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Civics & Democracy

Why Does It Take Weeks To Count Votes In LA?

Five people dressed in T-shirts and sweats sit or stand at large scanning machines.
County staffers and temporary workers scan ballots at the tally operation center in Downey.
(Josie Huang
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With a number of close races in Los Angeles County yet to be called, all eyes are on the vote counting process underway in a plain-faced office building in Downey.

In a white-walled room resembling a computer lab, 20 large scanners whir loudly throughout the day as dozens of county staff and temp workers feed them ballots.

Scanned images pop up on a monitor, stored for tabulation later in the afternoon so the County Registrar-Recorder can release the latest vote results to the public.

The tallying is expected to continue into next week and the registrar’s office is giving itself until Dec. 5 to certify the election results. Why does the vote count take as long as it does? We got some answers from the county.

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LA County Is Big

Some 5.6 million people are registered to vote in L.A. County. Voter participation dips during midterm elections but there are still millions of ballots to be processed in the country’s largest county. If turnout matches the 57% recorded during the 2018 midterms, that’s more than 3 million ballots that will need to be counted.

Every election there are thousands of conditional votes cast by people the same day they register to vote — and those need extra time to be processed. But the main reason why the tally takes a while is....

Workers stand by several rows of giant scanners more than 10 feet long.
Dozens of workers scan ballots so they can be tabulated later in the day.
(Josie Huang

Most People Are Voting By Mail — Which Requires Extra Steps

Mail-in ballots are still coming in after Election Day. They have to first go to a county facility in City of Industry, where workers "extract" them from envelopes and make sure each voter’s signature matches the signature the county has on file.

Then the ballots are packaged — 1,000 to a box — and brought to be counted in the room in Downey, housed inside one of the county's regional offices. (Ballots cast at vote centers are brought directly here.)

That's where the story ends for most ballots, but the journey continues for those with irregularities.

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An exterior shot of the Los Angeles County Regional Offices.
Tabulation of LA County ballots takes place at a county regional office in Downey.
( Josie Huang/LAist)

Some Voter Signatures Don’t Match

Sometimes the voter signatures on ballots don’t match the signatures the county has on file — or they’re missing altogether. That’s what happened "in the range of about 10,000" ballots, according to Registrar Dean Logan.

“We’re required then to contact the voter,” Logan told KPCC’s AirTalk Monday. “[We] give the voter the opportunity to ‘cure’ or correct that issue."

On the notice sent by the county, the voter is asked to provide a signature and mail it back. The process can take weeks. If the voter doesn’t respond, their ballot doesn’t count.

Some Ballots Aren’t Properly Filled Out

The scanners in the giant room spit the ballots into one of two piles. Those that have been properly scanned go into “Processed.” The minority that are rejected by the scanner go into “Outstack.”

Those that land in the “Outstack” pile often end up there because the voter didn’t properly fill in a bubble. An “Outstack” ballot is sent through the scanner again. If it’s rejected a second time, it is sent back to City of Industry to be “remade.” That's when a county worker fills out a new ballot copying what the voter marked on the original. Those are filled out with green highlighter instead of the black or blue ink voters are required to use.

Then the ballot gets sent back to Downey to be scanned again —without any problems this time, it's hoped.

Observe The Count Yourself

The county is live-streaming vote count activities at its City of Industry site, where mail-in ballots land first.

The county is also letting the public view the tally operation in person at its offices in Downey.

To plan a visit, click here for more information.

Here's L.A. County's schedule for the release of new vote totals
  • Estimated time of the following releases is between 4- 5 p.m.

  • Tue, Nov. 22 | Fri, Nov. 25 | Tue, Nov. 29 |Fri, Dec. 2

  • And if needed, Monday, Dec. 5

  • The vote count as of Nov. 18:

    • 2,441,323 ballots have been processed and counted
    • 80% of those were mail-in ballots
    • 20% voted in person
  • Still to be counted:

    • Vote by Mail ballots: 22,200
    • Conditional Voter Registration ballots: 3,000
    • Provisional ballots: 50
Have a question about Southern California's Asian American communities?
Josie Huang reports on the intersection of being Asian and American and the impact of those growing communities in Southern California.

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