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Here’s what record early returns mean for speed of California’s vote tally

Oakley resident Gwendolyn Ward extracts ballots in Martinez on Oct. 31, 2020. Ward has been a poll worker and ballot extractor for more than 10 years. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

NOVEMBER 2, 2020

For political junkies, the pandemic might have at least one upside: You can expect to know pretty quickly after California polls close how record early voters are breaking for the presidential election and the propositions.

“I do think it will be all vote-by-mail or mostly,” Chris Miller, spokesman for the Secretary of State’s office, said of the first vote totals after 8 p.m.

More than 11 million ballots were returned to elections departments as of Saturday. That’s about half of the ballots sent to all California voters. Many of the ballots have already been processed, and are ready to be quickly totaled on election night. Those processed include some early in-person votes.

California made it easier this year to vote early to avoid spreading the coronavirus, either by avoiding the polls altogether and voting by mail, or by voting in person early to avoid anticipated crowds on election day.

Since early October, elections divisions in the state’s 58 counties have been processing returned vote-by-mail ballots. After 8 p.m. election day, they tabulate the results, or “push the button.”

County totals are sent to the Secretary of State’s office to be compiled into statewide totals, which only takes a few minutes, according to a spokesman.

County election departments say they’ll have their first results by 8:30 p.m. or earlier, depending on county.

In Orange County, the first report will be a few minutes after 8 p.m. That will only include mail ballots processed for counting as of Monday evening. That’s a lot of ballots: As of Sunday, about 964,000 ballots had been accepted.

Then the county’s updated totals will be released starting about  9 p.m., and will include more vote-by-mail ballots and ballots from vote centers.

In San Diego County, officials expect to release initial results a few minutes after 8 p.m., spokesperson Antonia Hutzell said. As of Sunday, San Diego County had accepted more than 1 million mail ballots.

In Riverside County, the first ballot report at about 8:30 p.m. is expected to include ballots mailed or dropped off through Sunday, as well as ballots from in-person voting through Monday. As of Sunday, more than 575,000 mail ballots had been accepted for processing.

In San Joaquin County, the first totals will go out about 8:30 p.m. and will include all vote-by-mail ballots processed by then. As of Sunday, more than 164,000 ballots had been accepted for processing. At 9 p.m., the in-person ballots from Saturday, Sunday, and Monday will be counted, followed an hour later by ballots cast on election day.

Mark Keppler, Kenneth L. Maddy professor of public affairs at Fresno State University and executive director of the Maddy Institute, said the early vote could be a “blue mirage” that’s followed by a “red mirage” from in-person voting on election day.

“It’ll take awhile to count all the votes,” he said. “We need to be patient.”

Aaron Leathley is a reporter at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.


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