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Everything you need as you prep for the June 7 Primary Election — study our interactive voter guides, ask questions, print your ballot and more.

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

A mail-in ballot with an "I voted" sticker rests on top of the official ballot guide
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Primary Election Day is here, but now comes the waiting.

Everything you need as you prep for the June 7 Primary Election — study our interactive voter guides, ask questions, print your ballot and more.

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.

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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, June 10).
  • California now offers same-day voter registration at any voting center. These new voters must cast a provisional ballot, which is counted once election officials confirm their eligibility (they are overwhelmingly accepted — for example, 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 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. In the 2020 primary (admittedly a presidential election year) nearly 9.7 million Californians voted, the most ever in a primary. To put it another way, more people in California voted in that primary than live in all but the top 10 most populous states.

But it looks like things may speed up considerably in the 26 counties that have adopted a 2016 law called the Voter's Choice Act, including L.A., Orange, and Riverside counties. In the 2020 general election, the changes associated with that law — like voters not being locked into a designated polling location — drastically cut down the number of provisional ballots cast, which helped move things along faster than they had before. (In L.A. County's 2020 general election, the registrar's office reported totals of all the votes that had been filed before election day within an hour after the polls closed.)

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. In 2020, the race for the 25th congressional district in Ventura County took four weeks to declare a winner, with a margin of just over 333 votes.

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It's fair to expect some of the same this year, depending on how close some of these races end up being.

TL;DR: The state officially has until July 7 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.

Updated June 6, 2022 at 1:22 PM PDT
This story was originally reported in 2020 by Libby Denkmann and was updated for the 2022 primary election by Brianna Lee.