SANTA CRUZ -- Answers aren't going to come quickly in the county's razor-thin race for the 5th District county supervisor's seat.

County Clerk Gail Pellerin said Friday there are 6,545 absentee ballots left to sort through before determining the winner of the contest, with Bruce McPherson currently leading Eric Hammer by 26 votes.

"Our next step is actually extracting the ballots and examining them," Pellerin said. "We'll release an update on Thursday."

Friday's development was another step toward finalizing the winner of the race, who must be certified by Dec. 4. It also means a quarter of the 5th District's ballots haven't been counted, emphasizing that the race remains a toss-up.

But a Sentinel analysis shows McPherson has reason to be optimistic.

Based on how many absentee votes each candidate picked up at individual polling places and the number of absentee votes still to be counted in those precincts, the former state lawmaker and Secretary of State may be able to add 205 votes to his lead once the clerk's tally is complete.

That would give McPherson a more comfortable lead in his bid to return to public office, with county election workers still to sort through 9,000 provisional ballots countywide. About 80 percent of those typically are ruled valid.


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In addition, there are more than 1,500 "under-votes" in the 5th District, a number that likely would surpass 2,000 once all absentee ballots are opened. Under-votes are ballots in which no vote was recorded for the supervisor's race, but can include unforeseen votes upon closer examination.

The Sentinel's analysis assumes that voting patterns among those who returned their mail-in ballots early hold steady, which the Hammer campaign believes won't be the case.

Of the 20 polling places with the highest numbers of mail ballots to be counted, McPherson won 12 to Hammer's eight. Of those, seven were precincts where McPherson won 60 percent or more of the vote so far, compared to four that went for Hammer by the same margin.

The count released Friday includes mail-in ballots returned within three days of Tuesday's election. Hammer, a San Lorenzo Valley contractor making his first bid for countywide office, believes those voters are more likely to support him.

He points to Election Day in-person voters, where he beat McPherson, 5,215 to 4,926. McPherson's slim lead is due to the more than 8,000 absentee votes that already have been tallied.

Hammer said that shows later voters support him, and he believes his absentee voter base in the San Lorenzo Valley is more likely to turn in their ballots closer to the election.

"Typically, in Scotts Valley and Santa Cruz, they get their ballots in right away," Hammer said, referring to regions that appeared to back McPherson.

McPherson and his campaign manager did not returns phone call seeking comment.

But when precinct-level voting patterns are examined using absentee and same-day voters, McPherson still pads his lead by 61 votes, according to the newspaper's analysis.

It is when same-day voting patterns only are studied that Hammer closes the gap. Under that method, he would pick up 22 votes, closing the margin to a mere four votes.

Friday, Hammer was packing for a Las Vegas holiday with his wife, saying he felt like he'd already won. He said he planned more dancing than gambling.

"I am going to put some money on 26, though," Hammer said.

Follow Sentinel reporter Jason Hoppin on Twitter at Twitter.com/scnewsdude