Technical glitches arise during switch to computerized voting
UNION-TRIBUNE By Karen Kucher and Angelica Martinez November 7, 2006
SAN DIEGO – Election Day in San Diego County began with technical glitches reported in dozens of precincts early Tuesday, with frustrated voters unable to use computerized voting machines and forced to use paper ballots instead.
But county Registrar of Voters Mikel Haas said the problems were “sporadic and nothing systematic” and said a team of technicians were responding to complaints.
Voting machine glitches were reported across the county, mainly in the early hours after the polls opened at 7 a.m.
James Secrest said he almost gave up and went home Tuesday because the machines at Palmer Way Elementary School in National City were not working when he went to vote around 8 a.m.
Secrest, 70, said the workers at the poll didn't know how to work the machines.
“They gave us a pencil and paper,” he said. “It was very unorganized. I've been going there for 30 years and this is the worst I've seen it.”
He said there was a line of voters in the school library and no privacy for voters filling out the paper ballots.
“They weren't ready for it,” he said. “I wanted to vote but being the mess it was, I wanted to leave.”
Voting machines also weren't working when Jim Gogek went to vote at the Little Flower Haven convent on La Mesa Boulevard around 7:30 a.m.
He said voters were given absentee ballots and people sat on the floor filling them out, though there weren't enough pens for the voters who were waiting.
“I don't have much faith in these people's computer literacy skills. A lot of people who were voting were pretty disgusted,” Gogek said.
The county is using 10,200 Diebold touch-screen machines in 1,650 precincts. Officials have called the machines user-friendly and said they expected them to make voting less confusing. The machines, first used in March 2004, have been retrofitted to include paper records of ballots cast.
Haas said the registrar's office had 350 computer technicians ready to respond to problems Tuesday.
“A lot of it is just inexperience with the new system,” Haas said. “We knew it was going to be a wild morning, anytime you've got some assembly required.”
Haas said he did not know how many precincts were encountering problems with the computerized voting machines.
Some problems were easy to fix. In one precinct, workers simply needed to plug in the computers to make them work.
The computers had been running on back-up batteries, which only last about three hours. When they called to report a problem around 10 a.m., Haas said, technicians knew it was a quick fix.
“You need to plug them in,” Haas said. “They were running them on battery power.”
In some cases, the computer mishaps meant that some ballots had to be cancelled and that voters had to try several times to vote.
Mark Knoll, 35, said it took him nearly an hour to vote at a home in San Carlos because he was waiting for the computers to work properly.
“I actually voted three times,” he said.
The computers were not running when he arrived at 7 a.m. and after several minutes of waiting, the voting machine jammed twice and his vote had to be cancelled both times, Knoll said.
“It was amazing. It was absolutely amazing,” he said.
The technical difficulties made Knoll long for past Election Days.
“I don't know what's wrong with the old way,” Knoll said. “I especially worry about my parents who aren't computer savvy.”
Anne Carter, 58, of San Diego, agreed.
She said she waited about a half hour to vote electronically at St. Paul's Community Center in Banker's Hill where she has voted for about 20 years but in the end she asked for a paper ballot instead.
“Everyone was having a hard time with the machines. They didn't know how to work them,” Carter said. “I'm very, very, very scared about this election.”
Rob Thornbush, 47, said none of the voting machines were working at Deer Canyon Elementary School in Rancho Peñasquitos when he went to vote around 9 a.m. He said poll workers told him they weren't given the codes to start the machines when polls opened.
“Everyone was required to vote by paper versus using the new machines,” he said. “It looked like the paper was going fast.”
Malfunctioning machines plagued voters who turned out in force at Escondido's Hidden Valley Middle School. Turnout was so heavy that precinct worker Shari Tanner worried she might run out of paper ballots.
By noon, however, the precinct had gotten a fresh shipment of paper ballots and a troubleshooter from the county Registrar had fixed five of the six machines set up on the tiny stage in the school's auditorium.
The computer technician, Robert Bender, said the machine had been jammed by a plastic credit-card sized voter card. “The cards get jammed sometimes,” he said.
At a polling place on Madison Avenue in University Heights, so many people asked to vote on paper that election workers temporarily ran out of paper ballots printed in English. The electronic voting machines at the polling place were functioning normally, but dozens of people opted not to use them.
Some English-speaking voters who wanted to vote on paper agreed to cast their ballots on ballots printed in Spanish.
In Vista, Cynthia Bond arrived at her polling place at the New Community Church in Vista to find two of the five machines were inoperable and a third appeared to be malfunctioning.
“The thing that most concerned me was the lack of organization and the lack of technical skill to get the machines running and almost a sense of complacency,” she said. “(The poll workers) were trying, but they didn't know what they were doing.”
Even in precincts where there were computer glitches, Haas stressed that voters were still able to cast their ballots.
“That's exactly what we train to do,” he said. “If you don't have all of your touch screen units up and running or none of them are up and running at 7 o'clock, that's why we put those backup ballots out there.
“We are not seeing a situation where people are turned away.”
Despite such reassurances, many voters complained that the alternative to electronic voting, the paper method, was chaotic and lacked privacy.
And several said it was their worst voting experience ever.
“The poll workers were having difficulty putting the machines together and there was a lot of noise and chaos while voters tried to find places in the room to sit, stand, or squat to complete a paper ballot,” Kim Baker wrote in an e-mail about her voting experience in Linda Vista.
Some polling places were nearly crippled by a failure of the new technology until help arrived.
None of the six electronic voting machines at Kimball Senior Center in National City were functioning Tuesday morning. Volunteer Emelinda Ignacio and her crew had all voters use paper ballots while she waited for a troubleshooter to arrive.
She stored the cast paper ballots in a cardboard box.
“We do not have the machine to count the (paper) ballots,” she said, speculating that perhaps the Registrar's office had banked on the electronic machines working.
“I don't want to be held accountable if they're not counted. We don't have the machines,” Ignacio said.
The glitches, though, seemed to be ironed out by mid-morning in some polling places.
For instance, only one of seven machines was working in the garage of a residence on Valley Lake Road in El Cajon when that polling place first opened.
All of the machines were working within 20 minutes, however, after a troubleshooter stopped by, aided by Valhalla High School senior Matt Mekany, 16, who was volunteering as a poll worker.
“For the most part, people were very patient,” said poll worker Diane Arestad.
And many poll workers reported only smooth sailing.
“People are really enjoying our touch-screens,” said poll worker Gary Baldwin, at the La Mesa Senior Center. “We expected a million problems. We haven't had any.”
Anne Hall of La Mesa was pleased with the machines after casting her ballot at the senior center.
“I thought it was very clear,” she said. “I was afraid of it, but it was fine.”
Others, though, clearly distrusted the new system, fearing it could be hacked or their votes would not be counted.
That's why Guillermo Cornejo of Otay Mesa asked for a paper ballot. But his polling place seemed ill-prepared for that, he said. He had to lean against the wall and fill out his ballot.
He was infuriated.
“It was no secret ballot.”
Staff writers Michael Stetz, Sherry Saavedra, Lisa Petrillo and Liz Neely contributed to this report.