Early this morning, Rep. Jerry McNerney had squeaked out a 121-vote lead over GOP nominee David Harmer in the 11th Congressional District, but no one is celebrating or packing up their campaign offices yet.
Thousands of votes remain uncounted in the four counties within District 11, and Contra Costa and San Joaquin election officials, the largest voter contingent within the district, say they don’t expect to post their next round of updated vote counts until late this week and next week. (UPDATE: Contra Costa says it will have one round of updates on Friday, and another next week. Other counties have similar plans.) Nov. 12.
Why are there uncounted votes?
Election officials typically stop counting vote-by-mail ballots a day or two before Election Day in order to prepare for precinct operations. When the Election Day tallies are done, they process the vote-by-mail ballots that arrived in the mail over the weekend, Monday and Tuesday plus the VBMs dropped off at the polls on Election Day.
With the growing numbers of VBM voters and their tendency to drop them off at the polls, it drives up processing time. VBM ballots must be checked for valid signatures, stripped from their envelopes, manually rolled to remove the tri-fold creases and hand-fed into scanners. It takes a lot longer to count VBM ballots than the ballots filled out at precincts, which are fed directly into optical scanners.
I talked with Harmer and McNerney today and both sides have reasons for optimism.
For McNerney, it was clear that Election Day voters broke in the Democrat’s direction. Harmer was leading by 3 or more percentage points after the first wave of early vote-by-mail ballot counts were posted.
That gap slowly closed as Election Day counts emerged. If the trend continues as election official count the remaining ballots, McNerney’s lead could expand and he could keep his seat. Democrats poured wads of cash into anti-Harmer ads in the 11th District in the final week, which probably spurred their voters to show up at the polls.
On the other hand, Harmer did well among early VBM voters, and it is possible that he could recover his equilibrium among the later VBM voters, particularly in San Joaquin County. Harmer held a 5 percentage point lead in San Joaquin, where 53.9 percent of District 11 voters live.
Here’s a county-by-county breakdown of the votes as of this morning, keeping in mind that all four counties still have significant numbers of uncounted ballots:
ALAMEDA COUNTY (15.5 percent of District 11 voters)
- Harmer: 42.7 percent, 11,679 votes
- McNerney: 57.3 percent, 15,688 votes
- GAP: 14.6 percent, or 4,009 votes, in McNerney’s favor
CONTRA COSTA (24.6 percent of District 11 voters)
- Harmer: 50.4 percent, 19.871 votes
- McNerney: 49.6 percent, 19,539 percent
- GAP: 0.8 points, or 332 votes, in Harmer’s favor
SAN JOAQUIN COUNTY (53.9 percent of District 11 voters)
- Harmer: 52.5 percent, 45,958 votes
- McNerney: 47.5 percent, 41,612 votes
- GAP: 5 points, or 4,436 votes, in Harmer’s favor
SANTA CLARA COUNTY (5.9 percent of District 11 voters)
- Harmer: 46 percent, 4,495 votes
- McNerney: 54 percent, 5,285 votes
- GAP: 8.1 points, or 790 votes, in McNerney’s favor
The other big question folks are asking about District 11 is whether or not there will be a recount.
Contrary to what people seem to think, California has no automatic recount trigger mechanism.
Any voter may request a recount within five calendar days after the certification of the final election results but he or she must pay for it. A county election officer may also conduct a recount at taxpayer’s expense if the official has reason to believe that a mechanical error or some other processing mistake has led to incorrect results.
Typically, a voter requests a recount on behalf of a candidate, who foots the bill. Alameda County, for example, requires a $5,000 deposit and can charge up to $1,500 a day depending on the type of recount requested. A hand recount costs more than a simple re-scan of ballots.
If the count is close, it’s possible that the candidate on the losing side of the final number will seek a recount.
Some folks confuse a this type of recount with the mandatory, 1 percent audit of election returns required of every county election office by the state. But these audits consist of a reconciliation of machine counts with paper ballots on 1 percent of the county’s entire rate of return. It is not race-specific. If the audit reveals discrepancies, the county elections office may boost the audit to 5 or 10 percent of returns in order to find the source of the problem, but that rarely happens, says East Bay election officials.
If you are curious about California Election Code provisions for recounts, click here and read Chapter 9 starting with Section 15600.