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CAMPAIGN 2000

Surge in Absentee Voting May Delay Results of California Elections

November 06, 2000|From Associated Press

SACRAMENTO — A record 3.2 million Californians have requested absentee ballots for Tuesday's election, which could leave the results of close races throughout the state in doubt for days or even weeks.

More than 1 million of those absentee ballots, or nearly 10% of the 12 million votes expected in California, will not be counted on election night, according to county election officials surveyed by Associated Press.

That means that if the presidential election comes down to an extremely close race for California's 54 electoral votes, Americans might not know on election night which candidate won.

Vice President Al Gore has been leading in California polls, but not by an overwhelming amount. A recent Field Poll showed Gore ahead of Texas Gov. George W. Bush by 7 percentage points with a 3 percentage point margin of error, but it also showed 6% of those polled were still undecided.

Alfie Charles, spokesman for Secretary of State Bill Jones, said the estimates that 1 million absentee ballots might not be counted by election night sounded accurate because of the growth in absentee applications in the state.

In 1980, absentee voting counted for 6.3% of the vote in California; in 1990, it was 18.4%; and in 1998, it was 24.7%, or about 2.1 million ballots.

"The balance of power in Congress may hinge on races in California, and those California races may be determined by the late absentee ballots which will be counted in the days after Nov. 7," Charles said.

For the closest races, he said, it could be one to two weeks before the results may be known.

Absentee ballots that voters mail in or drop off at their polling places must be processed separately because voter signatures must be verified, election officials said.

In 1994, when 22% of the voters cast absentee ballots, Sen. Dianne Feinstein's narrow victory over GOP Republican Michael Huffington wasn't confirmed until 2 1/2 weeks after the election.

The counties have until Dec. 5 to report final results. This year, only 10 small counties, together only 0.6% of the state's voters, expect to have 100% of their votes counted on election night.

Los Angeles County, which has 4.07 million of California's 15.7 million registered voters, has sent out the most absentee ballots this year: 617,231.

In recent elections, the same county has had the highest percentage of absentee ballots left uncounted on election night: 183,000, or 46%, in the 1996 presidential election; and 196,000, or 48%, in the election for governor in 1998.

Los Angeles County election officials this year said they also expect a slow start on their precinct vote count. , though they wouldn't estimate how slow. The registrar-recorder's office saidits vote tabulation equipment is 32 years old, so "do not expect very many ballots to be counted before 11 p.m." Tuesday.

The election results also could be delayed in New York's contentious Senate race between First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and Republican Rep. Rick Lazio.

Last week, a judge ordered all New York absentee ballots locked up--unopened and uncounted--until at least Thursday.

The order, as state Board of Elections spokesman Lee Daghlian put it, "eliminates any question that there would be any attempt to stuff the ballot box."

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