Collection boxes for vote-by-mail ballots on display at the Oakland Public Library. Credit: Amir Aziz

The Alameda County Registrar of Voters started posting results for the Nov. 8 election just after polls closed at 8 p.m. that night. But a week later, we still don’t know who the winner is in many local races, including mayor of Oakland.

As ballots continue to be counted, some are asking what’s taking so long.

We asked the registrar and other experts to clarify the process, and we did a little research on our own. If this FAQ doesn’t answer your question, please email us.

Why does counting votes take so long?

You might find it annoying that it takes over a week to count all the votes in California’s elections. But consider the job the registrar’s office has to do. According to the registrar’s office, close to half a million Alameda County voters participated in this election. 

Only 32,000 of these voters cast a ballot in person at an election center.

Most of the ballots—about 468,000—were mailed back or placed in a drop box. Over half of these—roughly 234,000—“were received as vote-by-mail ballots on Election Day,” the registrar’s office explained in an email to The Oaklandside.

Here’s why this matters: ballots cast in person at a voting center go straight into high-speed scanners where voters’ choices for everything from governor to school board and ballot measures are tabulated instantly and added to the results. These votes make up a big part of the results the registrar posts on Election Night.

Vote-by-mail ballots have to be processed at a much slower pace. First, they have to undergo a signature verification check to make sure the signature on the envelope matches the voter’s. Then they need to be sorted by precinct. Next, the envelopes are run through milling machines that carefully open and extract the ballots. Finally, the ballots are run through scanners where the votes are tabulated and added to the growing results data.

Some voters return their vote-by-mail ballots weeks or days before Election Day, and lots of these can be processed and added to the results made available on Election Night. But remember, over half of the vote-by-mail ballots were turned in on Election Day. These take many days to process.

Ballots keep arriving at the registrar’s office even after Election Day. If a voter mails their ballot back and it’s postmarked on or before Nov. 8, the registrar still has to count it, even if it shows up a week later.

Short staffing and other problems facing the U.S. Postal Service have caused delays of several days in Oakland mail delivery this year.

A slower process but a more democratic one

“California’s long vote count is a feature not a bug,” Jonathan Mehta-Stein, the executive director of the voting rights group California Common Cause, told us.

About one-in-eight American voters live in California. That means we have lots of ballots to count. In Alameda County, that’s over 900,000 voters. Even when turnout is half or less, there are still hundreds of thousands of ballots to process.

And our county and the state have gone to great lengths to encourage people to vote. Since 2020, every registered voter gets a mailed ballot, and they can return this ballot for several weeks up to election day. They can also vote in person before or on election day. And if they aren’t registered, they can vote provisionally.

During the counting process, California goes the extra mile to make sure small mistakes don’t result in someone’s ballot getting thrown out.

“If you forget to sign your vote-by-mail ballot envelope, which is easy to do, especially for first-time voters, a lot of other states just throw that ballot out,” said Mehta-Stein. “We changed the law [for California]. Now the county has an obligation to reach out to you to let you know there’s a problem and give you an opportunity to fix it.”

That’s just one example of the work election officials have to do when counting ballots. It adds time to the process but makes it more democratic.

I read on the registrar’s website that 100% of precincts were reporting. Doesn’t this mean the results are final?

If you looked up the Oakland mayor’s race results on the county’s website this past week, you might have read “99 of 99 Precincts Reported(100.00% .” You might interpret this to mean that all the ballots have been counted.

This isn’t what this means. It’s an internal way for the registrar’s office to track Election Day activity at its various voting centers, but it has nothing to do with the number of ballots that have been counted. It means 100% of precincts have turned in some number of ballots, but it doesn’t mean 100% of precincts have turned in all their ballots.

Basically, you should ignore it.

Do we know how many votes are left to count in the Oakland mayor’s race?

Nope. Not until all the ballots are counted.

Here’s what the registrar’s office told us: “We do not spend the time sorting the ballots down to each race and count remaining ballots in each race. This would slow our processing tremendously.”

We do know how many total ballots there are to count for the entire county. The Secretary of State publishes an Unprocessed Ballots Report each day after Election Day, using data provided by each county. Some of these ballots will be from Oakland voters. 

But even if the registrar counted all the Oakland ballots, we wouldn’t know how many votes there are left to count in the mayor’s race. This is because some voters might have left that part of their ballot blank.

In other campaigns all over the country, we know who the winner is even before they’ve finished counting. Why isn’t this the case with the Oakland mayor’s race?

The answer is that the Oakland mayor’s race is very, very close. 

Loren Taylor and Sheng Thao are separated by less than 2000 votes right now in a race where over 84,000 ballots have already been counted, and thousands of ballots still need processing.

In tight races, it’s impossible to say who the winner is until the vast majority of ballots have been counted.

Why do results in some races change as more ballots are counted?

You might have noticed some candidates who were in first place after initial results were posted on Election Night are now in second place. Candidates who appear to be leading on Election Night often fall behind and end up losing. It’s even possible for a third or fourth-place candidate to surge from behind—especially in ranked choice voting—and win a race.

The reason results can change—especially the results posted on election night—is because they are a small sample of the total. As with all samples, they don’t perfectly represent the whole. They can be off through sampling error, a well-understood phenomenon. Only when the sample grows large enough can we have confidence that it accurately reflects the total.

Why do some candidates surge ahead late in the vote-counting process?

You might have noticed that Pamela Price was trailing Terry Wiley 48% to 52% in the race for district attorney on Election Night. But then, on Nov. 15, a week later, the latest results showed Price leading. With each updated batch of ballots added to the results, Price has gained on Wiley until she surpassed him. How does this happen?

Results sometimes skew in favor of one or another candidate at different points in the vote-counting process because of the behavior of different voters. One theory is that older and more affluent voters tend to fill out their ballots and send them back to the registrar early, or they vote in person.

“Vote-by-mail ballots that are received early are the first ballots posted after [the] close of polls on election night,” the registrar’s office explained to us in an email. “The remainder of the Election Night tally are the in-person votes received at the Vote Centers.”

Older and more affluent voters tend to be more moderate or conservative than young and low-income voters, according to the Pew Research Center. Younger and lower-income voters tend to vote on or just before election day, and lots of them do this with their mailed ballot. This results in their votes not being counted until days or a week or more after Election Day.

As a result, candidates who appeal to younger and lower-income voters are likely to gain more votes later in the ballot-counting process.

Is ranked-choice voting delaying results in the Oakland mayor’s race?

No. The registrar’s office told us that ranked-choice voting has nothing to do with the amount of time the vote-counting process takes.

“It is an algorithm which is run against the vote totals after each tally at the end of the evening when votes are posted,” they explained. 

In order words, the ballots still have to get counted, whether or not ranked-choice voting is in effect.

Before joining The Oaklandside as News Editor, Darwin BondGraham was a freelance investigative reporter covering police and prosecutorial misconduct. He has reported on gun violence for The Guardian and was a staff writer for the East Bay Express. He holds a doctorate in sociology from UC Santa Barbara and was the co-recipient of the George Polk Award for local reporting in 2017. He is also the co-author of The Riders Come Out at Night, a book examining the Oakland Police Department's history of corruption and reform.