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Q&A: Why were ballot estimates off so much in Sacramento County?

File photo. Vote-by-mail ballots await to be counted in the 2020 General election. // M. Hazlip

Sentinel staff report–
In response to a reader question about the accuracy of figures released by Sacramento County elections officials, The Sentinel inquired with county spokeswoman Janna Haynes for some answers.

In an email update on Nov. 22, Haynes said the current turnout percentage from the Nov. 8, 2022, election is 46%, but with around 89,000 ballots remaining to be counted, she said the final turnout will be “closer to 57% once we certify.” That figure, however, conflicts with what Haynes had told The Sacramento Bee in a story published Nov. 17, that “Our turnout is going to be much closer to 50%. It’d be like maybe 47%.”

A Sentinel review of ballot count totals released by the county shows the discrepancy appears to be between numbers reported on Nov. 15 and Nov. 18.

The county had reported on Nov. 15 that an estimated total of 145,452 ballots were left to process, with a total of 258,266 ballots having been counted. Three days later, the total number of ballots counted rose to 345,837 as another vote count update was released on Nov. 18, but the estimated number of ballots left to be counted stayed around 145,000 — prompting some to question why.

In a clarifying statement to The Sentinel on Monday, Haynes said initial estimates of ballots remaining were off significantly, due to how the county estimates the number of ballots remaining to be counted.

“[O]ur estimates before everything had been run through our mail sorters were just that – estimates,” said Haynes, who noted that ballots had all been run through the sorting machine by Nov. 18. “Now our count left to process is fairly accurate – give or take a few hundred based on signatures that may not match or conditional ballots that aren’t eligible.

Asked whether initial estimates could be off by upwards of 100,000 ballots, Haynes explained the process further:

“When we are estimating ballots left to be processed – which in this case means left to go through our mail sorter, we are literally looking a(t) piles of bags that came back either from drop boxes or vote centers where people dropped off their pink envelope. We haven’t sorted them or even touched them, we’re simply guessing based on the volume of bags we have back. It is in no way scientific. We don’t know if one bag has 300 ballots or 1,000 ballots. Or even more. And if you multiply that across dozens and dozens of bags, than we can easily be off by many thousands of ballots. In this case, it was significant.”

Haynes said the county can also receive ballots up to seven days past Election Day, as long as the ballots were postmarked by Nov. 8, 2022. A “Frequently Asked Questions” section on the Secretary of State’s website reports a longer window, saying ballots can arrive up to 17 days after Election Day, as long they are postmarked by Nov. 8. In cases where there is no postmark, the website says “ballots are considered cast on time by county election officials if the date the voter signed the envelope is on or before Election Day.”

Haynes said around 40,000 ballots were received the day after Election Day, but did not have a per-day tally for subsequent days. She also shared several stats about how Sacramento County residents cast their ballot in the Nov. 8 election.

  • 94% voted their Vote by Mail ballot
  • 45% of Vote by Mail voters returned their ballots on 11/7 (37,000), 11/8 (148,000), and 11/9 (40,000)
  • 5% voted in person at a Vote Center
  • Less than 1% voted Conditional Voter Registration
  • 279 ballots returned with no signature
  • 358 ballots had a signature that did not match

As of Nov. 26, the county’s elections webpage currently shows a total of 400,511 ballots have now been counted, with the remaining number of ballots left to process being under 89,000. The total number of registered voters in Sacramento County is 864,814.

The next update from elections officials is slated to be released by 4 p.m. on Nov. 29. Final certification after all votes are counted is slated for Dec. 8, 2022.

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