California's primary election was held nearly four weeks ago. But one key statewide contest is still undecided because officials in rural Lake County have been slow to finish counting votes.

Now it appears a decision may come as soon as Monday.

In the race for state controller -- the official in charge of state payroll and other accounting functions -- Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, a Republican, received the most votes in the June 3 election.

As a result, she'll head to the November general election ballot. But two Democrats are battling for the last few votes in one of the closest statewide elections in California history to see which one will join her.

State Assemblyman John Perez, of Los Angeles, and Board of Equalization member Betty Yee, of San Francisco, have see-sawed back and forth as final vote tallies have come in over recent weeks from 57 of California's 58 counties. Now, out of 4 million votes cast, only 6,053 ballots remain uncounted. Those are all in Lake County, a rural area north of Napa Valley that is best known for its vineyards, Clear Lake and the now-shuttered Konocti Harbor Resort.

"I would have liked to have been done last week," said Lake County Registrar Diane Fridley. "But I was out on medical leave until June 9, and some of our extra workers who usually help out didn't work this time."


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Fridley said her office is still counting mail-in ballots that came in the final five days before the election and on Election Day. It's also verifying 743 provisional ballots from people who showed up to vote at the wrong polling place, voted without having been registered to vote and other irregularities that surface in every election.

Fridley said she expects to report Lake County's final tally to state officials by Monday or Tuesday.

State law requires every county to certify its election results by July 4.

Things are looking good for Yee. She currently holds a lead of 861 votes -- 877,263 to 876,402 for Perez. And although Perez leads among Lake County votes counted so far, with 26 percent to Yee's 18.6 percent, if those same margins hold for the remaining uncounted ballots, he'll pick up a net of only 448 votes, leaving him 413 short.

With a margin of just 0.02 percent, that could lead to a recount. But that could cost millions, and under California law, whoever requests a recount has to pay for it, unless the recount ends up changing the final result.

The outcome of the race may seem obscure to many voters, but the office is often a stepping-stone to higher offices.

Current state controller John Chiang is running for state treasurer, for example, and previous controllers have included Gray Davis, who become governor and Alan Cranston and Thomas Kuchel, both of whom became U.S. senators.

Republicans have not won a statewide office in California since 2006. That year, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger won re-election and tech entrepreneur Steve Poizner, of Los Gatos, beat Democrat Cruz Bustamante for insurance commissioner. Poizner ran for governor in 2010 but was defeated in the GOP primary by Meg Whitman, who lost to Jerry Brown in the general election.

If Swearengin can pull out a victory in the controller's race this November, she'll become a rising star in a statewide party that currently has no bench.

Contact Paul Rogers at 408-920-5045. Follow him at Twitter.com/PaulRogersSJMN