Hundreds of thousands of ballots from the Nov. 7 election have yet to be counted throughout the state, including a third of the votes cast in Riverside County, election officials said Wednesday.
The uncounted ballots could affect a number of tight elections across Southern California, including a City Council race in Alhambra and a state Senate seat in Orange County. Candidates who trailed in the preliminary ballot counts on election night could conceivably end up winning, elections officials said.
"It's a possibility, perhaps not a probability, but certainly I'm always hopeful," said Democrat Steve Clute, who trails Republican incumbent Bonnie Garcia by 1,100 votes in the race for the 80th Assembly District in the Coachella Valley.
The stockpile of uncounted ballots was caused primarily by the flood of absentee ballots that were dropped off at polling places on election day or delivered by the Postal Service in the days leading up to the election, elections officials said. Counting those ballots is an arduous task, they said.
"There's also a tendency by the newer population of absentee voters to want to hold onto ballots until the end, because that is when campaigns get into full gear," said Dean Logan, chief deputy to the Los Angeles County registrar of voters.
In Orange County, 24,400 uncounted absentee ballots and provisional ballots--those cast by voters whose names do not appear on the rolls but are accepted pending verification by the registrar's office--could change things in the 34th state Senate District race. Lou Correa, the Orange County supervisor and former Democratic state assemblyman, trails Republican Assemblywoman Lynn Daucher by just over a 100 votes.
In Los Angeles County, where 1.9 million people cast votes, election officials reported 124,000 uncounted ballots that could decide two tightly contested local propositions in Arcadia and an Alhambra City Council race, where Stephen K. Sham leads by fewer than 200 votes over Carlos A. Chavez.
And in Riverside County, news of the 120,000 uncounted ballots -- nearly double election officials' earlier assessment -- has generated even more uncertainty around eight races that remain too close to call, including the contest in 80th Assembly District.
As more people vote by mail, more delays such as these should be expected, said Stephen Weir, president of the California Assn. of Clerks and Election Officials, which includes the registrars of voters and other chief election officials in the state's 58 counties.
Registrars simply can't process ballots that arrive on election day or the Monday before fast enough to include them in election night results, he said.
Under state law, county registrars have 28 days to count and report the tallies from provisional ballots and absentee ballots that arrived by mail or were turned in at a polling place on election day.
After state lawmakers in 2002 passed a law allowing people to register as permanent absentee voters, the number of absentee voters has steadily risen, said Nghia Nguyen, spokeswoman for the California secretary of state's office.
Counting absentee ballots is labor-intensive. Before absentee envelopes are opened, the registrar's office must verify a voters' signature on the envelope through the voter's registration card and then hand-sort the ballots.
Riverside County Registrar of Voters Barbara Dunmore attributed the large number of uncounted absentees to a ballot loaded with state propositions and local contests.
Riverside County officials planned to begin counting absentee ballots today and have a final tally by Nov. 22, Dunmore said. About 17,000 of the uncounted absentee ballots affect the 80th Assembly District race.
Richard Harmon, Garcia's campaign spokesman, said Garcia was confident she would hang onto her lead.
"We're very optimistic that our lead is going to hold, if not grow. We usually do well in absentees," Harmon said.
Gene Browning, Ventura County's assistant registrar of voters, said Wednesday that most of his staff was tabulating absentee ballots this week and conducting post-election processing.
In Ventura County, about 15,000 of the 102,000 absentee and 5,100 provisional ballots had yet to be counted. Browning said a record 25,000 absentee ballots were dropped off at the polls on election day.
The latest balloting update Wednesday evening showed that several races continued to be tight, including the contest for the supervisor's seat in the 4th District, where businessman Peter Foy was holding a 703-vote lead over political strategist Jim Dantona.
Other races to be decided by 80 votes or fewer include contests in Fillmore, Ojai and Port Hueneme.
Times staff writer Greg Griggs contributed to this report.