Sacramento County election officials said Wednesday they still have 220,000 ballots to count from Tuesday's election, suggesting that voter turnout was surprisingly high and giving some trailing candidates a sliver of hope.
The county election office counted 124,000 ballots as of Wednesday, according to interim Sacramento County Registrar Alice Jarboe. If the 220,000 outstanding ballots are valid, voter turnout would reach nearly 47 percent — the highest level in 20 years for a nonpresidential primary in Sacramento County.
That had several candidates urging supporters Wednesday to wait for further returns before conceding defeat, starting with District Attorney challenger Noah Phillips. His opponent, incumbent Anne Marie Schubert, declared victory soon after polls closed Tuesday.
Schubert maintained a commanding 64 percent to 36 percent lead Wednesday.
Terry Schanz, chair of the Democratic Party of Sacramento County, which backed Phillips and sheriff candidate Milo Fitch, said in a statement, "This election is not over. The integrity of the ballot counting process is critical to ensure that all votes are accurately counted. That process can take time."
Sheriff Scott Jones also had a cushion Wednesday, leading three other candidates with 54 percent of the vote compared to Donna Cox at 21 percent and Fitch at 20 percent.
Fitch said on Twitter he believes he can still force a runoff, which would require Jones to fall below a majority threshold.
Sacramento County is slower at counting votes this year than after previous elections because it switched to a system that encouraged voting by mail and submitting ballots in envelopes on election day.
"The expectation that at 8 p.m. we can call a race, that is polling place thinking," she said. "We are in such a different culture now. "
Sacramento is the largest of the five counties participating in a pilot program approved by state legislators in 2016 as part of the new Voter's Choice Act. The other counties are San Mateo, Nevada, Napa and Madera counties.
Under the new system, the counties mailed every voter a ballot and then replaced polling places with vote centers and drop-off locations.
Statewide voter turnout this June was predicted to be low. Paul Mitchell, vice president of the voter data firm Political Data, projected 32 percent turnout across California.
"Sacramento could be an unprecedented and amazing outlier," Mitchell said Wednesday after learning the county still had 220,000 votes to count.
In the past, ballots were scanned at polling places, allowing more results to be reported on election night. Under the new system, county officials opted not to scan ballots at polling places to simplify the process and are now counting them at the election department.
Jarboe estimated that 100,000 ballots were returned to vote centers and 50,000 to drop-off locations.
The large number of mail-in ballots, including those submitted in envelopes at vote centers, also has contributed to the delay in counting. The process to open them, verify the signature against the voter registration card, straighten the ballot and count the votes is labor intensive, Jarboe said.
Elections staff began counting mail-in ballots again at 10 a.m. on Wednesday and she expects another update later this week. Jarboe said she expects that it could take a week or two to finish counting votes and just before July until the vote is final.
The county also received 9,600 ballots by mail on Wednesday that is part of the 220,000 uncounted, Jarboe said, and could still receive more this week. Ballots that arrive within three days of an election are valid as long as they were postmarked on election day.
Jarboe said she hopes voters will mail ballots earlier in the future.
In Sacramento City Council races, incumbents Angelique Ashby and Rick Jennings cruised to re-election Tuesday night, while Jeff Harris ran unopposed.
In District 5, which includes Oak Park, Curtis Park and Hollywood Park, it remains too close to determine if Councilman Jay Schenirer will avoid a runoff with challenger Tamika L'Ecluse. Schenirer had 56 percent of votes Wednesday, while L'Ecluse had 35 percent and Joseph Barry had 9 percent. Schenirer needs to maintain a majority of votes to win outright.