Represent! | Politics, government and public life for Southern California

Controller cliffhanger race hinges on tardy mail-in ballots

Absentee balloting  in California has become extremely popular in the past few election cycles. About half of California voters now vote-by-mail.
Absentee balloting in California has become extremely popular in the past few election cycles. About half of California voters now vote-by-mail.
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Thousands of  mail-in ballots that could have made a difference in the tight primary election for state Controller have been invalidated because they showed up at registrars' offices too late to count.

Fresno's mayor, Republican Ashley Swearengin, finished first and will be in November's general election. The contest for the second spot has swung back and forth between two Democrats — former Assembly Speaker John Perez of Los Angeles and Board of Equalization member Betty Yee, from the Bay Area.

With more than 3.9 million ballots counted, Perez led by fewer than 1,800 votes Tuesday afternoon. The total has been changing several times a day since the June 3 primary as California's 58 county registrars send updates to the Secretary of State.

Some 20,735 ballots arrived at registrars' offices too late to be counted, said Sacramento County Registrar of Voters Jill Levine. She has been keeping a statewide tally on behalf of the California Association of Clerks and Elected Officials, which is monitoring the performance of the state's mail-in ballot program. Orange, San Diego and Los Angeles led the list of counties with the most ballots turned in too late to count.

In a race as close as the controller's, all those tardy mail-in votes make a difference, said voting records analyst Paul Mitchell.

"In some cases we are seeing one to one-and-a-half percent of the ballots being late," Mitchell said. "And we're looking at a controller's race that right now is separated by eight-one-thousandth of a percent."

Some 2,400 votes in Los Angeles County arrived too late to count. That hurts Perez, who has more name recognition in Southern California.  More than 500 votes in Santa Cruz County also came in late and are also invalid. That hurts Yee, who's better known in the north.

Part of the problem is people simply mail their ballots too late. Ballots must be in the registrar's possession by 8 p.m. on election day.

Voters might not realize their ballots don't always take a direct route across town to their county registrar, Mitchell said.

An analysis of the 2013 Los Angeles city election found that ballots coming from the San Fernando Valley were more likely to be submitted late than those from the central part of the city, partly because valley mail gets processed in Santa Clarita, whereas mail from the central city takes a more direct route to the ballot counting machines.

"That detour could cost you your vote," Mitchell said.

Another example is from Santa Cruz County, where all mail is processed in a neighboring county — an extra stop voters might not realize when they drop their ballot in the mail.

And an election day postmark, showing it got into the mail before the polls closed, does not count.

Sen. Lou Correa (D-Anaheim) has proposed changing state law to permit registrars to count ballots that are mailed with an election day postmark as long as they are received within three days.

Top 10 counties with most late-returned mail-in ballots

County Late ballots
Orange 3,160
San Diego 2,485
Los Angeles 2,391
Riverside 1,925
Kern 1,509
Sacramento 1,482
San Francisco 1,104
Sonoma 1,044
Santa Clara 1,021
Ventura 915