Inside the lobby of Sacramento County's Voter Registration and Elections office Tuesday, the factions eyed one another warily.
Campaign staffers for Dan Lungren, the Republican incumbent running in California's 7th Congressional District, camped in one corner, smartphones firmly in hand. In the other? Staffers for Ami Bera, Lungren's Democratic challenger in a race still hanging in the balance.
Soon the men and women would stand side by side, peering over the shoulders of workers checking the validity of mailed ballots that ultimately will decide the fates of their candidates and those in other close races, including two seats on the Sacramento City Council.
These "election observers" give the public confidence that "everything that we do is correct," said Jill LaVine, Sacramento County registrar of voters, who more than a week after the general election is wearily overseeing the process of validating ballots. "It's all about checks and balances."
Democracy in action is alive and well at the elections office, she noted. But it is a painstakingly sluggish process.
To an outsider, "it can be a little like watching paint dry," admitted county campaign services manager Brad Buyse. "But for us, this is big. This is our Super Bowl. This is where we shine."
A record 60 percent of Sacramento County voters, more than 400,000, chose to vote by mail this year. Tens of thousands of those ballots are being questioned. Some people muffed their votes and then tried to change them. Some spilled coffee or smeared jelly on their ballots. Some forgot to sign their "vote-by-mail" envelopes. Some of their signatures are different from the ones the county has on file.
All mailed ballots end up at the elections office, where they are being checked and checked again to determine "voter intent," said Buyse. Tens of thousands more provisional ballots, cast by voters whose names were not on their polling place rosters, will be checked after mailed ballots are evaluated.
The county has hired some 70 temporary workers to help complete the task. The final outcome could take weeks.
In one room on Tuesday, dozens of workers pored over ballots that were sullied or soiled, or had items that had been scratched out or written over. Some contained arrows toward the voter's intended choices, or were marked with YES or NO next to candidates and measures. At least two people evaluated each ballot to decide whether the voter's choice was clear.
In the rare cases in which intent is questionable, the ballot goes to another team, said Buyse. Few ballots are discounted entirely, unless they come in late or arrive unsigned. More than 1,000 Sacramento County residents dropped their ballots in the mail on Election Day, rendering them invalid, said Buyse.
Once a tainted ballot is affirmed, it must be duplicated with a clean copy. Sitting at a U-shaped table Tuesday, staffers worked in pairs, with one person reading aloud the votes, measure by measure, candidate by candidate, as the partner marked a clean ballot. Then the partner read the unsullied ballot aloud for comparison. The replacement ballot would be counted. The original got a "VOID" stamp.
A lone Bera campaign worker solemnly watched the action.
In an adjacent area of the building, a line of observers peered silently over the shoulders of staffers who compared signatures on voter registration affidavits to signatures on ballot envelopes.
In the office's small warehouse, yet another set of workers verified the accuracy of the county's voting equipment, comparing votes logged by precinct scanners to the marks on paper ballots.
Workers were mostly silent, rarely engaging in small talk. Bottles of water and soda were at the ready, although desk dining is verboten. "If they do eat or drink here, we ask that the food not be gooey or sticky," said LaVine, the registrar. "Tops on all drinks, please!"
Observers, who are required to wear white badges, were themselves monitored and escorted in and out of each room. Anyone can be an election observer, LaVine noted, but most observers are associated with campaigns. For that reason, "I try not to get to know them," she said. "That's my best bet," to avoid any appearance of partiality.
Observers who bided their time Tuesday deemed the operation impressive, if uneventful. As of Tuesday afternoon, no one on either side had challenged a ballot. They spent most of their time in the lobby or just outside the election office's front door, chatting, checking email and making phone calls.
"The reality is that this registrar runs a really tight ship," said Bera campaign manager Josh Wolf. "Basically we come in here every day to watch nothing happen."
That's just fine with Lungren's crew.
"As long as everything is dull and complacent, it's going the right way," said campaign manager Jeff Wyly. "Everyone is doing their due diligence."
And surely the end is in sight? Hard to say.
On Tuesday, Democrat Bera extended his narrow lead over Lungren, moving 3,824 votes ahead in the race for the suburban Sacramento seat. Bera leads the longtime Republican lawmaker by 50.8 percent to 49.2 percent in the latest tally.
With more than 100,000 mail and provisional ballots left to be processed, LaVine predicted that "most of the winners" will know their fates by Friday.
A couple of weeks after that, election staffers will be able to start on their postponed vacations, family plans and household duties.
"I rented a place in Sea Ranch," said Buyse. "I'll be there for a while in late December. Unless, of course, someone requests a recount."