Primary election slowdown: Here’s why things aren’t moving more rapidly in Santa Cruz County

Stacks of ballots await counting at the Santa Cruz County Clerk's office.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

While the big countywide race, Measure D, left nothing to suspense on election night, and many others are also pretty convincing, there are several close races that won’t be conclusive until at least the end of the week. That’s because a surprising surge of election day voting by mail has left the Santa Cruz County Clerk’s office playing catch-up.

Editor’s note: Primary election ballot counting continues through the week and Lookout will keep you updated as the count trickles upward.

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The Santa County Clerk updated the vote tallies from the June 7 primary election with another 16,000-plus votes on Tuesday, June 21, mainly mail-in ballots. That pushed turnout past 45%, with 76,344 registered voters having cast a ballot; of those, nearly 95% (72,287) came via mail.

There was little change in any of the races; in the only one that did not appear conclusive, the city of Santa Cruz’s Measure F sales tax, the “No” vote’s lead shrunk slightly, to exactly 100 votes. Scroll down for interactive charts with all the updated counts.

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Though Monday, June 20, was a county holiday in honor of Juneteenth, Santa Cruz County Clerk Tricia Webber’s staff kept on counting after another weekend of tallying ballots.

She said there would be a “large update to the results” Tuesday afternoon, somewhere in the range of 14,000 more votes by mail. The turnout, now 36.64%, had already surpassed the 2014 record low of 34%, and between the expected 14,000 plus same-day-registration and provisional ballots that would be added if found valid, turnout could wind up at better than 45%, Webber told Lookout on Monday.

All races now appear conclusive except for Measure F, the Santa Cruz sales tax. No (50.58%) leads Yes (49.42%) by just 163 votes. Per Webber, Measure F looks to be the only local contest “that will need to wait until certification to be completely decided. And there will be a full hand recount of that contest prior to certification just to be sure of the results.”

In the District 4 Supervisor race, Jimmy Dutra (2,541 votes; 46.54%) doesn’t appear to have the votes to win outright against Felipe Hernandez (2,095; 8.37%).

Measure D, the Greenway initiative, was still being voted down by 73% of the electorate.

The clerk’s office must certify all results on July 5.

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It’s a slow gallop to the primary election finish line here in Santa Cruz County, meaning the finality of several key races won’t be known until at least the end of this week — and perhaps longer.

After adding 7,000 votes Monday, June 13, the Santa Cruz County Clerk’s office added an additional 3,332 on Wednesday. The 44,048 votes brings the county up to a 26.27% registered voter turnout. The clerk’s office estimates roughly 20,000 additional votes remain to be counted.

Felipe Hernandez continued to gain slightly on Jimmy Dutra in the District 4 County Supervisor race, Justin Cummings picked up a little ground on Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson in the District 3 race, and city of Santa Cruz voters added slightly to a “No” vote advantage on the Measure F sales tax.

With a big Regional Transportation Commission meeting coming up Thursday morning, the dominating defeat for Measure D is only getting further lopsided with 72.34% of the electorate now “No” votes.

Also of note: As of 2 p.m. Wednesday, the California Secretary of State had not updated its county-by-county breakdown of votes in the races for Assembly Districts 28 and 30 since Monday.

Please see the updated numbers in the charts below.

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Only 50% of ballots received here in Santa Cruz County had been counted as of late Friday afternoon. By comparison, Santa Clara County reported 79% counted by then.

Why?

The biggest reason is that far more Santa Cruz County voters waited to drop their ballot into a mailbox at the last minute than they typically do, said County Clerk Tricia Webber.

“I only had 23,000 votes by mail turned in prior to election day and then I got 35,000 on election day,” she said. “It’s usually right about the same amount. And then because it’s such a manual process, there’s not much automation to the verification process. It takes time to go through them.”

The result: an undeniable game of catch-up that Webber says can’t just magically be sped up.

“I would like to be moving faster — unfortunately, I’m not able to move faster,” she told Lookout, noting a few recent COVID absences among her staff of 32. “In other elections we’ve been a little further ahead than we are. We know we’re a little behind, but not a lot.”

Webber’s catch-up plan included her team of 15 who focus specifically on vote-by-mail working through the weekend in order to add 10,000 votes to the 33,569 counted. They will give an update at noon Monday on that progress, and then keep counting with the goal of adding another 10,000 by Wednesday and the final 10,000-plus remaining by Friday.

Full vote counts from Santa Cruz County’s primary election aren’t expected until Friday, but we’ve seen enough of the...

“That’s about 30,000 and that would be the large majority,” she said. “There will still be some provisional and conditional voter registration that won’t be added until all the vote-by-mails are done.”

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The deadline for certifying the final count is July 5.

If those projections of the total vote count hold true, and it ends up in the 65,000 range, the county will avoid its lowest primary turnout ever. That 38% range would eclipse the 34% turnout of the 2014 June primary.

“It’s still so pathetic,” lamented Gail Pellerin, the former longtime county clerk now leading the race to become the 28th District Assemblymember. “We’ve made it so easy for people to vote, and yet the majority still aren’t.”

Neither Pellerin or Webber expects to see any major shift in races despite the low number of official ballots counted.

“Votes tend to cut pretty close to how they did on election night,” Pellerin said.

The “No” vote on Measure D was the surprise runaway train that night, careening down the tracks at a clip that had victory being all but assured by night’s end.

Two races remain pick’ems. One is Santa Cruz’s Measure F sales tax, which even after Friday’s update had yes at 3,354 votes and no with 3,418. The other is the District 4 County Supervisor’s race between Watsonville City Council member Jimmy Dutra (1,370 votes/47.26%) and Cabrillo College trustee Felipe Hernandez (1,088/37.53%).

Dutra could still end up with more than 50% of the primary vote and win the race outright.

Meanwhile, the District 3 County Supervisor’s race appears headed toward a November runoff between Santa Cruz City Council contemporaries Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson (2,631/45.79%) and Justin Cummings (2,095/36.46%).

Here’s a quick recap of where the other races stand and, below that, the updated charts as we await the latest numbers from the clerk’s office at noon Monday:

  • Measure D: The much-discussed Greenway Initiative is being decisively beaten by a more than 3-to-1 margin (23,323 no, 9,450 yes).
  • Measure E: Santa Cruzans will directly elect a mayor to lead the move to district representation, creating a four-year position for the first time. A six-district plus mayor setup (4,764) is leading a seven-district with no mayor (2,089) by a nearly 3-to-1 clip. It has already led to some interesting speculation about who might be interested in running.
  • Assembly District 28: Pellerin continues to emerge as the leader among four candidates for the newly drawn district seat. What is making the difference: her big edge in her hometown county, where she is trouncing her Santa Clara County opponents, should only grow. Pellerin had 54% of the vote here, followed by Liz Lawler (20%) and Rob Rennie (17%).
  • Assembly District 30: Dawn Addis, the Morro Bay-based candidate endorsed by the Democratic Party, looks poised to win the newly redrawn seat easily. In Santa Cruz County voting, she has earned 42% of the votes while Republican Vicki Nohrden has earned a surprising 23%. Those two appear headed toward a fall runoff.
  • Measures B and C: The countywide tax on visitors for accommodations and the cup tax are both winning by nearly a 3-to-1 margin and look to be on their way to easy victories.