SANTA ANA — With all 71 precincts reporting, former Mayor Sandy Genis and current Councilmen Steve Mensinger and Gary Monahan are the top three vote-getters in the Costa Mesa City Council race. Voters were able to choose three of eight candidates.
But with potentially thousands of provisional and vote-by-mail ballots still uncounted, and with fourth-place candidate John Stephens trailing Monahan by 319 votes as of 5 p.m. Wednesday, the local attorney said he's not ready to concede.
"We still have a shot," Stephens said Wednesday morning, as he observed ballot-counting at the Orange County Registrar of Voters' headquarters. "It depends on how many votes haven't been counted in Costa Mesa."
Stephens was one in a small pack of council candidates and supporters on both sides of the "3Ms" and Costa Mesans for Responsible Government divide who showed up at the registrar's office to watch some of the remaining Orange County ballots be counted — a process that could take days, as there are approximately 260,000 of them.
The number of provisional ballots left to count as of 5 p.m. Wednesday was about 78,394, which does not include vote-by-mail ballots.
Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley said updated results will be available at 5 p.m. daily until results are certified in about two weeks. Those updates, he added, are unique to Orange County in California.
The practice of observing counting operations, he said, is not uncommon with close races.
"I've been through this tons of times," Kelley said over the steady hum of vote-by-mail envelopes zipping through machines and the shuffling of papers in the office's warehouse. At picnic tables nearby, seasonal county workers stacked and sorted forms to be counted, while others studied signatures on hundreds of orange provisional ballots.
Kelley told the group — which also included a few people interested in other tight contests, like the one between Assemblyman Chris Norby (R-Fullerton) and Fullerton Mayor Sharon Quirk-Silva — they are free to roam around most of the facility or peek over some workers' shoulders.
Although observers are welcome to challenge the validity of ballots based on factors like whether the ballot and envelope signatures match, Kelley said that most challenges won't disqualify the votes.
"You may have an interest in a campaign, and you might try to start challenging everything," he warned. "That'll die real quick."
Which means it's still a long shot for Stephens — though Monahan's lead narrowed slightly from Wednesday morning to late afternoon.
If the current election results hold up, Mensinger and Monahan, two of the "3Ms," will keep their council seats and maintain the council majority, led by Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer.
The "3Ms," which also included Planning Commission Chairman Colin McCarthy, campaigned together on a hard-line antunion platform of fiscal reform and backed the failed Measure V, which would have established a city charter. Mensinger, with 16.1% of the counted votes, and Monahan, with 15.8%, garnered second and third place in the polls, respectively.
Genis, who ran with Stephens and Harold Weitzberg as part of the "Top 3" slate, ran on a platform opposed to what some have deemed drastic and overly hasty action by the current council majority. Genis, a former mayor who led the recent fight to block the sale of the Orange County Fairgrounds, took the most votes, with 17.7%.
Stephens, meanwhile, earned 15.4% of the counted vote. McCarthy trailed Stephens by 188 votes. He got 15.1% of the counted votes.
Weitzberg took the sixth spot with 13.2% of the counted votes and the remaining two candidates, Al Melone and James Rader, took 6.6% between the two of them.
While representatives on both sides said it's too early to say whether they'll contest the ultimate result, each side said they didn't want the other side to have any influence over the counts while at the registrar's office.
"I'm here as an observer," Mensinger said. "We just want to make sure there's an equitable resolution."
Monahan, said Mensinger, planned to stop by to observe later in the day. Monahan could not be reached for comment Wednesday afternoon.
Newport-Mesa school board member Katrina Foley, who has been active in the Top 3 slate's campaign and is a strong supporter of Stephens, said she's not concerned about the county workers.
"It's a little surprising, the team that came from the Righeimer crew," she said. "We just wanted to make sure nothing is being done to disrupt the process."
"[Observing] helps tremendously," Kelley said. "They see the level of detail in the counting process," which reassures candidates and their representatives.
McCarthy added, "They're here to observe and we're here to observe. Others are here to observe other races. You've got to see it through to the end."