(CN) – As the early Super Tuesday results trickled in, it was clear Bernie Sanders had slipped from his perch as front-runner and suddenly needed to run up the score in the west to remain competitive in the Democratic primary. After victories in Utah and Colorado, the newswires declared Sanders a winner in California just minutes after polls closed in a state with nearly 21 million registered voters.
The swift declaration provided instant material for cable news networks, but played into a scenario political scientists and state voting officials warned against in the weeks before Super Tuesday.
With millions of ballots still uncounted on Wednesday, Sanders still led former vice president Joe Biden. But the split of California’s 415 delegates remains uncertain.
“In the state with the largest electorate in the nation, the vote count does not end on election night – and that’s a good thing,” reiterated California Secretary of State Alex Padilla. “Several safety nets exist to protect voting rights.”
According to Padilla’s official count, as of Wednesday afternoon Sanders leads Biden by 260,000 votes, or 8.7%. While 100% of precincts have at least partially reported, the possibility of millions of uncounted ballots across the state’s 58 counties exists, leaving the door open for Biden and the other candidates to bite into Sanders’ lead.
California results remain pending not just for the typical reasons – popularity of absentee voting, provisional ballots and sheer size of the electorate – but due to expanded same-day registration and problems with a new voting system in the state’s most populous county.
Los Angeles County launched new electronic voting machines on Wednesday, ditching paper ballots for computers. The move had the clear effect of suppressing the vote as residents remained in line to vote hours after polls closed and with the race already called for Sanders.
At Pasadena’s historic City Hall, a lack of volunteers available to confirm voter identities pushed wait times to 1.5 hours. Inside the council chambers, voters using computer touch screens took four to five times longer than previous elections conducted with ink punch cards.
During a 20-minute time span, three people abandoned their civic duty due to the botched rollout of a system intended to make voting easier.
“Too long in line,” said one. “Too long,” said another. “I’m going to wait until after work.” The third chimed in: “It’s too long.”
As the day wore on, Los Angeles County Registrar of Voters Dean Logan sent out a statement listing vote centers without wait times and “encouraged” voters to stay in line. By Wednesday morning, county officials were demanding answers for the chaos.
“The hours-long wait times that some voters experienced yesterday are unacceptable. Today I am calling for a complete investigation into what was behind the long lines so that this does not happen again this November,” tweeted LA County Supervisor Janice Hahn.
As of Wednesday morning, officials there had tallied 1.1 million votes, but the number will continue to rise as more than 5.5 million registered to vote in the county. Individual counties are required on Thursday to provide Padilla’s office with an “estimate” of the remaining unprocessed ballots. Padilla says he will then be able to give daily updates and has until April 10th to certify the election.
“April 10 is well before the end of the national primary schedule and well before the political parties’ nominating conventions,” Padilla added.
With so many outstanding ballots, it’s impossible to peg turnout in California at this point. However, voter excitement appeared high heading into Tuesday as a record 20.6 million Californians had registered to vote.
In the June 2016 presidential primary, registered turnout was 47% with a total of 8.5 million votes.
The remaining ballots in California didn’t prevent Sanders from taking a victory lap on Wednesday. The Democratic socialist from Vermont told reporters the delegate count between him and Biden could be “basically neck and neck” after California is eventually tallied up.
Dave Wasserman, editor of the Cook Political Report and veteran election forecaster, says Sanders is due for a “reality check” after Biden’s standout Super Tuesday performance.
“Sanders will finish substantially behind in delegates and catching up would require another seismic shift in the race,” Wasserman tweeted.