California is the biggest prize on the biggest night of the presidential primary — but we’re probably going to have to wait a while to know who won it.
The Golden State moved its primary from June (in the 2016 primary) to March 3 for the first time this year, bringing with it a 415-delegate haul. That addition means that just over a third of all pledged delegates to the Democratic National Convention in July will be won on Super Tuesday. But because of California’s size and its exceptionally voter-friendly electoral system, it can take as much as a month to finish counting the state’s votes. (Or at least, that’s how long it took in 2016.)
Thankfully, according to three election experts, it probably won’t take quite that long for California’s primary on Tuesday — but it won’t exactly be fast either.
Estimates for how long it’ll take to finish counting votes ranged from “a few days” to “weeks.” Bob Shrum, a veteran of presidential races and the director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, said that a week was “an optimistic estimate.”
There are two main culprits for the slow counting. One: mail-in ballots. California’s vote-by-mail system — which allows voters to put their ballots in the mail as late as midnight on election day, as long as they’re postmarked that day — means that votes trickle in for days after the polls have closed.
Despite the potential for slow vote-counting, voting by mail has a lot of upsides for democracy. As Vox’s David Roberts reported in 2018:
Vote-at-home (VAH) systems, using old-fashioned postal mail and paper ballots, are just better. They increase turnout and make voting a more positive experience.
California isn’t the only state to vote by mail — Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, and Washington do too — but its size exacerbates the delay in counting votes.
Barry Burden, who is the director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin Madison, says that mail-in ballots also take longer to count in some cases: Checking that ballot signatures match, problems with mail-in envelopes, and myriad other issues can all slow things down.
The result is a process that’s “much more labor-intensive than an Election Day vote,” he told Vox.
Provisional ballots also pose an additional challenge to quickly reporting results. Such ballots — which are used when there are questions about a voter’s registration status or residency — aren’t unique to California. In fact, they’re used everywhere; provisional ballots are required by the Help America Vote Act of 2002, which was implemented in response to the 2000 presidential election.
But, Burden says, “California is exceptional … in its willingness to give voters provisional ballots,” and while in many states the majority of provisional ballots are rejected, in California they mostly end up getting counted. Verifying and counting those ballots takes additional time, which contributes to the slow counting of votes.
If you’re beginning to notice a theme here, you’d be right to: Writ large, California’s voting system is much, much more pro-voter than those in many other states. The trade-off for that is speed.
Experts say it’s unrealistic to expect immediate election results
Shrum phrases the trade-off a little differently: California, he says, “prioritizes the right to vote over the media’s thirst for results.”
And while not every state is as voter-friendly as California is — see: Georgia in 2018 — it’s likely that more states might start taking longer to report results.
Texas, for example — another Super Tuesday state and the third-largest delegate trove in the primary — could be unable to assign delegate totals on election night due to a “revamped reporting system.” According to a Texas Tribune story by Alexa Ura, as of earlier in February: “The Texas Democratic party was preparing for an Iowa-like scenario in which the full delegate distribution would not be available until at least the next day.”
The Texas Secretary of State’s Office, however, has pushed back on reports of a possible delay; a spokesperson told the Tribune that “any allegations that delegate allocations will not be reported on election night are categorically false.”
Regardless, Burden says that “stakeholders just need to get used to the idea that Election Day is not the end. That is quickly evaporating in US elections as a standard.”
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though. Unlike in Iowa, California’s slow counting is “a feature, not a bug.”
Edward Foley, who runs the election law program at Ohio State University, says it might be for the best that people get used to it now.
“If the media recognizes on Super Tuesday that they’re just not going to get results when they want them … they can kind of accept that and cope with that,” Foley said. “That could be a beneficial learning process for getting ready for November, where that can happen in pivotal Electoral College battlegrounds like Pennsylvania and Arizona and Michigan.”
There are still worries, of course: Lonna Atkeson, who runs the University of New Mexico’s Center for the Study of Voting, Elections, and Democracy, says the delay could open up California to attacks on the legitimacy of its system — similar to the type of conspiracy theories that sprung up around the Iowa caucuses this year.
“When it takes a week to count ballots, it’s hard to explain that process, especially when most other states don’t have those kinds of liberal laws,” Atkeson said. “I think that that makes it easier to take jabs at their process by people like [President Trump], right?”
However, Burden says the California primary will likely go off without a hitch — he doesn’t believe anything like an Iowa-style mishap is in the cards in the state.
“This is a state-run primary election,” Burden said. “These are government officials whose daily jobs are about being professional election administrators. They are trained, they are preparing to do this.”
It’s just going to take a while.