The state prison officers' union is backing Tony Thurmond, right, in his race for schools chief against Marshall Tuck, left.
Results in the race between Marshall Tuck and Tony Thurmond could take weeks.

The race between Marshall Tuck and Tony Thurmond for state superintendent of public instruction has been a multi-million-dollar nailbiter. Election Day has come and gone, however, and the winner is days or maybe even weeks from being declared.

Ditto for several congressional races and legislative seats that remained too close to call Wednesday. The reason: a combination of high turnout and California’s generous election laws, which routinely make for a notoriously slow vote count in this state.

County registrars have counted millions of ballots across the state, but millions more—including last-minute mail-in ballots—still need to be counted, thanks to a 2014 law that extended the voting window for Californians who vote by mail.

The popularity of mail ballots, combined with voter procrastination, automatically sets the state up for delays, but the law this year also let Californians cast provisional ballots on Election Day without advance registration.

The moves are all in the interest of encouraging every voter to participate and ensuring every ballot is counted, according to state elections officials. But they also routinely delay final counts, sometimes for up to a month in close elections.

For example, San Diego County still had 490,000 ballots to process as of Wednesday morning.  As of 3 p.m. Wednesday,Tuck, former CEO of the Green Dot Public Schools charter network, led Thurmond, a Richmond state Assemblyman, by 1.4 percentage points. That amounted to a difference of 86,902 votes.

Other races still too close to call include the California U.S. House District 48 race between Republican incumbent Dana Rohrabacher and Democrat Harley Rouda in Orange County; the state insurance commissioner race between Independent Steve Poizner and Democrat Ricardo Lara; and the Congressional District 10 race in the Central Valley between U.S. Representative Jeff Denham, a Republican, and his Democratic challenger, Josh Harder. All have significant policy and political implications for the state.

In the state superintendent contest, the latest results, which included more than 6 million votes cast, showed Thurmond carrying densely populated Los Angeles County and the Bay Area counties. Tuck, who so far has not trailed in voting returns, led most rural and inland California counties as well as San Diego County.

Thurmond said in a statement Wednesday morning that his campaign is prepared for a drawn-out race. His campaign said it expects to wait as many as two to four weeks for vote counts to be finalized.

“With millions of ballots left to come in, we are digging in and waiting for every vote to be counted,” said Thurmond, who saw returns at a gathering in Oakland. “The kids of California are in it for the long haul and we are too.”

Tuck watched Election Night returns with supporters at his home in the West Los Angeles neighborhood of Mar Vista. His campaign could not be immediately reached for comment.

The race for state superintendent was arguably one of the most hard-fought on the ballot this election. More than $60 million was spent in a campaign that featured negative attack ads from both sides and massive donations from teachers’ unions and the billionaire charter school advocates.

While the two candidates share many core similarities—they’re both Democrats—the race has been viewed as a long, high-stakes battle between teachers unions backing Thurmond and charter school supporters supporting Tuck. On Wednesday, that battle appeared to be getting longer, as officials continued their painstaking, ballot-by-ballot count.

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Ricardo Cano covers California education for CalMatters. Cano joined CalMatters in September 2018 from The Arizona Republic and, where he spent three years as the education reporter. Cano...