California Recall Election Result: When Will We Know?

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A woman in short sleeves and a mask sits at a fold-out table in front of baskets of mail.
An election employee works in the mail cleaning section, which includes arranging the ballots with their barcodes facing in one direction, at the San Mateo County Elections Office on Oct. 21, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

On Tuesday, voting ends in California’s contentious and highly anticipated recall election in which voters will decide whether Gavin Newsom will be replaced as governor.

While many Californians will vote on Sept. 14 itself, a large number of voters will already have cast their ballots by mail-in voting or by taking advantage of early in-person voting around the state.

But what about the California recall election results? When might we get a definitive answer on whether Newsom will be recalled? And how do elections get called?

What does early voting mean for getting results on election night and beyond?

Election officials expect to report a large number of returns shortly after polls close at 8 p.m, especially in counties where many voters have already cast their ballots.

"The first returns will be the vote-by-mail ballots we've counted to date," said Lynda Roberts, registrar of voters in Marin County, where turnout is already above 50%. "We'll be updating throughout the night as we get polling place returns."

In the days after the election, officials will continue to count votes — mostly ballots dropped off at voting locations on Election Day, said Deva Marie Proto, the Sonoma County registrar of voters.

"We'll need a few days to do all of the signature checking and processing of those," she added.

In 2020, Republicans were much less likely than Democrats to vote early by mail, in part because then-President Donald Trump repeatedly claimed — without evidence — that voting by mail was unsafe and susceptible to fraud.

If that trend continues, the results in the recall election could swing back and forth on election night, depending on which types of votes are being reported: mail ballots or in-person votes.

Most California voters cast their ballots by mail, a trend that accelerated during the pandemic since many voters were reluctant to enter crowded polling places on Election Day. About 87% of California voters cast their ballots by mail in last year’s presidential election.

How long will the actual vote counting take?

The explosion of early voting may beef up the initial vote counts released in the Bay Area, but election officials say a few factors will dictate how long the entire vote count will take.

For one, ballots mailed on Election Day can still be counted, as long as they are postmarked by Sept. 14 and received by county elections officials by Sept. 21. If you're planning to return your mail-in ballot close to Election Day, it's probably wise to use a county drop box or submit your ballot at a voting location to avoid having your ballot miss the last U.S. Postal Service collection on Sept. 14. Find your nearest drop box or voting location.

And California's same-day voter registration (also known as conditional registration) rules allow voters to show up at a voting location and register on Election Day, while casting a provisional ballot that will be further checked by election workers.

The number of provisional votes cast is usually a good indicator of how many ballots are left to count after Election Day, John Gardner, Solano County assistant registrar of voters, told KQED in 2020.

“That usually tells us how long we’ll need to go," Gardner said. "Prior to Election Day, it’s really hard to say.”

Mail-in ballots take longer to process than in-person votes because election officials must remove the ballots from their envelopes, check the voter’s registration and make sure that the voter’s signature on the envelope matches the one on file. Then the votes can be counted.

When voters cast ballots in person, officials perform security measures at the polling place so that the votes can be counted soon after the polls close.

If the recall is successful, the deadline to certify the results of the election is Oct. 22. Throughout September and into October, election workers will process late-arriving ballots and work with voters to "cure" ballots and address any mismatched signatures on ballot envelopes.

Gov. Newsom gestures behind a podium in front of a massive California flag.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during a No on the Recall campaign event at the IBEW-NECA Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee center on Sept. 8, 2021, in San Leandro, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

If a result is clear, who declares a winner?

Election officials are in the business of processing and counting ballots, not calling races.

"We don't call the election or predict the election," said Proto, the Sonoma County registrar.

In our coverage of national and state races, KQED relies on the races called by The Associated Press (AP), which are based on data analyses that include vote counts as well as polling research.

Winners are declared only when AP is fully confident a race has been won — defined most simply as the point when the number of remaining votes do not provide a path to victory for a trailing candidate.

Before Election Day, AP analysts study county-by-county election results for past races, vote-counting procedures, recount requirements and changes to state election laws, relying on information from AP’s election research group.

On election night, they study the incoming votes and are in constant contact with AP’s vote count team, in search of the latest information about what’s been counted so far and how many ballots may still be left to count.

One thing to note: If the recall fails, the question of who would replace Newsom would be irrelevant. This means AP will only declare a winner among the replacement candidates if the vote to recall Newsom is successful.

That's not to say that we won't hear about the performance of the replacement candidates, not least because the top vote-getter on the replacement ballot could become obvious before the outcome of the recall vote is decided. AP says it'll report on the status of the replacement election in its news coverage, but will not declare a winner unless Newsom is recalled.

When will The Associated Press call the recall election?

It's hard to say, exactly, what the timing will be given the unique nature of the recall election and the fact that there will be two results to watch: the fate of the recall question itself, and the race among candidates vying to potentially replace Newsom if he is removed from office.

In 2020, The Associated Press called California for Bernie Sanders in the presidential primary the minute polls closed at 8 p.m. Pacific Time. In the November general election, the AP called California for Joe Biden at the same time: 8 p.m Pacific Time.

But in 2018, when Newsom captured the governorship by a historic margin, it took until 9 p.m. Pacific Time for AP to declare him the winner.

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What happens to my ballot after it's counted?

Just because your ballot has been counted does not mean it's on the fast track to the paper shredder.

State law requires election officials to hold on to polling place ballots and paper copies, along with vote-by-mail ballots and envelopes, for 22 months after the election.

Those counted ballots are traditionally used in the state-mandated election audit — a manual tally in which election workers hand-count all the votes in 1% of precincts.

"The paper ballot is the official record," said Gardner, in Solano County. "If there’s ever a court case, we go back to that paper record."

This post contains reporting from The Associated Press.

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