Calif. election officials anticipating extended vote count
By ALLISON HOFFMAN, San Jose Mercury News
Associated Press, February 4, 2008
LOS ANGELES—Election officials throughout California worked furiously Monday to count as many early absentee ballots as possible, hoping to get caught up before an expected crush of Election Day ballots that could significantly delay final tallies.
More than 2.2 million mail-in ballots have been returned to registrars' offices. But with more than 3 million outstanding and an expected high turnout at polling places, registrars predicted as much as 25 percent of the overall vote may go uncounted on Election Night.
Among the factors expected to slow California's tally:
— Late-arriving absentee ballots will be tallied only after the precinct ballots are counted, and then only after a painstaking verification process. The sheer number of late-arriving ballots could leave registrars unable to call races until Wednesday, or later.
— A switch back to paper ballots has forced four of California's most populous counties—Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego and Santa Clara—to count ballots centrally, often with too few high-speed scanning machines to tally the votes rapidly. Los Angeles and Sacramento also will haul their ballots back to a single location.
— A lack of optical scanning machines at individual polling places means precinct workers will not be able to catch errors made by voters and have them correct their ballots. Any ballots that are incorrectly filled out will have to be reviewed, and in some cases hand-copied, at central counting locations.
"We're working as late as we can to get them all counted," Kathi Payne, the registrar in San Bernardino County, said Monday.
A shortage of high-speed scanners has left that county—with 723,661 registered voters—predicting the preliminary counting will go into Wednesday morning.
The return to paper ballots in 21 counties came after last year's security review of electronic voting machines by the secretary of state's office. The review found many of the machines could be hacked.
In Riverside County, a printing error scored as many as 60,000 absentee ballots so deeply that they fell apart when voters removed them from envelopes. That problem was slowing a team of 16 election workers, who were painstakingly hand-copying the last of roughly 35,000 ballots onto intact ballot cards Monday night.
"We've been able to streamline the duplication process so it should all be solved by tomorrow," Registrar Barbara Dunsmore said.
About 6,000 voters requested replacements.
Sacramento County officials also were dealing with an unexpected software glitch that caused their precinct scanning machines to reject some versions of the ballot, prompting the registrar to abandon them entirely and mandate central counting. That will stretch tallying into Wednesday morning, assistant registrar Alice Jarboe said Monday.
In addition to vote-tallying issues, some concerns had arisen about the voting process.
Voter-outreach groups criticized the ballot in Los Angeles County, saying it could disenfranchise independent voters.
The Democratic and American Independent party ballots given to independent voters who request them include an extra bubble specifying that the ballot is for that party's primary. The bubble appears before the list of presidential candidates.
If voters fail to mark that spot, the county's scanning machines will not read the ion for president.
Lawyers for the Los Angeles-based Courage Campaign said that violates California election law. The group sent a letter to Los Angeles County officials threatening legal action if the issue isn't addressed before Tuesday's election.
"We did talk to the county, and they admit it's a problem," Courage Campaign chairman Rick Jacobs said. "They just don't seem to know what to do about it."
Other groups, including the California League of Women Voters, said they had fielded numerous calls from independent voters asking how they could get a party ballot.
"These voters are getting ballots that are blank, because they're not in a party, and it did not seem clear to most of the decline-to-state voters that they could request a party ballot," said spokeswoman Elizabeth Leslie.
Independents account for nearly 20 percent of California's registered voters. The GOP does not allow them to vote in the Republican primary, but Democrats and some other parties do.
Los Angeles County's top election official said he did not think most voters would skip the required ballot entry. Primary elections in 2004 and 2006 had the same requirement.
"It would almost be counterintuitive for someone to miss," said Dean Logan, the acting county registrar. "We have put this information in voter education materials, and we've provided real clear instructions."