SLO County voter turnout surpasses estimates as mail-in ballots continue to arrive

A voter enters the polling area at the Zion Lutheran Church in San Luis Obispo.
A voter enters the polling area at the Zion Lutheran Church in San Luis Obispo. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Despite initial projections suggesting numbers to be lower than usual, a flood of vote-by-mail ballots received Wednesday shows San Luis Obispo County is on its way to one of its stronger voter turnouts in recent election cycles.

Voter turnout for Tuesday’s presidential primary initially seemed to be slightly lower than expected, said county Clerk-Recorder Tommy Gong, especially considering the record-breaking number of registrations and vote-by-mail ballots the county sent out in the weeks preceding the election.

Gong said about 22,000 people voted at the polls and 45,500 vote-by-mail ballots were counted on Tuesday, which put the voter turnout at about 43 percent. By 4 p.m. Wednesday, about 22,800 more mail-in ballots had arrived and been counted, putting voter participation at about 57 percent and growing as more ballots are expected.

Gong said the results reinforced what he had thought going into this election cycle: that presidential interest would drive high voter numbers at the polls and through mail.

Voter turnout at the last presidential primary in 2012 was 48.6 percent.

Gong said this year’s turnout percentage could continue to change in the coming days as more mail-in ballots arrive at the office. The county will continue to count mail-in ballots received through Friday, as long as the ballots are postmarked on or before Election Day.

Another factor that could change the voter turnout numbers are the roughly 4,600 provisional ballots cast throughout the county.

Gong said the number of provisional ballots was unusually high this year, possibly because voters listed as “decline to state” had the option to receive a Democratic Party ballot to vote in the presidential primary. If that request was made at the polls, they were given a provisional ballot if they were previously sent a mail-in ballot but didn’t return it to the polling place.

Provisional ballots won’t be counted until next week, which, coupled with the possibility that thousands of mail-in ballots that could be on the way to the office, had the potential to change one close election: the race to replace Congresswoman Lois Capps in the 24th District.

Democrat Salud Carbajal was all but guaranteed a spot in the Nov. 8 general election, though whether he will be joined in a runoff by Justin Fareed or Katcho Achadjian, both Republicans, remains to be seen. As of midday Wednesday, Carbajal had secured 32.7 percent of the vote, Fareed had 20.5 percent and Achadjian was third with 18.9 percent in a district that encompasses all of San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties, and a small portion of Ventura County. Six other candidates split the rest of the votes.

“That’s one race that I know a lot of people are watching because they are so close,” Gong said.

Gong said his office will publish its next results update Friday once it has counted all the mail-in ballots, and then again after the provisional ballots are examined.

57Percentage of registered voters in the county who either voted at the polls or by mail in Tuesday’s primary.

Though in general, election night ran smoothly, a massive power outage caused by a car crashing into a power pole almost put a stop to the ballot counting, if not for an emergency generator.

The outage struck a large portion of San Luis Obispo and Cal Poly at about 10:30 p.m., including the County Government Center downtown where the Clerk-Recorder’s Office was busy counting ballots in the primary.

Gong said though the lights went out, emergency lights and power came back up almost instantly. The room was equipped with a backup generator that meant there was no halt in counting ballots.

“It didn’t skip a beat,” he said.

At its height, the outage stretched from downtown San Luis Obispo along Marsh and Higuera streets north past the Highway 58 exit on Highway 101 near Santa Margarita, and it affected about 4,751 customers.

Kaytlyn Leslie: 805-781-7928, @kaytyleslie