The fight for Oregon's top education job still is undecided, with incumbent Susan Castillo maintaining a tenuous lead over Grants Pass state Rep. Ron Maurer.

The fight for Oregon's top education job still is undecided, with incumbent Susan Castillo maintaining a tenuous lead over Grants Pass state Rep. Ron Maurer.

On Wednesday, Castillo, superintendent of public instruction, had a 2,829-vote edge over Maurer with thousands of ballots still to be counted. Castillo will need 50 percent of the total votes cast plus one, to retain her job. It's possible neither would capture the necessary total, due to write-in ballots.

With write-in ballots included, Castillo only has about 300 votes more than the 50 percent required out of a total of 697,653 ballots. If Castillo falls below the 50 percent mark, she and Maurer would face off in the general election.

"We don't know what is going to happen," said Don Hamilton, spokesman for the Oregon Secretary of State's Office. "It's very close."

About 7,000 contested ballots from the May 18 primary still are being processed in county clerks' offices across the state, which could change the results.

While the race is officially a nonpartisan contest, Republicans across the state are keeping their fingers crossed for the unlikely upset by Maurer, a GOP legislator.

They are encouraging Republican voters whose ballots may have been challenged to ensure they verify their votes if they receive an inquiry from their county clerk. Many of the challenges are the result of signatures that do not appear to match signatures on file.

An e-mail sent out locally by state Rep. Sal Esquivel, R-Medford, reminded his audience that anyone with a contested ballot has only until Friday to show up in person at the county clerk's office.

"Don't wait to get this message out, but do try your best to target folks that you think voted for Rep. Ron Maurer in this election," the e-mail said. "... Castillo's supporters are already out there getting this word to (other) Castillo supporters."

An automatic recount is required if the winner's margin is less than one-fifth of 1 percent of the votes cast for the two top finishers. In this election, that would be about 1,400 votes.

A recount can be demanded by a candidate or another party, but the person who requests it must pay for it. The last statewide recount in Oregon was over Measure 53 in May 2008, and the total cost was $113,247.92.

If the recount produces a different result, which is rare, the person who requested it does not have to pay for it.

While 7,000 ballots remain to be counted, not all of them will produce a vote. Many voters don't vote for either candidate. In Jackson County 6,462 voters alone didn't vote for anyone in the superintendent race, and the statewide "undervote" was about 100,000.

Maurer trounced Castillo in Jackson County, with 59 percent of the vote in Jackson County compared to Castillo's 41 percent. He took 26 of Oregon's 36 counties, but lost to Castillo in many of the most populous counties, including Multnomah, Lane and Washington.

Hamilton said the remaining contested ballots include those where the voters' signatures don't match the signature on record, or the voter turned in the ballot in a county other than his or her county of residence.

Local election officials have been contacting voters whose signatures don't match those on record.

In one such ballot, Secretary of State Kate Brown's signature didn't match with records in Multnomah County where she registered when she was a state legislator, Hamilton said.

He said the counties have until June 7 to finish counting ballots. The state certifies the results on June 17.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476, or e-mail dmann@mailtribune.com.