EXPLAINER: Why California has so many votes to count

Control of the US House may come down to the results in California, where a seemingly endless process of vote counting has left the balance of power in Washington in limbo.

More than a week after Election Day, and with Republicans one seat close to winning the chamber, seven of the 10 House races the Associated Press has yet to call are taking place in the state, although let one be between two democrats. In some races, ballots are trickling in.

Placer County in California’s 3rd congressional district, for example, reports that it has more than 105,000 ballots in circulation. The county added just 490 votes to its district totals on Tuesday, and it doesn’t expect to report the results again until Friday.

California’s long count can be frustrating for candidates and anxious voters seeking certainty over who will control the House. But election officials say the process is designed to make it as easy as possible for voters to vote and ensure that every ballot is counted accurately.

“We have a huge population of registered voters, and California emphasizes enfranchisement, so we have a process that, by law, guarantees both the right to vote and the integrity of elections,” said said Secretary of State Shirley Weber in a statement this week. “I would ask everyone to be patient.”

How do Californians vote?

California has 21 million registered voters, more than any other state, and one of the most extensive mail-in voting policies in the country.

By Wednesday afternoon, more than 8.5 million ballots had been processed in California — more than had been counted in Texas or Florida, the nation’s second and third most populous states.

Weber’s office estimates there are about 2.3 million people left to count, most of them mail-in ballots.

People who voted by mail had the choice of returning their ballots or dropping them off at a voting center. Ballots postmarked on Election Day are counted as long as they arrive at county election offices within seven days.

In Texas, by comparison, mail-in ballots must be postmarked by Election Day and received by election officials the next day.

What is the counting process?

Processing mail-in ballots is much more complicated than simply running them through a counting machine. The count itself is often quick — it’s the work that needs to be done ahead of time that takes time, said Donna Johnson, former president of the California Association of Clerks and Elections Officials.

The signature on each ballot must match what is recorded for the voter, a process that can be done manually or by machine. People whose signatures don’t match get a chance to prove it’s their ballot, a process known as “healing” that takes longer.

Ballots must also be taken out of their envelopes before they can be counted.

Many counties in California do not update their vote counts daily. Johnson said that’s because election workers in some locations will spend an entire day checking signatures on a massive batch of ballots, the next day extracting them from envelopes, and the next doing the actual count.

Counties have 30 days to complete.

“At the end of the day, we know that every ballot that can be counted is counted and the process is accurate,” Johnson said.

Could it go faster?

More money and better equipment could potentially speed things up. But that wouldn’t change the timeframes election offices have to complete their work.

Many counties are hiring temporary workers to help out, and some have to rent warehouses or large office space to handle the large number of ballots, Johnson said.

Voters could also speed up the process – absentee ballots can be counted from 29 days before Election Day, but many people wait until the last minute to turn in theirs.

Kim Alexander of the California Voter Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for equal access to voting and more funding for elections, said the state could do more outreach to people to get their balloting earlier, and providing more in-person voting opportunities earlier could also help.

California’s large number of voters and congressional districts, as well as all the options for voting, can lead to longer waits than in other states, Alexander said.

“It’s a compromise,” she said. “I think people have learned to be patient and that’s something we learn to live with. But I think we will also continue to look for ways to improve the process.

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