A Sonoma County voter or candidate staying up late to watch Tuesday's election results trickle in could be forgiven for having the impression that votes were being tallied slower than in previous years.
At midnight — a full four hours after polls closed — the county Registrar of Voters' website listed just 40 percent of precincts reporting, 149 out of 374.
But the reality was the count was actually much farther along than anyone realized.
In fact, 179 precincts that require voters to mail in their ballots had already been tabulated along with the absentee ballots, but the precinct count failed to reflect this. That didn't happen until after midnight.
If they had been registered, instead of 40 percent of precincts counted by midnight, the tally would have been 88 percent.
The result was the vote count looked far behind previous years, when in fact it was pretty well on track, said Janice Atkinson, Sonoma County's clerk, recorder, assessor and registrar of voters.
"Things came in pretty well last night, but it didn't look like we had as many precincts reporting as it had in the past," Atkinson said Wednesday.
The confusion stemmed from a change in election rules regarding mail-in precincts. In previous years, Sonoma County's 179 mail-in precincts — areas with too few voters to merit staffing a polling place — were reported at the same time as the absentee ballots received by Election Day.
But this year, the Secretary of State's Office asked counties to report their mail-in precincts separately from absentee ballots, Atkinson said. The ballots were still counted and reported to the public shortly after polls closed. But an election official didn't take the extra step necessary to ensure the early results reflected that those mail-in precincts had been published.
"We didn't run those through until the very end," Atkinson said. "It was the first time we've done it this way, and we didn't think about how other people would see it."
Atkinson, who is retiring but will remain through the November election, said the process will be changed this fall to better reflect the reality that the mail-in precincts are "in" soon after the polls close.
There are 248,216 registered voters in the county, 12,259 of whom are in mail-in precincts.
The mix-up left even seasoned political observers baffled.
Political consultant Terry Price, who advised Susan Gorin on her run for the 1st Supervisorial District, noticed around midnight that only 35 of the 93 precincts were listed as being reported. This led him to conclude that a load of ballots from the Sonoma Valley had yet to arrive for processing at county election headquarters. That gave him hope that Gorin, who was running just 130 votes behind fellow Santa Rosa City Council member John Sawyer, might yet be able to overtake her rival.
Price even sent out an email to his team at 12:08 a.m. alerting them to that possibility, he said. Price then watched the precinct count "zoom up" after midnight and hit the 93 districts reporting at 12:38 a.m., but only 1,600 new votes had come in. Gorin picked up only a few dozen votes.
Aside from that glitch, the election went reasonably well, Atkinson said. There were some delays at precincts that held up delivery of the ballots to election headquarters.