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SACRAMENTO -- Millions of Californians have not yet returned their vote-by-mail ballots, and the flood of returns expected on election day could delay results in tight races, officials said Monday.

The state's 58 counties had reported receiving just under 3 million absentee ballots as of early afternoon Monday -- less than 40 percent of the 7.6 million ballots requested statewide for the general election, according to the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials.

In some counties, vote-by-mail is expected to exceed in-person voting.

That means a huge number of last-minute returns will not be processed Tuesday, and the most competitive races may remain too close to call.

"The ballots are coming in later than average and there's more of them than average, which means more uncounted ballots on election night," said Contra Costa County Clerk Steve Weir, who estimated that one-quarter of his county's absentee ballots would not be included in Tuesday's tally.

Recent polls show a number of extremely close contests in California, including the races for lieutenant governor and attorney general. In addition, about half a dozen congressional seats and several state legislative seats are thought to be in play.

Gail Pellerin, Santa Cruz County clerk and head of the statewide clerks association, said Monday that the return rate so far was about what she expected.

"When you issue 7.6 million (ballots), you're not going to get 7.6 million back," she said. "Ideally, there would be more at this point, but you take what you can get."

Experts say turnout this year will likely hover around 60 percent -- similar to past midterm elections but significantly lower than 2008, when more than 79 percent of registered voters participated.

Counties started sending out vote-by-mail ballots the first week of October. Since then, almost all of the calls received by the nonprofit California Voter Foundation have been procedural questions about how to fill them out, said the group's president, Kim Alexander.

"Even though vote-by-mail continues to be popular, I expect more than half of the ballots will still be cast at the polls," she said.

Some voters may not have returned their ballots early because they lost them or filled them out incorrectly, Alexander said.

Pellerin had another possible explanation.

"I guess we're just creatures of procrastination," she said.