California’s outdated election scoreboard fuels baseless suspicion as vote count ends

The morning after the Nov. 6 congressional midterm election in California, state, county and media websites reported that 100% 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% — remained uncounted that morning. Most of the outstanding votes were from mail ballots.

The final tally from California’s 53 House races

6.9 million votes counted on election night



5.2 million votes counted after

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 USC’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 reelected 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.

California Secretary of State Alex Padilla. (Dylan Stewart / HS Insider)

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. 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.

From election night to election month

By the morning after election day, nearly 7 million votes were counted in California’s congressional races. Another 5 million votes would come in the following weeks.

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% 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 firm that specializes in California elections.

In the 44 House races pitting a Republican against a Democrat, the GOP candidate dropped an average of 2.6 percentage points as ballots were counted in the weeks after election day.

Late-arriving crowd

Democrats in all House races saw a bump once all ballots were finally tallied. Winners are bolded. Incumbents are marked with an asterisk.

Republican Rep. Mimi Walters of Laguna Beach and GOP House candidate Young Kim of Fullerton both raised suspicions of vote fraud as their election-night leads slipped away in mid-November.

Nationwide, the GOP lost at least 40 House seats, including seven in California, and President Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan and other Republicans have tried to stoke voter suspicions of ballot fraud.

Ryan told the Washington Post that he thought something was wrong with California’s vote counting, because Republicans who were ahead on election night wound up losing days or weeks later.

“I just think it’s weird,” he said. “In Wisconsin, we knew like the next day. … Their system is bizarre. I still don’t frankly understand it.”

Padilla suggested that Republicans were making excuses for their losses.

“Here in California, we believe in counting every vote,” he said. “What they call strange and bizarre, we call democracy.”

Bill Carrick, one of the state’s top Democratic strategists, said the media share responsibility for adjusting to an era when election night no longer offers a climactic conclusion for close contests.

“Not only do we have a 30-day election day where people can all vote for 30 days,” he said. “We have more than 30 days afterwards when the vote’s still being counted.”

Contact the reporters

Sources: Associated Press, California secretary of state, Times analysis

Credits: Additional work by Ben Welsh