On March 3, California will be one of fourteen states holding primary elections (American Samoa will have caucuses that day). California’s 454 delegates to the Democratic National Convention will be at stake on March 3, meaning that California is a very large prize for candidates still seeking the Democratic presidential nomination.
But there’s a very good chance that we will not know the winner of California’s Democratic presidential nomination primary the evening of March 3. In fact, we may not know how California’s delegates will be allocated until much later in March. This will be especially true if there’s no clear front-runner in the Democratic presidential nomination contest by March 3.
So why are we anticipating that we may not know the winner of the Democratic presidential primary in California after polls close on March 3?
California is in the midst of sweeping changes in election administration procedures and voting technologies. While some of these changes started in 2018 in some counties, they are now hitting the larger counties in the state, in particular Orange and Los Angeles Counties. Election officials throughout the state have been working in recent years to make the process of registration, getting a ballot, and returning that marked ballot, much easier and more convenient. And it’s these changes that are likely to introduce significant delays in the tabulation of ballots after the polls close on March 3, and which could well delay the determination of a winner in California’s Democratic primary for days or weeks, if the contest is close statewide.
California election officials have sent out an unprecedented number of ballots by mail. For example, in Orange County the Registrar of Voters has mailed just over 1.6 million absentee ballots to registered voters. Many of those ballots (269,690 as of February 27 in Orange County) have been returned — but the vast majority of them are still in the hands of voters. We estimate that many voters will be dropping their voted absentee ballots in the mail in coming days, or they will drop them off in voting centers between now and Election Day. And if a vote-by-mail ballot is received and validated on or before Election Day, but is received by the election official no later than 3 days after March 3, it will be included in the tabulation. This means that there are likely to be a large number of these by-mail ballots that will be received on Election Day, and in the 3 days following Election Day, that will all need to be processed, validated, and included in the tabulation (mostly after March 3).
Californians who for some reason haven’t registered yet to vote, but who want to register now and participate in the March primary, can do so using what is called “Conditional Voter Registration” (CVR), in which they can register and vote at many locations in their county (usually the county election headquarters, a vote center, or a polling place). It’s unknown how many potentially eligible Californians may take advantage of the the CVR opportunity, but it’s possible that we might see large numbers of conditional registration voters between now and March 3, and of course many of these voters will not have their materials processed, and if they are eligible to vote, to have their ballots included in the tabulation, until after the primary on March 3. If there is a swell of interest in the primary election among currently unregistered but eligible voters, this could significantly slow down the reporting for final results after March 3.
Finally, there is also a good chance that there will be strong turnout on March 3, potentially resulting in crowded voting locations statewide, and producing a very large number of ballots, CVRs applications and provisional ballots, and by-mail ballots dropped off on Election Day. If turnout is strong in in the March primary, the large amount of election material that will need to be reconciled and examined after Election Day could also slow the tabulation process, and could introduce significant delays in the reporting of results.
Now that’s just on the administrative side. It also turns out that the rules governing the allocation of California’s 494 Democratic National Convention (DNC) delegates are exceptionally complex, so complex that they will require another blog post. The important issues are that most of the state’s DNC delegates are allocated proportionally to the statewide primary winners, and to the primary winners of the primary in each of the state’s Congressional Districts — but only those candidate receiving more than 15% of the votes cast in either case get delegates. So in order to know the delegate count from California’s Super Tuesday primary, we’ll need accurate counts of the votes cast in each Congressional District, and that could take days or even weeks.
There’s a good chance that we may not know the final delegate count until for a few weeks after the primary. So patience — the process will take time, and let’s give our election officials the opportunity to do their jobs and to produce an accurate tabulation of the results of California’s Super Tuesday March primary.