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Could uncounted ballots affect Prop. 8?

November 8, 2008 |  2:33 pm

Could the vote on Proposition 8, the gay marriage ban, turn around when all the uncounted ballots are tallied? Almost certainly not. Here’s why:

Roughly 2.7 million ballots from Tuesday’s election remained to be counted statewide as of late Friday, according to the California secretary of State’s office.

The estimate comes from reports filed by each of the state’s 58 county registrars, who have until early December to complete the count and publish the final, official results.

The complete, county-by-county list is available on the secretary of State’s website. Earlier this week, Times reporters contacted the state’s largest counties and reported that at least 1.7 million ballots remained outstanding. Since then, several of the counties, including Los Angeles, have increased their estimates. L.A. officials reported to the secretary of State that they had more than 615,000 ballots yet to count.

Where do all those ballots come from and why does counting them take so long?

Statewide, about 1.9 million were mail-in ballots that were received too late to be counted on Tuesday. Those ballots can be processed relatively quickly.

But another 728,000 were provisional ballots, votes generally cast by people whose names do not show up on their precincts’ registration lists. Those ballots need to be processed by hand, with officials checking to see if the person who voted was entitled to do so. Then there are another group of at least 146,000 ballots that were damaged or for some other reason could not be read by optical scanners. Those also have to be handled individually.

With all those ballots outstanding, how can news organizations, including The Times, be confident about calling the results of elections? The answer is a matter of odds.

Take Proposition 8, the ban on gay marriages, as an example. As of this morning, the secretary of State reports 5,661,583 votes in favor and 5,154,457 opposed, for a margin of just more than half a million votes. In order to reverse that result, opponents of the measure would have to win just over 59% of the uncounted ballots. So far, however, opponents have won 47.6% of the vote. The odds are strongly against the uncounted ballots being so dramatically different from the counted ones.

By comparison, Proposition 11, the redistricting initiative backed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has a 133,952 margin of victory so far. Opponents would have to win about 52% of the remaining vote to turn around the result -- still a very high hurdle, but perhaps achievable. For that reason, The Times has not declared a winner in that race.

Some other races are far closer. The tightest locally is the fight over development of the Beverly Hilton property in Beverly Hills. As of the latest report by the LA. .County Registrar of voters, the city’s Measure H is losing by nine votes out of 13,577 counted.

Elsewhere in the state, the congressional race between Democrat Charlie Brown and Republican Tom McClintock and the state Senate race between Democrat Hannah-Beth Jackson and Republican Tony Strickland both remain very close. McClintock and Jackson are each leading their races by less than half a percentage point. The secretary of State updates the closest races on its website.

Overall, about 14 million people are estimated to have voted in this year’s election -- the final number won’t be known until officials have determined how many of those provisional ballots are valid. That works out to about a 63% turnout of the state’s voter-eligible population, which is not quite an all-time record, but appears to be close.

Nationally, according to Professor Michael McDonald of George Mason University in Virginia, the turnout is estimated to be about 61%, also near a record. Turnout was high in most states except solidly Republican ones, including Texas, Utah, Arkansas and Tennessee, where relatively weak turnouts suggest a significant number of John McCain supporters decided to stay home.

-- David Lauter

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