Voting advocates allege problems at Los Angeles polls (CA)
Carla Marinucci, John Wildermuth,Joe Garofoli San Francisco Chronicle 05 February 2008
Polls were still open in California when the first challenges were raised Tuesday to ballots and voting procedures that progressive advocates - and the campaign of Sen. Barack Obama - suggested Tuesday were designed to discourage and confuse millions of decline to state voters.
"This is definitely a Florida," said Rick Jacobs, who heads the Courage Campaign, the California-based progressive grassroots 527 group whose partners include Common Cause and MoveOn.org.
Jacobs said that his group, which held a conference call with the Obama campaign Tuesday, has moved to mount a legal challenge to the Los Angeles County voting system, charging that confusing procedures in that major urban area could disenfranchise the estimated 776,000 "decline to state" voters there.
The Los Angeles system requires that decline-to-state voters not only ask specifically for a Democratic ballot - but also fill in a special bubble on the ballot specifically indicating their desire to vote on the Democratic presidential ticket. Failure to fill in the bubble voids their presidential ballot.
The Courage Campaign has contacted Los Angeles County election officials "demanding that they count the votes and that they inform voters of this 'bubble trouble,"' said Jacobs. "They finally agreed they didn't know how to count the votes."
But the system has been publicly approved for some time: a similar ballot has been in use for several elections - since 2004 in Los Angeles - and Secretary of State Debra Bowen gave final approval to the county's unique Inkavote lection system at the beginning of this year.
In addition, the Obama campaign in San Francisco sent out emails to decline to state voters, warning them that they must specifically request Democratic presidential ballots if they want to vote in the party's primary - after it said they had received complaints from voters who had been denied such ballots in a number of Bay Area counties.
But Averell "Ace" Smith, campaign manager for California campaign of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, said he is mystified by the Election Day complaints from the Obama team, since the rules for decline to state voters - specifically the requirement that request Democratic ballots - have been a matter of public record posted on the California Secretary of State's web site for months.
"Every California campaign has known the ground rules on this for three months," he said. "I can't imagine why they waited until 2 pm. on Election Day to wake up ... it strikes me as strange. If you wait until the last minute to complain, they must really be worried we're going to win."
"We've certainly worked with our voters for months and months" to educate them on the process, he said. "They're blaming other people for not having done their homework...this is is nothing more than a cynical attempt to create confusion."
The battle over the decline to state, or independent, voters, could determine the outcome of the Democratic election in the nation's most populous state, where both Obama and Clinton are locked in a dead heat battle. Decline to states make up nearly one in five California voters - and they can weigh in and cast Democratic ballots this year, though because of rules adopted by the California Republican Party, they are not allowed to vote on the GOP side.
Through Tuesday afternoon, the Secretary of State's Voter Information Hotline was fielding about 1,000 calls an hour, but most of them were from people asking help in finding their polling places, said Kate Folmar, a spokeswoman for Secretary of State Debra Bowen.
"We're hearing the traditional complaints we get every election, including some about decline to state voters having problems getting Democratic ballots," she said. "But the complaints are scattered and don't show any trend."
"People have to remember that by California law, poll workers aren't required to proactively offer a decline to state voter a partisan ballot. They have to ask for one."
The California Secretary of State's web site states that if decline-to-state voters do not request a specific ballot, they "will be given a nonpartisan ballot containing only the names of candidates for nonpartisan offices."
But both Steve Kauffman, an attorney with the Courage Campaign, and Oakland attorney Tony West, who represents the Obama campaign, told reporters in a conference call that many decline to state voters - and local pollworkers - did not appear to understand those rules as they went to the polls Tuesday.
"Many voters are showing up at the polls today asking for (Democratic ballots) ... and are being denied those ballots by poll workers who may be uniformed on the issue - or are not clear on what their responsibilities are," said Kauffman, who did not say how many complaints have been received.
Many independent voters, he said, "are not aware of what they are supposed to do to ask for a Democratic ballot," and are "simply pointed to the (independent) booths, which will not allow them to vote for any presidential candidate."
Kauffman, asked if there could be possible legal challenges to the ballots if the election comes down to the wire, said that his office "is working with the (Los Angeles) county registrar and the secretary of state's office" to ensure a satisfactory outcome.
"We are hopeful that (they) will implement procedures that will enable these votes to be counted ultimately," he said. "If that does not happen, then I think you will see the possibility of legal challenges that may take place."
But Jacobs said the Courage Campaign is "ready to challenge to Los Angeles County registar of voters immediately," and has demanded that the office study a large sample of the physical ballots "to see how big a problem this is."
"We've gotten at least two dozen calls so far, and radio shows have been called by people (concerned that they) didn't fill in that bubble," said Jacobs.
Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Federation, a nonpartisan voter watchdog organization, said she believed that the LA County procedures represent "an unnecessary extra step" for voters.
"I understand why LA County does is, but I think there is the possibility that some voters will be unwittingly disenfranchised," though the county has chosen the system because it is more economical and enables them to count ballots faster, Alexander said.
And she said it could have major implications.
"It is a big deal in this election because California voters finally have a say in a presidential primary and LA is the state's largest voting district" encompassing all or parts of 12 Congressional Districts, she said. In California delegates are awarded to the candidates based on how well they do in the popular vote in a congressional district, and "if there is a big undercount, it could change the delegate count."
But there have been other troubles on the horizon in the current election: the Clinton campaign said it has asked the Alameda County registar to look into a Politico.com report in which a Green Party voter suggested he was allowed to cast a Democratic ballot.
Under the current law, only voters registered "decline to state" or Democratic can cast ballots in the Democratic presidential primary; Green Party, American Independent Party and other political party members can only vote in their own party primaries.