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How Napa County votes are counted, and why counting takes time

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Though the long campaign — a multiyear effort for some candidates — is now done, the results from Election Day will take a bit longer. 

Napa County residents will have a clearer picture of the winners of the various local races and measures in the coming days. Leads in some will become insurmountable, making certain candidates or measures the de facto winner. 

But the final, definitive answers are about a month away – partly because of state law and partly because of the different ways Californians can cast their votes.

When you submitted your ballot for Tuesday’s election – and whether you mailed your ballot, slipped it into a drop box or handed it in person to an election worker – determines how soon the Napa County Election Division records your vote.

The county issues a series of updates on its running vote count, starting almost immediately after the end of California voting at 8 p.m. Election Day and continuing through most of November. But under state law, that process is not complete, and election results are not official, until a county’s registrar of voters certifies the outcome, a decision the state says can take place up to 30 days out from the end of voting.

The early returns Napa County posts online within a minute of the end of California voting at 8 p.m. Tuesday include mail-in ballots received through Sunday, two days before Election Day, according to John Tuteur, the county registrar of voters.

While mail-in voting began Oct. 10 and the county election office began receiving ballots in sealed envelopes shortly afterward, counting of ballots waited until Saturday, when election workers began feeding envelopes sent by mail or dropped into ballot boxes into a special machine, which sorts the envelopes and photographs their signatures. The images are sent to workers who verify the signatures by comparing them to voters’ signatures from previous elections.

This first set of results will include between 16,000 and 18,000 of the roughly 56,000 Napa County ballots – or about 30% of the total – expected to be cast in this fall’s races, Tuteur said Monday.

Next to be tabulated are the ballots that have been hand-delivered – either to the seven voter assistance centers the Election Division opened from American Canyon to Calistoga, or directly at the election office itself in downtown Napa. Such “live ballots” factor into the county’s second and third election-night updates, which are released at 9:45 p.m. and between 11 and 11:30 p.m., as ballots submitted at voting centers are brought to the county election office.

The counting will then turn to ballots that were mailed in the final two or so days before the end of voting. California ballots must be postmarked no later than Election Day, but can be counted if an election department receives them within seven days of the close of voting.

Counting of later mail ballots will begin Monday, Nov. 14 (Napa County offices are closed Friday for Veterans Day), and the county will release updated results at about 4:30 p.m. that day. The process will then continue through Nov. 17 or until 95% of ballots are counted.

The remaining handful of ballots to be counted afterward include those that are stained or otherwise damaged and must be duplicated to allow votes to be optically scanned, according to Tuteur. Other late tallies include conditional voter registration ballots – cast by people who registered at a voting center but whose envelopes were held to ensure a voter has not cast a ballot in another county – as well as those whose signatures either are absent from their envelope or do not match signatures on record with the county. (California law calls for counties to notify voters of such issues and give them until Nov. 26 to resolve the problem, either by submitting a new signature or visiting the county election office.)

All ballots from Napa County are expected to be in hand and counted by around Nov. 28, 20 days after Election Day, according to Tuteur.

But state law requires one more step before a county can certify election results – a hand count of 1% of the total ballots.

"One person reads the ballot, a second person watches them read the ballot, and two people tally what the reader said on big tally sheets," said Tuteur of the manual tally. 

When he is satisfied that the results of the hand count and the machine count match – typically after three or four days of manual tallying – the registrar certifies the outcome of the November elections.

Tuteur said this year’s certification would likely take place around Dec. 2, although California gives counties until Dec. 8 this year to do so and make the people’s new choices of leaders, at last, official.

Live vote counts sometimes go up or down on election night. But elections officials, research firms and media outlets have safeguards in place that ensure minor errors get fixed quickly.

You can reach Howard Yune at 530-763-2266 or hyune@napanews.com.

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City Editor and Public Safety Reporter

Howard Yune became the Register's city editor in September 2022. He has been a staff reporter and photographer since 2011, and previously wrote for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, Anaheim Bulletin and Coos Bay (Oregon) World.

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