If the House comes down to California, get ready to wait

Election workers unload a ballot paper bag.

In a situation that leads to the digital revolution, Californian voters love poll voting and the state has encouraged it. | Rich Pedroncelli, Archive / AP Photo


California's voting rules could mean that key games will not be decided for days – or weeks.


SACRAMENTO – One night of the blue wave election Tuesday could slow down significantly as it reaches the coast of California, making the rest of America wait to see who will check the House in 2019.

Forget about staying all night to find out who won the congressional positions here: Strategists and campaign experts say it may take days – if not weeks – to identify winners in a series of close and closely watched intermediate races in Southern California.

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The likely long wait is the result of generous provisions for Californian voters supported by the democratic majority of the state and the continued abandonment of electoral departments in favor of postal ballots that take longer to be measured and verified.

The low-vote scenario in California means that if the rest of the House is close, the whole country may have to wait to see if the Democrats get back in the ward.

Democratic strategist Katie Merrill is afraid of the worst. In a tight struggle to control the House, President Donald Trump envisions the securitization of allegations of voter fraud, followed by a flood of election lawyers entering the Orange County Secretariat Office.

"I think we are looking at Palm Beach 2.0 and this is a nightmare scenario that everyone needs to prepare," said Merrill, referring to the controversial presidential race in Florida in 2000. "Trump will not let it stand if it comes down to California."

While California may not be of any importance in the media, Merrill has called Orange County "ground zero" in the national battle for the House. The once conservative bastion of southern California has become purple, and the Democrats are struggling to take four seats there on their own.

The battles include: CA-39 between Democratic Gil Cisneros and Republican Young Kim. CA-45 between the established Republican Mimi Walters and Democratic Katie Porter. and CA-48 between the established democratic Dana Rohrabacher and the democratic Harley Rouda.

A smaller section of the county is at CA-49, which is represented by Republican Darrell Issa, which serves as a perfect reminder of how long it can take to get results.

Two years ago, Issa's close victory was not declared until Monday after Thanksgiving, almost three weeks after Election Day. The same seat – now an open race between Democratic Diane Harkey and Democrat Mike Levin – is among the regions deemed necessary for the Democrats to take over this House.

"I've been telling journalists for months, you're booking hotel rooms in Orange County," said Rob Stutzman, a GOP strategist who believes House control could end up with a handful of positions in California on the outskirts of southern California.

In a situation that leads to the digital revolution, Californian voters love poll voting and the state has encouraged it. For seven consecutive state elections, the majority submitted ballot papers by correspondence.

And they like to procrastinate, said Orange County Registrar of voter Neal Kelley. He waits 60 percent of his county's 1.6 million voters to use postal polls. Of these, 35 percent or more will turn them into Election Day in elections or mailboxes.

"Right there, you still have 10 days at the top of the process," said Kelley.

But where Merrill predicted chaos, Kelley expressed confidence after 12 years at the wheel. "We are ready for this, we are doing it," he said. "This is not Palm Beach, I will not equalize it to that."

"I'm ready for the lawyers and ready for the observers," he added. "Let's go, it's part of the process."

California's Guru, Paul Mitchell, says the state "works harder than anyone else in the country to make sure every vote counts" and that has led to a prolonged process that may be less than satisfactory in a a time of immediacy.

Among the reasons: California allows lists that arrive three days late to be counted if they have a postmark on Election Day. If a ballot landed in the wrong county, the law of the state allowed another four days to reach the right office, Mitchell said.

"This means you literally have seven days after the election where a county could still get legitimate votes," he said.

Even personal voting may result in delays in California. The state allows registered voters to deposit provisional ballots if they arrive at a polling station that does not have them on the rollers. For the first time, in 2018, residents can table a conditional vote on Election Day without registering in advance. These ballots require additional controls to ensure that voters have not participated in other countries and that they meet the eligibility criteria.

"There are a few things that can add some time to counting votes, but all are meant to protect the voting rights of eligible California voters," California State Secretary Alex Padilla, California's senior official, told POLITICO.

Signatures – the mismatch or lack thereof – are one of the biggest challenges in counting postal ballots, according to Kim Alexander, chairman of the California Welcome, a non-parliamentary group that has backed many of the recent changes. It is the main way that counties verify that voting is legitimate.

In the past, a bad signature might have meant that a vote unfolded. However, a September state law requires provinces to notify at least eight days to voters for whom a dubious signature has compromised the vote.

Alexander said he would rather have registrars take their time rather than put pressure on them to speed up the results.

"The media have swayed the election as a one-day sale, and it's not happening anymore," Alexander said. "Election is a one-month activity now in our state and election certification is an activity of one month."

Mitchell, an election expert, estimates that county registrars will have 2 million to 3 million ballots that will remain countless after Election Day of the 12 million that he believes will be deposited at state level.

In the more competitive regions, he said, registrars may have to count up to 30% of the total ballot after the elections. "This means you should have some huge scope to call these games at Election Night," he said.

Merrill and Stutzman believe the Democrats will win anywhere from two to six seats in Congress this year in California. If this margin makes the difference at national level, watch out, said Merrill.

He tried to "hear the alarm" to make sure that state and local elected officials are prepared for the possible attack by attorneys, activists and party officials on their doors.

"We hope there are public lawyers with bags in their front closet ready to go on Wednesday morning," he said. "Some of them certainly think that."