are uncounted.

There were 16,364 votes counted Tuesday night from across the county, compared to the combined 10,824 ballots still outstanding.

The uncounted votes are roughly split between inland southern Mendocino County, where Measure B posted strong results, and the Anderson Valley, Mendocino Coast and Willits/Laytonville regions, where there's a long history of marijuana tolerance.

Ranochak said it could be up to 28 days before official election results are released, the maximum time allowed under state election laws.

Ranochak's announcement sobered Measure B supporters, who initially believed there weren't enough ballots left uncounted to substantially alter the victory margin.

"We're still optimistic, but we had no idea the uncounted vote would be so large," said Ukiah businessman Ross Liberty, a key Measure B supporter.

Liberty said that based on early polling last winter, he and other Measure B supporters had hoped for a winning margin of 60 percent or more in order to "send a big message."

Laura Hamburg, leader of the Measure B opposition, said she's happy the gap closed in the final weeks.

Liberty and Hamburg agreed the ballots that are to be counted possibly could shift the outcome.

Even so, both Liberty and Hamburg suggested there might be a middle ground for residents angry over large-scale marijuana growers flaunting their presence, and their profits.

Hamburg said marijuana-related issues are complex, and deeply woven into the culture of a "county we all love."

Liberty said, "We have more common ground than we tended to acknowledge in the heat of the campaign."

The Measure B campaign drew renewed attention to the scale of marijuana production in Mendocino and other rural counties. It also underscored results of a continuing lack of uniform state guidelines.

Law enforcement authorities said the confusion is the fallout from a 1996 statewide vote to decriminalize marijuana cultivation for medical uses. In 2000 Mendocino voters took it a step further by setting a personal use standard of 25 plants per person, at the time the nation's most liberal.

Voters also directed local law enforcement agencies to make marijuana arrests and prosecution their lowest priorities. Measure B if passed will repeal those local provisions but whether the county can conform to more restrictive state guidelines as dictated is unclear. A state appellate court has ruled the state guidelines are unconstitutional.

You can reach Staff Writer Mike Geniella at 462-6470 or mgeniella@pressdemocrat.com.