By Jim Sanders
Published: Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2010 – 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2010 – 12:05 am

Steve Cooley flashed a two-finger V sign at his election night party, thanking supporters for making him California’s new attorney general.

“Although my highly paid, close advisers say it may be a little too early, I’m declaring victory,” Cooley told a cheering crowd at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles.

Problem was, Cooley had not won – and over the past week, vote totals have seesawed, leaving the race between Cooley and Democrat Kamala Harris still too close to call.

To voters such as Marcia Battershell of El Dorado County, such blunders are a reminder that election night projections – whether by the media, consultants or candidates – are not infallible.

“There’s a misconception among the electorate that these people are officially the winners, but they’re not,” Battershell said.

Most voters still remember the presidential election debacle of 2000 in which TV networks gave Florida’s 25 electoral votes to Al Gore on election night in a blunder blamed on underestimation of absentee voting.

Battershell said she was disappointed to hear immediately after polls closed last week that Jerry Brown and Democratic U.S. Rep. Barbara Boxer had won bids for governor and the House of Representatives, respectively.

Winners in the two key races were announced after only a fraction of votes had been counted. Hours later, election night ended with about 2 million votes uncounted – and Brown and Boxer leading by margins of less than 1 million votes.

“It doesn’t make sense to me,” Battershell said of early projections. “It just seems like a lot of votes (remaining).”

Others say that once a winner is evident and the polls are closed – ensuring that no voter can be influenced – the media must report it.

“Most voters don’t want to stay up all night,” said Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles. “They want to know who won.”

News Editor David Pace, who helps Associated Press project winners of key races nationwide, said the “people who win are happy to know as soon as they can.”

For top contests such as those of Brown, Boxer and the marijuana initiative, Proposition 19, AP could make projections shortly after balloting ended by comparing initial vote tallies – such as partial vote-by-mail returns – with exit polling it had done earlier that day at dozens of precincts and with telephone surveying of absentee voters completed shortly before Election Day.

The margin of error for the exit polling in each of the three races was plus or minus four percentage points, and to project a winner, “our standard at AP is that we want the lead to cover the margin of error three times,” Pace said.

Exit polling was not available for the eight other ballot measures or scores of other races on the Nov. 2 ballot.

Two U.S. House races remain too close to call – incumbent Democrat Jerry McNerney vs. David Harmer in District 11, and incumbent Democrat Jim Costa vs. Andy Vidak in District 20.

AP did not project a winner in the Cooley-Harris race for attorney general.

At least one newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, briefly called Cooley the victor on its website as midnight approached and he led the election night tally. The paper quickly killed its projection, however, after closer examination of vote distribution. By early the next morning, Harris had squeezed ahead.

Both attorney general candidates remain cautiously optimistic, with Cooley overtaking Harris last weekend and leading by nearly 51,000 votes Tuesday with more than a million left to count.

For the first time in any California gubernatorial election, more votes were expected to be cast this year by mail ballot than in precinct booths – 55 percent to 45 percent, a Field Poll estimated. Final figures have not been released.

The trend could be a mixed blessing. Mail ballots delivered early can be folded into initial election night tallies, thus assisting in projecting winners. But absentee ballots taken to precincts or delivered on Election Day are not counted for days or weeks.

Absentee votes have typically tilted right in years past, but the Field Poll concluded that the soaring popularity of mail ballots has virtually eliminated partisan differences, with 45 percent of gubernatorial mail ballots expected to be cast by Democrats and 40 percent by Republicans.

Official statistics are not yet available, but an estimated 3 million mail ballots were included in election night tallies, and about 2 million additional mail ballots remained to be counted afterward, said President Gail Pellerin of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials. Overall, more than 9.5 million votes were cast.

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