When will we know who won the California recall election? What to expect on election night

Lara Korte, The Sacramento Bee on

Published in Political News

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — After more than a year of debate, protests and lawsuits, the election to recall California Gov. Gavin Newsom is here.

Despite the anticipation, it’s possible Californians will not know the outcome of the race before the day is through.

“Be prepared to wait,” said Stephen Ohlemacher, the election decision editor for the Associated Press, which has counted the vote in every U.S. election since 1848.

“Just because you see the lead switching back and forth, that doesn’t necessarily mean something wrong is happening. And just because it takes several weeks to count all the votes after election day, that’s very typical in California.”

Every active, registered voter in California, about 22 million, received a mail ballot for the recall election. As of Monday evening, more than 7.5 million ballots had been returned.

The first returns on election night, the ones reported right after the polls close, are likely to consist of mail ballots and early, in-person ballots processed prior to election day, Ohlemacher said.

In 2020, across the nation, Republicans were more likely to vote on election day than by mail after President Donald Trump raised questions about mail ballots. Those who did vote by mail leaned “pretty significantly toward Democrats,” he added.

Early votes this time heavily favor Newsom, according to Political Data Inc., which tracks return ballots. A poll last week conducted for the Berkeley Institute of Governmental studies found that 77% of those who intended to vote in person on election day favored recalling the Democratic governor.

In California, voters must postmark their ballots by election day, but county elections officials can receive and count votes up to seven days after the election.

“Be wary of early returns. They may not be a good indication of the final outcome,” Ohlemacher said.


Since different types of ballots are counted at different times, the lead could shift over the course of election night and possibly in the following days.

Strategists for Gov. Gavin Newsom said last week they will wait to claim victory until the AP makes a determination, but that could take a while if the race is close.

The AP considers a wide range of factors when it comes to declaring elections, but the abiding principle is that the organization will only declare a winner when there is no longer a path forward for the trailing candidate, Ohlemacher said. In this case, the “trailing candidate” would be either the yes vote or the no vote.

“We don’t call elections in a vaccuum... we don’t just sit there and stare at numbers coming in and use a computer model to tell us who won,” he said.

The AP considers news coverage, polling, candidate fundraising, and a county or state’s voting history when making determinations. They also take into consideration that election officials count different types of votes at different times, meaning vote-by-mail, early in-person, and election day votes. They also keep tabs on how many ballots have yet to be counted.

Recent polling suggested Newsom could survive the recall by more than 20 percentage points. Ohlemacher said there’s no definite margin as results come in that would translate into a victory for the governor.

As far as question two, the AP will only declare a winner in the race to replace Newsom if the vote to recall him is successful. The organization will report on the status of the replacement election in its news coverage, but will not call a winner in that race unless and until a call is made about whether the recall is successful.

County election officials have until Oct. 14 to finish their official vote canvass, which is meant to account for every ballot cast and ensure every valid vote is included in the final tally. The Secretary of State, by Oct. 22, will issue the statement of the vote and certify the results of the election.

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