As San Luis Obispo County Clerk-Recorder Tommy Gong disassembled voting booths in the lobby of the elections office Wednesday, workers inside carefully compared signatures on the backs of ballot envelopes with voter signatures on file — a time-consuming step in the processing of tens of thousands of ballots that remain to be counted.
The impact to the office of an overwhelming shift by voters to vote-by-mail ballots is “a game-changer,” Gong said. That’s true not only for workers in his office, but also for the voters, candidates and general public awaiting election results.
Results have traditionally been called the night of Election Day, except in the rare cases of a tie or close race that justified a recount. Now, as the county saw in the June primary election, it can take weeks.
As of Wednesday morning, 81,663 ballots had been counted, according to a report from Gong.
The next count won’t be released until Friday — and it could include nearly 50,000 more ballots. Wednesday afternoon Gong estimated he still had 41,973 vote-by-mail ballots, 6,222 provisional ballots and a smattering of other categories yet to be counted, including ballots that were postmarked on Election Day but not yet received by the office.
The 81,663 ballots already counted include vote-by-mail ballots received before Monday and ballots submitted by precinct voters.
How much the yet-to-be counted ballots could change any preliminary election results is simply unknown. But, it’s unlikely that many of the races will flip.
Some might, especially in the county’s smaller races.
In Los Osos, for example, Matthew Fourcroy leads Stephen Best by 63 votes in the race for the second open seat on the community services district board. Chuck Cesena won the first seat.
In Cambria, Donn Howell has a 59-vote lead over Aaron Wharton for the second opening on the CSD board there. Cindy Steidel is the overall vote leader in that race.
And in San Miguel, Hector Palafox is clinging to a mere 5-vote lead over opponent Cesar Hernandez for the second of two open seats on that town’s CSD board.
How close is that race? The leader, Ashley Sangster, has 197 votes, and only 27 votes separate him from Hernandez at No. 3.
Two mayoral races are also separated by small margins.
In Arroyo Grande, Caren Ray leads incumbent Jim Hill by 238 votes, and in Morro Bay mayor, John Headding leads John Weiss by 101 votes.
We might end up not knowing the results of those races for weeks.
That’s what happened in the June supervisor race between Lynn Compton and Jimmy Paulding. With 18,324 votes counted 16 days after the election, Compton won by 60 votes, a slight shift from her election night lead of 83.
Overall, voter turnout in the race is projected to reach about 70 percent.
To put that in perspective, turnout in the June primary barely exceeded 52 percent with 87,470 total ballots cast.
It would also far exceed turnout in the last midterm election in 2014, when 58 percent of registered voters cast 87,705 total ballots.
The result will still fall short of presidential years, which always draw the highest interest. In 2016, turnout hit 83 percent in SLO County with 139,685 ballots cast.
Correction: A previous version of this story gave the incorrect number of votes separating Arroyo Grande Mayor Jim Hill and Caren Ray. It is 238.