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Sonoma County voters slow to mail ballots, potentially delaying outcomes in close races

Absent a big rush at drop-off locations Friday, less than half of Sonoma County voters have turned in their ballots in time to have their votes counted on Election Day, potentially delaying decisive results in close races.

Only a quarter of the 237,607 voters who received mail ballots had returned them as of Thursday morning, election officials said, and just 20% of registered voters are set to cast their ballots at polling places Tuesday.

Deva Proto, Sonoma County’s registrar of voters, said those voting by mail who want their votes counted on Election Day should drop ballots off by Friday - or Saturday at the latest.

Ballots mailed or dropped off after that through Tuesday will be counted, just not by Election Day, potentially triggering a long wait for clear outcomes in close contests.

“The practical aspect is that results will be delayed down ballot, and that can lead to some pressure on counts and results,” said David McCuan, political scientist at Sonoma State University. “It could surely affect the (3rd District supervisor) race.”

The race for a 3rd District seat between three-term incumbent Shirlee Zane and former Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey is the marquee local matchup, and is predicted to be close.

An incumbent last lost a supervisorial race in 1984.

Coursey said the slow pace of ballot collection means his campaign has more time for get-out-the-vote activities, which will continue through Tuesday.

“It would be great if we had an answer at 8:15 Tuesday night,” Coursey said. “I’m not sure that’s gonna happen.”

Zane said she would use the remaining days of the campaign to tout her accomplishments in neighborhood canvassing across her district, taking in central Santa Rosa and most of Rohnert Park. That includes a mix of first-time meetings, door-stop reunions, listening and encouraging folks to vote, she said.

“We’re really confident,” she said. “But with less than one-third of the votes in, you might not be able to (declare a winner) if it’s really close.”

Fellow supervisors Lynda Hopkins and Susan Gorin also are defending seats in Tuesday’s election, where they are joined on the ballot by the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit tax extension and a proposed countywide sales tax hike to support fire services, among other measures.

In all, Sonoma County ballots will feature votes on a statewide proposition for school construction funding and 11 local ballot questions, along with primary contests for president, the state Legislature and Congress.

McCuan said the vote for president is what has caused voters, particularly Democratic voters, to hang on to their ballots.

As of Thursday morning, just 24% of Democratic voters and 18% of independents had returned mail ballots in Sonoma County, compared with 36% of Republicans, who ostensibly know their presidential vote.

“People are waiting because they want their ballot vote to count,” McCuan said, referring to the Democratic presidential primary. “This is unusual in the sense that California matters. They want to vote for a winner, and that affects this race.”

County-run drop-off sites for ballots include the Petaluma Veterans Building, 1094 Petaluma Blvd.; the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building, 1551 Maple Ave.; or the Registrar of Voters’ office, with a drive-thru window, at 435 Fiscal Drive in Santa Rosa.

As part of its preparations for next week, the county held a training Thursday for precinct volunteers at the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building. There, gathered around several tables, a group of Quest Forward Academy high school students had their first crack at helping with the nation’s time-honored exercise in elective democracy. For many, this election will also represent their first chance to vote.

Maximillian Reighard, a senior at Quest, just turned 18, so he has been reading up on the ballot races and talking with his parents about the various issues.

“First time for everything, I guess,” Reighard said.

Proto led the session, speaking at the front of a large auditorium to about 70 volunteers about the rules, state law and changes to this year’s process.

Proto said she didn’t have a year-over-year, week-by-week comparison to assess return rates, but anecdotally she said people appear to be turning in their ballots later each year. In 2018, Proto said, the elections office tallied and reported by Election Day slightly more than half of the total ballots cast.

“The era of calling elections on Election Day is over,” she said.

California’s move to a March primary - from June -is likely compounding the problem, experts said.

The advanced schedule has confronted the elections office with a new set of challenges.

“All the deadlines were earlier, which meant we were working on the March election while we were also working on the November election,” Proto said referring to a special election last fall. “Holidays pose a challenge in terms of staffing and being able to meet deadlines.”

The office -and voters - will likely get the hang of it, as the March primary will occur in even-numbered years going forward. And Proto still sees benefits in the move.

“I think voters will feel that they have more of a voice in the nationwide results,” Proto said, referring to the presidential primary. “I think in the past people felt that maybe the decisions had already been made.”

You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or at tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @tylersilvy.

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