The morning after the Nov. 6 congressional midterm election in California, state, county and media websites reported that 100 percent of precincts had turned in their results.
It was highly misleading: The final tally, released Friday, showed that a staggering 5.2 million of the 12.1 million ballots cast — 43 percent — remained uncounted that morning. Most of the outstanding votes were from mail ballots.
The website charts listing results from “100 percent” of the precincts feed public mistrust in the counting despite California’s stringent protections of ballot integrity, said Mindy Romero, the director of the University of Southern California’s California Civic Engagement Project, a nonpartisan research center in Sacramento.
Precinct results are just for ballots cast in person on Election Day — a shrinking share of California’s vote.
“It doesn’t really match the reality,” Romero said.
Alex Padilla, a Democrat just re-elected as secretary of state, acknowledged that the description of the early results might lead the public to wonder why the vote count continues for weeks, with a gaggle of second-place candidates then pulling into the lead.
“Can the terminology be modernized a little bit there? Yeah, I’m open to that,” he said.
Twenty years ago, less than a quarter of the state’s voters cast ballots by mail; today it is close to two-thirds.
Under state law, ballots must be postmarked by election day but are valid as long as they arrive by Friday of that week. Also uncounted on election night are provisional ballots cast at polling stations by voters whose eligibility must be verified later, including those who registered to vote that day.
It can take as long as 30 days to count all of the ballots in California. In Sonoma County, final vote totals were announced Monday, flipping several local races. The most notable was Omar Medina’s victory over Frank Pugh for the Santa Rosa City Schools Board of Trustees.
Around the state, four Republicans who were ahead in close House races in the initial vote count went down to defeat after the giant trove of uncounted ballots was tallied.
Websites, including the Los Angeles Times’, start posting election results just after polls close at 8 p.m., with the percentage of precincts reporting prominently displayed. The percentage rises steadily and usually hits 100 by the morning after the election, leaving many voters with the false impression that results are all but final.
“It may be misleading to people who don’t pay as much attention to elections as we do,” said Jim Brulte, the state Republican Party chairman.
Counties across California finished reporting their final numbers Friday to the secretary of state, who must certify the results by Dec. 14. The 64 percent turnout was California’s highest since 1982 for a congressional midterm and gubernatorial election.
The numbers confirmed a long-standing pattern that can also feed Republican suspicions of wrongdoing: The votes counted last skew Democratic, just as the votes counted first disproportionately favor Republicans.
Campaigns track these patterns closely so they can time their mail to various voter groups.
“It’s rather disingenuous for a campaign to say before the election, I’m going to target these people early and these people late because I know their histories, and then after the election say, ‘Oh my God there’s some conspiracy,’ “ said Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data, a company that specializes in California elections.