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.