Election returns are expected to start trickling in early Tuesday evening as polls close on the East Coast. But getting final election totals in California may not happen so quickly. The growing popularity of voting by mail could slow down vote counting.
There are 18.2 million registered voters in California.
Shannan Velayas with the California Secretary of State's office said county elections officials report sending vote-by-mail ballots to about half of those voters.
"Because so many more people are voting by mail, you may go to bed on Tuesday night and you still don’t know the results of particular contests," said Velayas.
The June 2012 primary election was a warning of sorts as 65 percent of voters used mail-in ballots, she said.
Voting by mail is convenient for voters. It allows them them to move through their ballots gradually on their own time, making choices as they see campaign mailers or television ads. It also means they do not have to go to the polls in person.
For election office staff, however, processing mail-in ballots is labor intensive and time-consuming. The signature on the outside of the ballot's envelope must be matched with one on file with a voter's registration, and the ballots must be sorted by precinct. Elections staff can do a lot of the processing on ballots that arrive in the mail ahead of time, but many voters hold on to their ballots until Election Day, when they can turn them in at a polling place.
In Los Angeles County, the Registrar of Voters issued more than 1.5 million mail-in ballots for the November 6. By Monday, L.A. County Registrar Dean Logan said more than 700,000 of the ballots had been mailed back in. He said the results from most of those should be tabulated and ready to report just after the polls close, but it will take more time to process and count the ballots turned in Tuesday at polling places.
"Inevitably in any election of this size, we see contests come down to a very close margin," Logan said.
He notes that this is the first election general since recent redistricting and under a law that requires the top two primary vote getters face each other regardless of party affiliation.
"There will still be as much as a third of the vote still to be counted after we complete our processes on [Tuesday] night," said Logan.
State law gives counties 31 days (until December 7) to complete their official canvass and certify final election results to the Secretary of State.
In Orange County, Registrar Neal Kelley said his office has invested in automation. He also said advanced planning makes counting mail-in ballots more efficient. So far, his staff has processed more than 400,000 mail-in ballots returned from voters, and, like his counterpart in L.A. County, Kelley expects those results to be tallied and reported soon after the polls close. But Kelley is also expecting a lot of mail-in ballots to be dropped off Tuesday.
Kelley said four years ago, his county felt the heavy impact of early voting, with 30,000 plus people passing through his office to vote before election day. This year, he said only about 5,000 people have voted that way.
"But we've mailed out almost twice as many vote-by-mail ballots," said Kelley. "So that's probably where a lot of those early voters went: they went to mail."