California Counts Votes In Its Own Good Time. Here's Why Declaring Winners May Take A Minute

Los Angeles County began mailing out 2020 primary election vote-by-mail ballots on Feb. 3. They must be postmarked on or before election day, March 3. (Libby Denkmann/LAist)

Election Day is here, but now comes the waiting.

Do you have something to watch on Netflix? Maybe you've been meaning to pick up a hobby — how about crochet? Whatever you do, take a deep breath and keep busy because it could be days (or weeks) before we get some California election results.

The state is often knocked by the rest of the country as being "slow" to count votes. But here's the deal: that's a feature, not a bug, of the election system.


This is part of Voter Game Plan, our project to get you prepped for the 2020 elections. If you have questions about voting, ask us anything.


Things take a while here largely because California works so hard to expand the ways people can vote. For example:

  • Nearly two-thirds of Californians vote by mail, and those ballots can be postmarked up to and including Election Day. They're counted as long as the ballot arrives within three days (for the primary, that's Friday, March 6th).

  • This year, California voters appear to be holding on to their mail-in ballots longer than usual because of the fragmented Democratic presidential field. Savvy voters who waited to see how South Carolina shook out will be mailing their ballots (or dropping them off) closer to Election Day, leading to more delays in counting them.

  • California now offers same-day voter registration at any polling place or vote center. These new voters must cast a provisional ballot, which is counted once election officials confirm their eligibility (they are overwhelmingly accepted — nearly 95% in Los Angeles County were counted in 2018; in Orange County it was closer to 90%.).

  • Voters also have the right to cast provisional ballots if there's any problem on election day — like if poll workers aren't able to void an outstanding mail-in ballot, or any issue with calling up voter information from new e-pollbooks. Again, (see above) provisionals take longer to process because eligibility has to be confirmed.

  • Vote-by-mail ballots require signature matching. When the one received doesn't match the one on file, county Registrars must contact that voter to let them know — and give them the chance to correct it.

  • And, with over 20 million registered voters, we're really, really big. At even 50% turnout (similar to the 2016 primary), that's more votes to count in California than the entire population of most states.

It's possible, however, that things could speed up a bit in the 15 counties that have adopted a 2016 law called the Voter's Choice Act, including L.A. and O.C. The changes associated with that law — like voters not being locked into a designated polling location — may cut down on provisional ballots and move things along faster than in previous years.

Still, accuracy and a commitment to "expanding the franchise" — translation: allowing more people to vote — means the process is not designed to produce instantaneous results.

You'll have to get that endorphine hit elsewhere on election night.

You may recall that during the 2018 midterms, several key races were too close to call for many days after voting ended, and party control of a couple Orange County congressional seats slowly flipped with each daily report from the county registrar.

This year, expect the same — but add Democratic presidential delegate math to the equation. Democratic delegates can't be awarded until the vote count is finished in each congressional district — and then candidates' totals are run through some fancy calculations.

TL;DR: The state officially has one month to certify election results — including a mandatory audit that requires hand-counting all of the ballots at 1% of precincts. Nevertheless, you're going to see a lot of national media headlines about California's relative "slowness." Brush it off. We have sunshine, beaches, and a highly enfranchised population.


YOUR GUIDE TO THE RACES FOR:

And fill out your sample ballot through our Voter Game Plan>>