Saturday, November 20, 2010
And still counting...
The 2010 general election is not yet over in California. The secretary of state's office in Sacramento continues to issue updates as it aggregates the returns trickling in from California's fifty-eight counties. As of the last report, time-stamped 5:00 p.m. on Friday, November 19, twenty-six counties still had untallied ballots to count. By adding up the counties' estimates of vote-by-mail and provisional ballots, the secretary of state announced that approximately 629,634 votes remained to be processed.
It's not a moot point. While attorney general Jerry Brown trounced Meg Whitman in winning his third term as governor and Barbara Boxer convincingly defeated Carly Fiorina on her way back to the U.S. senate, one statewide race remains too close to call. The Democratic nominee to succeed Brown as attorney general currently has 4,291,854 votes to her Republican rival's 4,248,804, a margin of only 43,050. Taking into account a scattering of votes among minor party candidates, that breaks down to 46.0% to 45.5%.
Democrat Kamala Harris and Republican Steve Cooley have swapped the lead back and forth a few times since the vote tallies began to be published after the November 2 election. Cooley actually declared victory election night (see the video below), but woke up the next morning to discover that Harris had edged ahead. When the vote count moved him back into the lead a few days later, he was smart enough not to make yet another premature victory speech. When Harris regained the lead, she prudently kept her own counsel.
I looked into the numbers because one of my friends, a retired journalist, was scoffing at the superficiality of the news articles on the election results in the attorney general's race. Except for striving heroically for different ways of saying “too close to call,” none of them offered any substantive analysis.
“It all depends of where the remaining votes are,” he said. “Instead of just paraphrasing the press releases from the candidates, the reporters ought to dig into the details. They should do some reporting.”
He prodded me into action. I downloaded the secretary of state's report on unprocessed ballots (well over two million at that time) and loaded it into a spreadsheet. Then I perused the secretary of state's report on the percentages accruing to each candidate in each county. By way of example, consider Tulare county, where California's most conservative voters gave Harris only 29.8% to Cooley's 62.4%. Tulare's county clerk estimated that 3,350 ballots remained to be processed. Applying the percentages to this number, I computed that Harris would get 998 more votes and Cooley would get 2,090. (I'm sure Mom & Dad's vote-by-mail ballots are in the latter batch.)
I applied this process to all of the counties with outstanding ballots, obtaining an estimate for the additional votes likely to be obtained by Harris and Cooley. Upon adding the estimates to the votes counted to date, I found myself looking at a razor-thin Harris victory. Every so often I would return to the secretary of state's website to tweak the percentages to reflect the completed count. Those numbers were very stable, seldom moving more than one-tenth of a percent. The predicted Harris margin varied, but never vanished.
My latest computation, based on yesterday's numbers, suggests that Kamala Harris will defeat Steve Cooley for the office of attorney general by 45,902 votes. I'm not sure about the 2, though.
If the numbers hold up, the Golden State will have handed the Democratic Party a clean sweep of every statewide office. May it make the most of its opportunity.
Note: I should give a tip of the hat to Timm Herdt of the Ventura County Star. He had the same idea that I did and published his estimate on November 9 on his blog. In my opinion, however, Herdt pulled up just a bit short by confining his attention to the 21 counties with the most votes remaining to be processed. In so close a contest, it was unwise to scorn the little counties and risk that much round-off error. On the basis of his computations, Herdt figured that Cooley had an edge.
While I obviously think Herdt was wrong, my ex-journalist friend can be relieved to learn that at least one reporter is willing to go digging for news. It's not quite obsolete yet.