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Mail-in ballots may make a difference in tight races

Matt Sadler, a materials handler at the Sonoma County registrar of voters, runs the ballot counting machine. CRISTA JEREMIASON/PD


About 30,000 Sonoma County mail ballots remained uncounted Wednesday, potentially putting several tight contests in question, including a handful of school board races in communities around the county.

Elections workers are “just now pulling them out of bags that came in from the polls,” Janice Atkinson, county registrar of voters, said Wednesday afternoon.

The exact number is unknown, she said, but likely is in line with the 30,000 mail ballots turned in at polls on past election days. It could be Thanksgiving before the tally becomes official, she said.

Without knowing yet where the ballots are from, she would not offer an assessment of whether any major races could be affected.

She did say the results most likely to be impacted were those that flip-flopped as votes were tallied on election night.

In Petaluma, for much of the night, the contest for mayor had appeared to be favoring Jeff Mayne, who led David Glass by 47 percent to 45 percent. Yet, when all 20 Petaluma precincts were counted early Wednesday morning, Glass took the lead, 48.5 percent to 43.6 percent.

That margin, 865 votes, would seem very difficult to overcome, given that Petaluma probably has about 3,600 of the uncounted mail-in ballots based on its share of total ballots cast. Mayne would need 62 percent of those uncounted votes to make up the difference.

But in Cloverdale, a school bond measure dependent on approval by 55 percent of the district’s voters was winning by 55.2 percent — a mere seven votes keeping it from losing.

A matter of 16 votes currently separates the third- and fourth-place contestants in the race for three seats on the Piner-Olivet Union School District. Cindy Pryor is in third place with 1,770 votes, or 23.1 percent, trailed by William J. Campbell, with 1,754, or 22.9 percent.

Twenty-five votes, or 0.1 percent, separate presumed winner Leff Brown and incumbent Eric Kirchmann in their bid for the third slot on the Cotati-Rohnert Park Unified School District Board.

It will be weeks before a final count is in. Atkinson said.

Sonoma County has 248,527 registered voters. A total 147,444 votes have been counted so far, reflecting voter turnout of 59.3 percent. Atkinson had predicted overall turnout of 72 percent.

More than 167,500 mail-in ballots were issued prior to the election, and an assumed 75 percent return rate would put the mail-in total at about 125,000, she said.

With 94,000 mail-ins counted, the uncounted remainder would be about 31,000.

Thousands of ballots were turned in at polling places and at the elections office on Tuesday and were still in boxes Wednesday. Those mail ballots must be checked and the signatures verified before they can be counted, a process expected to take several days, Atkinson said.

The county’s goal is to report an official vote count by Thanksgiving, she said. “We want everyone to have something to be thankful for, including us.”

About a dozen “too late” mail-in ballots arrived in Wednesday morning’s mail, far fewer than the 374 in the 2008 general election, she said.

A statement of the Sonoma County ballot count was posted at about 2:30 a.m. Wednesday — later than usual. “Having been there 38 years, I can tell you, definitely we have had later elections,” Atkinson said.

But several factors conspired to slow Tuesday’s count, she said, including efforts to cut the payroll for extra help usually brought in to help on election night.

Twenty-two people were assigned to help process ballots, about half of the 40 used during the 2008 presidential election, Atkinson said.

A decision to halve the number of precinct polling places, another cost-saving measure, meant precinct workers took longer to do the accounting necessary to package up and turn in the ballot boxes and records, she said.

Additionally, a problem with the perforations on some ballot cards meant election workers spent a lot of time tearing off remaining bits of stub on some ballots so they were clean enough to send through the counter.

“It wasn’t huge, but it did slow us down,” Atkinson said.

The county posted its final election numbers with the California Secretary of State’s Office at 3:41 a.m., according to state officials. Only three other counties — Los Angeles, Santa Clara and Yolo — posted theirs later, though Kern, Ventura and Imperial counties came close.

“Did we have enough people on board last night? I think we definitely needed more,” said Atkinson, who left her office at 4 a.m. “But again, we’re trying to watch the extra-help dollars.”

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