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Two-term incumbent Ralph Becker must capture two out of three votes of the uncounted 4,996 ballots in order to pull even with Jackie Biskupski in the race for mayor of Salt Lake City.
While not impossible, such a late surge appears improbable.
Becker, who has yet to concede, said he was talking over the numbers with his campaign advisers.
Tuesday night, 33,130 ballots had been counted. Biskupski received 17,290 to Becker's 15,840 giving the challenger a lead of 1,450 votes, according to Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen. Biskupski's lead is equivalent to 52 percent to 48 percent.
Overcoming that deficit would be difficult given the number of remaining ballots, said Chris Karpowitz, Brigham Young University professor of political science and the co-director of Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy.
"It's not out of the realm of possibility," he said. "But in a tight race like this, it seems unlikely."
The tally of the uncounted votes must remain sealed until the official canvass, in accordance with Utah law. The statute was intended for provisional ballots but its broad language also applies to mail-in ballots. The law allows country clerks to schedule the canvass no sooner than seven days and no later than 14 days after the election.
Swensen said Thursday that Salt Lake County has traditionally set that date 14 days after the election, as it did this year, on Nov. 17. After Election Day, that canvass date can't be changed, she said.
If the numbers hold, Biskupski would be the first openly gay mayor of any major city in conservative Utah. (Willy Marshall became the first openly gay mayor when he was elected in the tiny town of Big Water in 2001.)
Although Biskupski led Becker 46 percent to 31 percent at the Aug. 11 primary, the mayor and his campaign pulled out the stops and bought TV ads, mailed a flurry of fliers and canvassed the city door to door. Beyond that, Becker shined in numerous debates with Biskupski.
During the final days of the campaign, Becker mounted a strong get-out-the vote effort that may have helped him narrow the gap.
In the end, Becker spent more than $860,000. Biskupski spent more than $530,000 and had help from a political action committee affiliated with Reagan Outdoor Advertising. The PAC, acting independently of the campaign, put up over a dozen billboards backing Biskupski.
After the unofficial vote tally Tuesday night, Biskupski she was confident she had won the election. But with the number of uncounted Salt Lake City ballots unknown, her campaign announced Wednesday morning that she would not comment further until the final vote count became public Nov. 17.
Thursday afternoon, however, Biskupski's camp said it was waiting for Becker to concede, so that she could move forward with a transition team.
"He would have to get 64 to 66 percent of the vote," said spokeswoman Maryann Martindale. "It's not happening. We're hoping he will come to the same conclusion: That Jackie won the race."
Martindale said the "holding pattern" is not good for the city.
"The important thing now is that we need to move on," she said. When he concedes "it will allow us to begin the transition and allow the city to move forward."
Upon hearing the latest update of the number of remaining ballots, Becker told The Tribune in a phone interview from Nashville, that he would need to consider the numbers before making the call on whether to concede or wait for the Nov. 17 vote certified tally.
The mayor was in Tennessee attending a meeting of the National League of Cities, where he currently serves as president.