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California and the West

1 Million California Ballots Still Uncounted

Election: Most are absentees. State tally of over 9 million votes so far shows Gore leading Bush 54%-42%.


SACRAMENTO — State officials estimated Thursday that more than 1 million absentee ballots still wait to be counted in California.

Unlike Florida, California counties have 28 days after the election to certify their results and turn them over to Secretary of State Bill Jones' office, so it could be weeks before the state's election results become official.

At stake is the balloting for president, which separates the candidates by only 200,000 votes nationally. "We are pleased to say that California is still in play," Undersecretary of State Robert C. Lapsley said.

Vice President Al Gore leads Texas Gov. George W. Bush 54% to 42% in California, with Gore raking in roughly 5.2 million votes to Bush's 4 million.

Yet to be counted are an estimated 1,016,246 absentee, provisional or challenged ballots from 44 California counties, the bulk of which state officials say fall into the absentee category. That number is expected to grow once an unknown number of similar ballots from 14 additional counties are added to the total.

In Los Angeles County alone, County Registrar-Recorder Conny B. McCormack estimated that there are 106,000 absentee ballots left to be counted. In addition, 116,000 provisional ballots must be checked before it can be determined whether they should be counted. Some of those include ballots cast by voters who showed up at a polling place but were not on the roster or who had earlier requested an absentee ballot.

There are an estimated 104,000 unprocessed ballots in Orange County, 45,170 in Ventura County and 32,500 in San Bernardino County. Riverside County had not reported an estimate.

In Central California, 32,000 absentee ballots remain to be counted to determine who will represent the 5th Senate District vacated by Sen. Patrick Johnston (D-Stockton), according to Jones' office. Assemblyman Michael Machado (D-Linden) was leading his Republican opponent, Lodi City Councilman Alan Nakanishi, by less than 1,000 votes.

About 63% of registered voters cast ballots statewide, according to the current estimate, but that figure could rise to 70% or higher once the unprocessed ballots are counted, Jones said.

Jones released a statement Thursday urging the public and the media to hold off on declaring a presidential winner of the national popular vote until the absentee ballots in California and across the nation have been counted.

He also appealed to television networks to work with secretaries of state from across the nation to develop a plan to avoid a repeat of Tuesday's fiasco, in which a number of networks prematurely declared that Gore had won Florida's electoral votes and later that Bush was the next president, among other gaffes.

"A mistake was already made on election night because of the media's zeal for ratings; let's not make that mistake again with prognostications of the national popular vote," Jones said in the statement.

Earlier in the month, Jones renewed a request he first made three years ago to television network executives, asking them to refrain from using exit polls to project winners in the East while voters were still casting ballots in the West. Jones took issue with the potential for error and the possibility that such projections might dissuade some West Coast voters from heading to the polls.

While California counties have until Dec. 5 to turn their certified results in to Jones, the process typically wraps up in a couple of weeks.

John Mott-Smith, Jones' elections division chief, said counties are counting absentee ballots that arrived on Monday and Tuesday, or ones turned into polling places. The signatures on the ballots must be checked against the signatures on the voters' registration cards, a time-consuming process.

McCormack said Los Angeles County has more provisional ballots in this election than ever before. "It adds another layer of difficulty to the process," she said.

The problem of provisional ballots tends to be worse in presidential election years because larger numbers of voters who have never cast a ballot show up at the polls and are not familiar with the mechanics of voting, said McCormack, Los Angeles County's top election official.

She said the use of absentee ballots "exploded" this year, with 615,000 county voters requesting a mail-in ballot, 25% more than ever before. "It keeps growing and it's very expensive," she said.

McCormack expressed sympathy for election officials in Florida, who have 10 days to complete their final official vote count.

Unlike Florida, where state law requires an automatic recount in very close elections, California uses a different approach to check the accuracy of the count.

McCormack said 1% of ballots cast are randomly selected from 1% of the precincts. Election officials then manually count every vote in every race and compare that result to the computer count.

Speed is important, but "accuracy is essential," she said. "People have to understand the complexity. This is not easy work."


Tamaki reported from Sacramento and Rabin from Los Angeles.

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