Big, late surge in vote-by-mail ballots

The Lake County Registrar of Voters office put out a press release Friday, Nov. 6, describing the total number of ballots remaining to be counted. Spoiler alert: It’s a big chunk, in part because of high voter turnout. The final, certified results could change the outcome of some local races, Lakeport City Council included, but not all of them. You can read the official press release below.

I wanted to drill down into the numbers a bit to help provide some context for what’s coming next, but first a disclaimer: I formerly worked for the Lake County elections office, most recently in 2019, and I just finished a stint as a Napa County vote center worker. If you want the official word on what’s happening with your ballot, or with the election as a whole, please talk to county elections officials, not me. They’re the experts.

That said, it’s pretty easy to observe this election is unique for several reasons, including the state’s choice to send all voters mail-in ballots because of Covid-19. One of the big surprises in the ROV’s press release, to me at least, was how many people didn’t actually mail their vote-by-mail ballots but instead waited until Election Day to drop them off at a polling place. It’s a stunning number, 4,344, especially when compared with the 10,252 ballots received by mail through Nov. 5.

In other words, nearly 1 in 3 voters who received a mail ballot chose not to mail it or to use an early-voting dropbox; they intentionally waited to deposit it at a polling place on the last day possible, Election Day. Which means, among other things, that nearly 1 in 3 vote-by-mail voters ensured their votes would NOT be counted on Election Night. Unlike poll ballots, vote-by-mail ballots require additional processing including signature verification of the return envelope.

The strong emphasis on vote-by-mail ballots was reflected in the numbers of poll voters. According to the preliminary results posted as of 2:35 p.m. Nov. 4, only 11,157 ballots were cast out of 37,216 registered voters, amounting to a paltry 30% turnout. But when you add the 18,270 uncounted ballots (vote-by-mail, conditional, provisional) to the counted poll ballots, you get more than 29,000 voters total casting ballots and a whopping turnout of 79%.

As usual, these numbers all should be considered preliminary and quite unofficial. The final figures, including voter turnout, are likely to drop because not all provisional ballots will be counted. They still can be useful for a couple of things including projection of local races. For example, Lakeport City Council, where four candidates are vying for three open seats.

This graphic shows that 1,879 vote-by-mail (VBM) “cast votes” were counted on Election Night. (According to the Registrar of Voters’ office, that represents mail ballots received by Oct. 30.) The 54 total votes shown for Election Day Voting (at polling places) do not equal 54 individual voters, most likely, but we can tell at least 20 individual voters turned up at the polls to cast live ballots. At least 579 VBM ballots (from individual Lakeport voters) were received by Oct. 30, early enough to be processed by the elections office and staged for counting.

Now, there are some possible variations to the early numbers, so I left those fields editable so you can play with the numbers yourself. For example, it’s theoretically possible that 54 individual poll voters chose just a single candidate, so you can max that number out if you want. It’s much more possible that some vote-by-mail ballots came in with fewer than three choices, or even NO choices, marked for City Council, a fairly common situation called an undervote. No matter how you slice it, Lakeport voters chose to mail in ballots vs. live voting by well over a 90% margin, and that’s a jaw-dropping figure worth noting all by itself.

Unfortunately, the preliminary vote tallies are less useful for predicting final outcomes, again because of the unprecedented volume of vote-by-mail ballots that have yet to be counted. They aren’t useless, however, because early returns often disclose statistical voting trends that are followed in subsequent counts within a set margin of error. For example, we can note that Kenny Parlet, the incumbent, has a healthy lead in early voting, as do I. We can also observe that Nathan Maxman and Michael Froio, the other two candidates, are separated by only nine votes.

Too close to call? Not necessarily. By doing just a wee bit of extrapolation, we can figure that Lakeport’s proportionate share of uncounted VBM, conditional and provisional ballots is roughly equivalent to Lakeport’s share of registered county voters, or roughly 8%. The only other assumption needed is to slightly downgrade the number of uncounted ballots to 18,000, though it could be less after all the provisionals are reviewed. Eight percent of 18,000 is 1,440.

Let’s take another look at the chart:

Again, I left a little wiggle room for each of the variables to show their possible impact. Even accounting for some minor swings in those variables, it appears roughly two-thirds of ballots cast in the City of Lakeport remain uncounted as of this writing (Tuesday, Nov. 10). That’s pretty darn close to the pie chart graphic shown above.

Taken as a whole, we can safely make the following predictions, knowing they are useless:

  • If early voting trends hold, I’ll join Kenny Parlet on the Lakeport City Council with a third member to be named later, say Dec. 1 or so after the official canvass is completed.
  • If early voting trends don’t hold, all bets are off. There are more than enough as-yet uncounted ballots to turn the whole thing upside down. 1,440 > 599. ‘Nuff said.
  • An unknown percentage of the uncounted ballots will contain undervotes, or no votes, for one or more of the three open council seats. But 1,200 uncounted votes, say, is still > 599.

In other words, stay tuned. The preliminary results are just that, preliminary, and despite my best efforts I have no idea how it will all turn out. Nobody will until the election is certified.

And that, in a nutshell, is why all votes are important … especially in local, “down ticket” races.

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