LOS ANGELES -- Thousands of mail-in ballots are being invalidated in California elections because they arrive too late to be counted, government officials and political experts said Monday.
In the state's June 3 primary, Los Angeles County received about 2,400 mail-in ballots after the Election Day deadline -- the close of polls -- making them ineligible to be tallied. The number of latecomers invalidated in Santa Cruz County was nearly 600, all postmarked on or before the election.
The postmark isn't the deciding factor -- the cutoff is the close of polls, when election officials must have the ballots in-hand.
In a state with nearly 18 million registered voters, the figures for late-arriving ballots are relatively tiny, but even small numbers can make a difference in tight races.
Votes are still being counted in the too-close-to-call state controller's contest. Former Assembly Speaker John Perez is leading by a few hundred votes over Board of Equalization member Betty Yee in their battle for a second runoff spot to challenge Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, according to unofficial returns.
"The only thing worse than not voting is people trying to vote and having their ballots go uncounted," said Kim Alexander, president of the nonprofit California Voter Foundation, which has been researching the unwelcome trend.
Californians have been choosing to vote by mail in larger numbers for years, and it's not uncommon to have half the vote come in through the mail.
Political Data Inc., a research firm that sells voter information to campaigns, has estimated that more than 30,000 mail-in ballots were invalidated in 2012 because they were received too late, nearly half of them from voters under 30 years old. That estimate was extrapolated from a review of data from 18 counties.
The analysis did not distinguish between ballots postmarked on or before the election but were delivered too late to be counted, and those that were postmarked after the election and would be clearly ineligible.
Part of the problem stems from some voters being too lazy to get their ballots in the mail at an earlier date, raising the possibility of missing the deadline. There are other quirks in delivery: A Los Angeles ballot mailed in neighboring Orange County will probably take two days to arrive at its destination, for example.
But some experts suggest that otherwise valid ballots are getting snagged in the postal system.
Santa Cruz County dispatches workers on election night to make sure late-coming ballots were picked up at postal facilities. But in the primary this month, 573 stragglers arrived the next day, too late to matter.
What happened to them?
"I don't know," said county Clerk Gail Pellerin, who is looking into the delay. "It's heartbreaking."
Richard Maher, a spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service in Los Angeles, said he was unaware of any problems with the delivery of ballots in the election.
Los Angeles County had not yet determined how many of its 2,391 laggard ballots were postmarked on or before the election.
At least one proposal in the Legislature would reset the deadline, allowing mail-in ballots to be collected and counted for several days after an election.