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Forget election night answers: Results may take far longer in many close races

A giant room of people processing ballots
Workers process vote-by-mail ballots at the Los Angeles County registrar’s tabulation and processing center in the City of Industry.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
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Forget election night. Election season has been upon us for weeks, and it won’t be over anytime soon.

California’s prodigious adoption of vote-by-mail balloting has done more than fundamentally alter how we engage in the democratic process. The shift has also necessitated a cultural reconfiguration about election night results, and recast the timeline for learning outcomes in many races.

Definitive answers will likely only be clear in the most lopsided of contests by late Tuesday night. And conclusive results could take days or weeks to emerge in some of the tightest races.

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But fear not, these comparatively slow vote counts are a feature of a working democratic system, not a bug.

“I think oftentimes what people don’t understand about the California election process is that the Legislature, by intent, has allowed voters to have every opportunity to cast a ballot and to get their ballot in,” said Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk Dean Logan, who serves as the county’s chief election official.

California’s primary election takes place on March 5. Read up on the races in L.A. city, L.A. County and other areas.

Feb. 1, 2024

There has been a decades-long push in the state to provide voters with more options and protections, making voting more accessible here than almost anywhere in the nation. But the flip side of that equation means more time-intensive work for election officials.

Think of it this way: When a Californian shows up at a vote center and casts a ballot in person, as was once commonplace, all the verification is done up front at the vote center. When that ballot arrives for tabulation, no extra steps are needed.

Each vote-by-mail ballot, however, has to be verified and processed before it can be tabulated, which is significantly more time-consuming. Now imagine hundreds of thousands of these vote-by-mail ballots arriving at once on or just after election day.

That all-at-once crush of ballots creates what the California Voter Foundation’s Kim Alexander calls “the ‘pig-in-the-python’ phenomenon, where you just have this giant wad of ballots moving through the process.”

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“The reason we take so long is we’re verifying all the ballots and making sure only valid ballots are being counted,” Alexander told The Times during the last statewide election. “So it’s a function of election security — the very election security [that] people who criticize slow vote counts are demanding.”

When will there be election results?

This is a deceptively complicated question.

Let’s start with the straightforward part: California is home to 58 counties, and each has an elections office that counts votes in federal, state and local races in their jurisdictions. In the last presidential primary election in 2020, more than 9.6 million votes were cast in California.

In Los Angeles County, home to one out of every four voters in California, the hotly awaited first tranche of results will be released by the registrar-recorder’s office between 8:30 and 8:45 p.m on election night. That first wave will include only mail-in ballots received before election day.

A second set of results, which will add in ballots cast in-person at vote centers before election day, will be released between 8:45 and 9 p.m., according to the office.

Results from ballots cast in-person on election day will start being released sometime after 9 p.m., with updates coming into the wee hours. (After polls close at 8 p.m., ballots cast at vote centers on election day need to travel to a county facility in the City of Industry before any of them can be tabulated, so that takes some time.)

The new L.A. County Ballot Processing Center in the City of Industry will handle ballots in the March 5 election. The public will be allowed inside to observe.

Feb. 21, 2024

After election day, updates will be released daily between 4 and 5 p.m. on weekdays for the next two weeks, according to the registrar-recorder’s office.

The Orange County registrar of voters will follow a similar election night release schedule, with daily updates to follow.

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It’s also worth noting that vote-by-mail ballots put into mailboxes on or just before election day can take a few days to arrive in the mail. California law dictates that ballots postmarked by election day must be accepted for up to seven days, meaning the total number of ballots cast won’t even be known until well into next week.

“Ultimately, we will certify our election results on March 29,” Logan, the L.A. County elections chief, said with a laugh. “That’s when we’ll know that every vote has been counted and what the final returns are.”

OK, that’s the literal schedule. But when will we have meaningful answers?

That really depends on the contest in question.

Paul Mitchell, a Democratic strategist and political data expert, predicted that results in some of the bigger-ticket races, like the U.S. Senate race and Gov. Gavin Newsom’s statewide ballot measure, Proposition 1, would actually be known on election night.

The dynamics of a primary election — where the two candidates who receive the most votes advance to a runoff in the Nov. 5 general election rather than a clear victor being declared — might also blunt “the perception of the lateness of the election results,” Mitchell said.

The top candidate in many primary races will be clear on election night, even if it takes longer in some races to determine who will be joining them in a runoff, Mitchell explained.

It’s Super Tuesday, when Californians can cast their ballot in the 2024 elections. Here’s everything you need to know about where to vote.

Feb. 1, 2024

Take the crowded L.A. County district attorney’s race. Incumbent D.A. George Gascón will almost certainly finish in first place, but it could take days or weeks before enough votes are counted to determine which of his 11 challengers will face him in the November runoff. (Unlike in state and national races, L.A. County and city races won’t continue to a runoff if one candidate receives more than 50% of the vote. But that is not expected to happen in the district attorney’s race.)

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Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University, also thought that results for Proposition 1 would be known on election night. But the political science professor predicted that it might take a day or two before the second-place finisher in the Senate race is known for certain.

Partisan House races where both parties have already coalesced around a candidate — such as the 27th District in northern Los Angeles County, where incumbent Rep. Mike Garcia (R-Santa Clarita) is facing off against Democratic challenger George Whitesides — will likely be called shortly after polls close.

But results in more competitive House primaries could take days or weeks.

Where does my ballot go to get processed and tabulated in L.A. County?

There is a sprawling, 144,000-square-foot facility abutting the 60 Freeway in the City of Industry where hundreds of employees have already been working for weeks processing vote-by-mail ballots. The building formerly housed a Fry’s Electronics store, though the massive blue and red decorative gears that once covered the facade have been removed since the county took over.

The operations inside resemble something between a factory floor and a highly choreographed ballet of specific tasks, though the actual tabulation of votes won’t begin until after 8 p.m. on election night.

You can watch the action as it happens on several livestreams. (This is the first year that the same facility is being used for both processing and tabulating. In the past, vote-by-mail ballots had to be trucked to a separate facility in Downey to be counted after they were processed in City of Industry.)

Every ballot sent in on or before election day 2024 will take a trip to the City of Industry where it will be inspected and counted.

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In a county that sprawls across more than 4,000 square miles, transporting ballots to the City of Industry facility on election day is also a massive logistical undertaking. After polls close, workers at vote centers will bring ballots to designated check-in centers, where they will be collected by Sheriff’s Department deputies, who then deliver them to the City of Industry.

The Sheriff’s Department will also be operating helicopters from seven different locations, delivering ballots from far-flung corners of the county. A sheriff’s-operated boat, helicopter or seaplane will bring ballots from Catalina Island to the mainland, with the mode of transportation dependent on weather conditions, Logan said.

More than 400 workers will also be waiting outside of vote-by-mail drop boxes across the county to lock them at 8 p.m., Logan said, before a different set of workers transports those ballots to the City of Industry facility.

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