More than three weeks after the election, most contests on Orange County voters’ ballots have long since been settled – but until the last hundred ballots were tallied on Friday, a handful of races remained in limbo, the number of votes between victory and defeat counted in the double or even single digits.
Close races certainly happened before, but as more OC cities and school districts have switched from at-large to district-based voting, they appear to have become more frequent/likely.
Up until Friday, in a mix of 10 city council and school board races, the margin between the prospective winner and the second-place candidate was fewer than 100 votes, and in two of those, the difference was five or fewer votes.
“Before I left, the transition (to closer contests) had already started,” perhaps as far back as the 2016 election cycle, former OC Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley said. Kelley retired in March after running the county’s elections since 2005.
Prior to 2016, most of the county’s smaller and even mid-sized cities and school districts allowed all voters to pick candidates for however many seats were on the ballot.
But as more boards were threatened with voting rights lawsuits, many switched over to a system of geographically based districts, where only voters living in a given district get to pick their representative. Proponents of the district system say it gives minority communities a better chance at representation.
In some contests, the change significantly shrank the pool of potential voters – and in low-turnout elections, even fewer votes determine the winner.
Now – with half of OC’s 34 cities using district voting – “we’re more likely to see races that are decided by 15, 20, 30 votes when districts are smaller,” said Democratic political consultant Derek Humphrey, who in this cycle worked on campaigns for two county supervisors and the Anaheim mayor, among others.
Making the smaller margins more suspenseful is the state’s pandemic shift to universal vote-by-mail and allowing mail ballots postmarked by election day to be counted if they get to the registrar up to a week after the election.
“The reality is that we no longer have an election day, we have a two-month election window,” Fullerton College political science professor Jodi Balma said.
For the recent election, ballots were mailed to Orange County voters Oct. 10, the election was Nov. 8, and the final deadline for voters to correct signature matching issues on their ballot envelopes was this week. State law requires counties to certify their election results by Dec. 8.
Experts said the trend of close elections, with some contest results pending nearly until the last ballot is counted, is likely to continue.
Kelley attributed it in part to the fact that OC’s registered voters are close to evenly split between the two major political parties – Democrats, with about 37%, have a small advantage over the GOP’s 33%.
Because many voters turn in mail ballots at the last minute – data from the OC Registrar shows nearly 35% of all mail ballots came in on election day – “I think the new normal in these elections is just not knowing the outcome of close contests right away,” said Humphrey, the campaign consultant.
So what does it mean for elections officials, candidates and voters?
Closer races could lead to more recounts. Kelley said he started getting more requests for them (whoever is asking for the recount has to pay for it) about 10 years ago, and he definitely handled more of them than OC registrars before him – about 40 over his tenure in the job. (He noted that only one recount, for the First District supervisor seat in 2007, changed the outcome of an election.)
For candidates, the new reality changes how campaigns are run, Humphrey said. Because reaching people in a smaller district is more affordable and voting takes place for longer, campaigns can start trying to get their message out earlier, spreading communications over six to eight weeks instead of plowing all their funding into the last few weeks before election day.
In a more philosophical sense, Balma said when a race is decided by only a few votes, it can raise questions about how much the outcome represents the will of voters. She pointed to a 2020 race for a seat on the Brea Olinda Unified school board that ended in an exact tie and was settled, according to the board’s bylaws, with the two candidates rolling dice to determine the winner.
In the last couple election cycles, school board candidates in particular have grown dramatically further apart ideologically in many districts, she said, adding that it’s hard to stomach the idea “that it could literally be a game of chance to decide the policy direction for a school board or a city council.”
But other experts don’t see a close race as undermining the legitimacy of a victory.
“The mandate is when you’re certified as the winner,” said Jack Pitney, who teaches politics at Claremont McKenna College. “I don’t think there’s much evidence that candidates who win by large margins are much different than candidates who win by small margins.”
Even with the potential for tighter races and longer waits for results, experts said district voting has a number of benefits. It helps level the playing field for candidates by lowering the cost to run for office – for example, in Anaheim it would be the difference between trying to reach about 30,000 voters in a district versus 200,000 citywide.
With less ground for a campaign to cover, voters have a better chance of candidates knocking on their door and hearing their concerns directly, Humphrey said – and that can work both ways, so “voters have a better idea who they’re voting for.”
The changed landscape can also draw different kinds of people to run for office. In Anaheim, many council members came from affluent Anaheim Hills, but with its district system now, every geographic area of the city is represented on the council, Balma said.
This November, Los Alamitos resident Randy Hill was a first-time candidate who as of Friday was losing a two-person race for the District 5 council seat by just four votes.
He said his wife has run for office before, so he was aware they probably wouldn’t know the results on election night, but he was surprised by how close it’s been – and that the winner still wasn’t clear weeks later.
Hill said the transition to district voting in Los Alamitos has been confusing for some residents, who were seeing signs everywhere for candidates who were running in a different district and therefore weren’t on their ballot.
As to his own race, he never let the suspense get to him and stopped checking results “weeks ago,” though friends have been watching and filling him in. “Obviously it’s somewhat stressful, but truthfully I’m not, like, attached to it,” he said. “Whether I am elected to this position or not doesn’t define who I am or what I do or how I support my community.”
Balma said with only a few cycles’ worth of data, it’s too early to really understand the implications of the switch to district voting and other recent changes to the election system. But it still offers plenty for her to talk about with students.
“I don’t know how many voters understand how few votes determine these elections,” she said. “I certainly use every single example in my first day of class (to show) why voting matters – and in local election, every vote matters.”