Democratic Rep. Ami Bera trailed by 3,000 votes last Wednesday when he summoned media to a news conference at his campaign headquarters in Elk Grove.
Bera smiled for the cameras and described his outlook as “cautiously confident.” He then recalled his successful effort two years ago when it took nine days of overtime ballot counting to determine he had unseated his GOP opponent.
A week later, Bera reclaimed the lead over Republican Doug Ose by just 711 votes as elections officials meticulously count the remaining 19,000 countywide ballots. The task may take another week.
House races in San Diego, Ventura, Fresno, San Jose, Stockton and Sacramento also went into overtime. Rep. Scott Peters of San Diego recently won re-election – five days after the polls closed – and four of the nine contests in his political career have stretched days beyond their natural deadlines. A former environmental attorney, Peters compares it to waiting for a jury to return.
“You think you won the case, but you just don’t know,” he said. “We knew, though, that our field program was top-notch. So while the wait until the first update wasn't easy, we still felt pretty good about our chances.”
This fall, Peters was down more than 750 votes to Republican challenger Carl DeMaio immediately following the election with nearly 50,000 ballots uncounted. Two days later, Peters surged to an 861-vote lead that eventually swelled to an advantage of about 6,000 votes.
In Sacramento’s Bera-Ose race, the counting continues. And as tensions mount, the candidates aren’t saying much. Bera, in a statement, said he remains optimistic he’ll retain his lead. Ose, who traveled to Washington this week, declined interview requests.
Their expensive and closely watched contest played out in seemingly ceaseless 30-second attack ads that saturated local airwaves for weeks. When the late ballot counting began last week, that adversity shifted to the county elections office, where each campaign accused the other of trying to manipulate the process.
Because so many people now vote by mail, tens of thousands of late-arriving and “provisional” ballots must be tallied after Election Day. Typically, these votes don’t change the outcome, but they can make the difference in a close race.
Campaigns send in observers to monitor election workers as they check signatures to verify the late mail ballots. Provisional voters are generally those who moved to another place in the county but forgot to re-register; voted near work instead of their assigned polling place; or are permanent mail voters who came in to their polling place but didn’t bring their ballot. Those ballots take longer to process, and there were 9,000 of them in Sacramento County.
Last Thursday, an usually high number of mail ballots – 3,000 vs. the typical 30 – were called into question by vote counters and representatives from the campaigns.
Bera’s campaign attorney accused Ose’s aides of challenging legal votes to sway the outcome of the race. Ose’s strategist issued a memo that said Bera’s campaign had made “outlandish and baseless accusations” out of desperation.
Jill LaVine, the county registrar of voters, attributed the challenges to first-day jitters. LaVine said she sat down and chatted with representatives from the campaigns, and that things have been running much more smoothly ever since.
On Thursday, the process of examining provisional ballots began and both campaigns were fully staffed up.
“Please, keep your challenges to a minimum,” advised Alice Jarboe, the assistant registrar. “It should be slow starting out. These take a while.”
Unlike mail ballots, there is no bar code for officials to scan; it’s all done manually.
Working one of 12 computer stations, an election employee looked at an envelope. Behind her stood two representatives from the campaigns – one with Ose; the other with Bera. The mood was calm, with other aides sipping coffee in the lobby, waiting for the next shift change.
The voter’s name and address checked out, the election worker said, after consulting a list of registered voters on a computer screen. And she cast her ballot at the correct precinct, the worker added. The ballot would be deemed “good” as long as the voter’s signature matched one of those on file. “She’s good,” the worker said later.
The most common issue involved voters at the wrong polling place who received a provisional ballot but voted for races for which they weren’t eligible.
The task continued into the afternoon: Finding a voter on the rolls; determining if their signature matched; checking their address.
Meanwhile, the wait continues – from Elk Grove to Folsom, and beyond.
Nitin Vora, a 65-year-old who lives in New York, said he feels a connection to Bera, the only Indian American serving in Congress. Vora is from the Indian state of Gujarat, which is where Bera’s parents emigrated from in the 1950s.
“I was watching last time, from afar, and it took nine days,” said Vora, a businessman who follows Bera’s political career. “Now it may take 15 days.”
Doug Elmets, a close friend of Ose, said the candidate is focused “as he always is in challenging circumstances” – and doing “incredibly well.”
“For many of his friends, we feel like we’ve been on an emotional roller coaster,” Elmets said. “But like Doug, we are resolute in the belief that it is essential that all of the valid votes are counted.”
Others just want to see an ending, regardless of the outcome.
William Scarbrough, 67, of Roseville, votes in most elections and along with his wife has been monitoring the seesaw race from their home outside the district. Scarbrough said the pair are surprised with the sluggish pace of vote counting, particularly given the advances in technology.
“I can’t believe it takes this long to count this many ballots,” he said. “What the heck is taking so long? Do they have one person counting?”