Workers tally previously uncounted ballots at the Los Angeles County Registrar… (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)
Down by 63,000 votes, the statewide ballot initiative for a $1-per-pack tax on cigarettes was pretty much given up for dead the night of the June 5 primary election.
Then, election workers across California began tallying stacks of uncounted ballots — more than a million of them, mostly sent by mail a day or two before the election or handed in at polling places.
The gap in the vote on the tobacco tax, Proposition 29, began to narrow. And narrow. By Friday night, the margin of defeat had shrunk to 16,778 votes — or four-tenths of 1%.
"I think we're still definitely in it," said Jim Knox of the California Division of the American Cancer Society, one of the major supporters of the Yes on 29 campaign. "Either way, it appears this is going to be the closest ballot measure outcome in modern history — if not ever."
Knox remains cautious for good reason. The measure was trailing by 29,000 a week ago, by 42,000 on Thursday and then dropped to its smallest gap yet on Friday.
The odds of the Yes on 29 campaign pulling off a victory remain long: About 52% of the remaining 436,000 uncounted ballots would have to favor the measure, which would fund cancer research and anti-smoking campaigns. The proposition reached or exceeded that level of support in only 16 of California's 58 counties.
"It's not very probable, not unless it gets the vast majority of outstanding ballots in counties where it's doing very well," said Stephen Weir, Contra Costa County's registrar of voters.
As the uncounted ballots were being tallied, some of the biggest gains were coming from large counties where the tobacco tax support received the strongest support, including Alameda, Contra Costa and Santa Clara. The measure also picked up ground in San Diego County, where it still trails by 1%. The measure made a minute gain — 0.2% — in voter-rich Los Angeles County, where it still is losing by 1.2%, election figures show.
A spokeswoman for the No on 29 campaign, bankrolled by the tobacco industry, said the campaign was happy to still be in "such a good position."
"Coming out of election night with a 60,000-plus vote lead, we have always felt in a good position to hold on and be successful when all the votes are counted," said Beth Miller. "We're not seeing anything at this point to lead us to believe anything different.''
The ballot count could continue to fluctuate until July 6, the deadline for county election officials to submit certified results. Once the official results are announced, any voter has the right to ask for a recount, although requests must be made county by county and paid for by the person making the request.
Proposition 29 would add a $1-per-pack tax on cigarettes to raise an estimated $860 million a year for research on tobacco-related diseases and for prevention programs. The American Cancer Society and cycling champ Lance Armstrong, a cancer survivor, were among the measure's biggest proponents, raising more than $11 million to support the ballot initiative.
Tobacco giants Philip Morris USA and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. poured nearly $47 million into the "no" campaign and were joined by anti-tax and business groups.
Vacillating counts are common in the weeks after election day, as uncounted ballots are processed and sporadically updated by counties. Some local registrars wait until all ballots are tallied to report their vote updates; others do it as they go. The statewide margin of difference on Proposition 29 is less than 1 percentage point.
"Having been through this experience before, I would always caution against making a bold prediction of victory or defeat until it becomes mathematically impossible for any other outcome," said Democratic political consultant Brian Brokaw.
Brokaw worked as a consultant for Democratic state Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris' campaign in 2010, when Harris beat Republican Steve Cooley, the Los Angeles County district attorney, by less than 1 percentage point. Her margin amounted to 74,157 votes.
Cooley, in fact, declared victory on election night. Hours after he strode onto a stage at the Beverly Hilton Hotel to deliver the news, Cooley was trailing. Over the next three weeks, as 2.3 million more ballots were tallied, the lead switched back and forth until Harris finally pulled ahead for good.
"The vote would swing by the hundreds, sometimes by the thousands," Brokaw said. "We were careful about never getting our hopes up too high."
Regardless of the outcome, the fact that the tobacco tax initiative made up significant ground after election day has caught the attention of campaigners and election experts.
Figuring out what sways mail-in voters has become crucial: Nearly half of the voting electorate turns in ballots by mail. Some theorize they may be younger, or busy parents with little free time, and their votes trend liberal. Others believe they may have been swayed by Yes on 29 campaign ads, which aired late in election season.
"There's a lot that goes on in campaigns at the end. There are probably more people who are waiting until then," said Secretary of State Debra Bowen, California's chief election official.
Bowen dismissed the conventional wisdom that conservatives tend to mail ballots early and liberals late. What is apparent, she said, is that the most partisan Republicans and Democrats tend to mail their ballots early because they make up their minds early.
Late ballots tend to mirror the results from traditional polling places, she said.
As for the apparent late surge for Proposition 29, Bowen didn't offer any opinions. Too many factors were in play, she said: a new "top-two" primary system, redistricting and millions spent on independent expenditure campaigns.
"Was it the pizza or the beer that caused you to gain 15 pounds during your first year of college?" she joked.