With a record 9.2 million ballots mailed out for today's election, California officials expect delays in deciding the outcomes of races, especially close ones.
Following a trend set in the June primary, this is predicted to be the second time more Californians vote by mail than in person at the poll. Because the signatures on every one of those paper ballots must be checked by hand against voter registration cards, that means days and possibly weeks until all votes are counted.
Matching signatures is slow work, made even slower because would-be voters' handwriting can change over time or they write their name differently from when they registered. The rejection rate for mailed in ballots in the June primary ran as high as 10% in Kern County, but statewide averaged 2%, county data collected by the Secretary of State's office show.
"We're into accuracy, not speed, in California," Nicole Winger, deputy communications director for Secretary of State Debra Bowen, said Tuesday. "It will be a couple of weeks for any really tight races."
More than 65% of votes cast in the June primary came in through the mail or were dropped off at polls on election day. No matter what the postmark, no mailed ballots are accepted after polls close.
To meet the challenge of hand-processing more than half of today's expected 12 million votes, county election officials were allowed to begin opening and validating mailed ballots last week. They have an additional 28 days from now to complete the task and post their results to the secretary of state.
Though polls close at 8 p.m., counties are not required to post their first round of results until 10 p.m. Winger said some of the more remote of the state's 24,000 polling places need the time. For instance, ballots collected on Catalina Island are sent in by helicopter.
Voters can check to see whether their mail-in ballot was received at this state site: http://www.sos.ca.gov/elections/ballot-status/
--Paige St. John in Sacramento
Photo: Ryan Ching, a clerk, loads and sorts vote-by-mail ballots into a sorting machine at the Los Angeles County Registrar's office in Norwalk. Creidt: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times