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2018 Midterms

More Midterm Coverage: To see our other midterm election coverage, click here.

Election Results: To see live, updated results for local elections, click here.

If you’re hoping for the final results of Sonoma County’s Election Day frenzy, you’ve got a long wait ahead of you — an estimated 50,000 to 75,000 mostly mail-in ballots have yet to be counted and won’t be for days, if not weeks to come.

The number of mail-in ballots that have not been counted is likely larger than the 35,610 people who voted the old-fashioned way Tuesday by entering a precinct polling booth.

Counting, sorting and verifying that many ballots is no easy task, one complicated by a cumbersome ballot- counting system and the fact that so many mail-in voters returned their ballots on or near Election Day.

“That’s why it’s impossible to call a close race at this time, because there’s so much left to count,” said Deena Thompson-Stalder, the county’s chief deputy registrar of voters.

Many of these mail-in ballots were ether dropped off at polling places on Tuesday or, if they were postmarked by Election Day, are still making their way through the U.S. Postal Service. Of the 202,000 mail-in ballots sent to voters, only 96,622 mail-in ballots were returned early enough to be counted on Election Day.

Bill Rousseau, the county’s head of elections, said three-quarters of registered voters in Sonoma County vote by mail. The share of actual voters who cast ballots in a voting booth has steadily declined in recent years.

In the 2006 midterm election, 40 percent of ballots cast in Sonoma County were filled out in a voting booth. That share dropped to 37 percent in 2010 and 24 percent in 2014.

The county finds itself in a situation where more people are voting by mail, and a significant share of those voters are returning their ballots late, dramatically delaying voting results, election officials said.

“It would go a lot faster if they voted early,” said Deva Proto, the incoming clerk-recorder-assessor and elections chief. “Right now, it means that we are just going to be expending and directing all of our available resources at processing these and trying to get ... the elections certified within our 30-day window.”

On Wednesday, about a half-dozen election workers went through bags and bins of mail-in ballots, still sealed in their light blue envelopes. These ballots had been dropped off at polling places on Tuesday.

Workers spent all day Wednesday verifying that the number of mail-in ballots logged by the precinct workers matched the number of blue envelopes. Today, election workers will begin sorting the ballots, checking signatures against voter rolls. Meanwhile, election officials must wait until Friday before they can close the window on ballots that were postmarked by Tuesday but have not yet been delivered by postal workers.

While the number of uncounted ballots is not yet known, officials said an usually large number of voters turned out Tuesday for a midterm election. Many local voters were inspired by the wave of opposition to President Donald Trump that placed Democrats in control of the House of Representatives.

“Even though being in California, we’re not going to change the national stage, it still motivated a lot of people to get out and vote,” said Rob Muelrath, a local political consultant.

On Tuesday, Susan Williams of Santa Rosa waited outside the county’s main elections office to receive a ballot. Williams said she recently re-registered to vote when she renewed her driver’s license, but not in time to get her mail-in ballot.

2018 Midterms

More Midterm Coverage: To see our other midterm election coverage, click here.

Election Results: To see live, updated results for local elections, click here.

Williams said she expected a larger turnout in this election compared to previous midterm elections. She said that voters, both Republican and Democrat, wanted to make their voices heard for a more accurate representation of where the country stands.

“It’s really important for people who have a political opinion to express that for a more accurate impression of how the nation feels,” she said.

Muelrath said a new state voting rule, which allows people to register to vote on Election Day and cast “conditional ballots” while their registration is being finalized, should also increase voter turnout. Quickly counting those votes and adding them to Election Day results will be crucial for determining winners and losers, he said.

On Tuesday, election officials said they issued 584 conditional ballots to those who registered at the last minute just to vote.

The biggest reason it takes so long to update election results when counting mail-in ballots is that the county’s ballot-counting system is not capable of updating previous counts. To get a new count, the county’s entire batch of ballot cards must be “run through” the system, Proto said.

For that reason, the county usually waits to do a final count until all late ballots — including mail-in ballots, provisional ballots and conditional ballots — have been verified. The process must be completed within the state’s 30-day window for certification.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com.

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