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Orange County, Calif., Electronic Voting Marred by Poor Training

The Orange County Register, Calif. Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News


Mar. 14 - Orange County's first run with new electronic voting machines was marred by poor training that left at least 1,200 people voting in the wrong precincts, others voting more than once and still others leaving the polls without voting at all in the March 2 primary.

Many poll workers received only a few minutes of hands-on training with the new high-tech voter system and were ill-prepared to handle glitches that bedeviled the election, an Orange County Register review of the voting shows.

Orange County Registrar of Voters Steve Rodermund acknowledged the problems but would not say whether any races were affected.

"What everyone I hope understands is this was the first time we brought this ($26 million) voting system out," Rodermund said. "We're going to be able to rectify and correct any of the issues in this election to make sure they don't happen in November."

Some are not sure that the balloting mistakes did not sink campaigns.

"It was a guinea pig election. I can't help but question the outcome more and more with everything I hear," said Claudia Alvarez, a Santa Ana Democrat trailing Tom Umberg by 437 votes in the 69th Assembly District race. "For all we know, we could be a thousand down or a thousand up when this is over."

In the closest race, Art Hoffman leads Jim Pantone by five votes for a seat on the Democratic Central Committee for the 69th Assembly District.

Some absentee and other ballots are still being tallied by hand.

Rodermund said the counting will be finished and the election certified by March 30.

The errors did not appear to be attributable to the machines, designed by Hart InterCivic of Austin, Texas, but rather with their operation by volunteers, many of them retired and with little experience in the high-tech world.

Volunteers interviewed by The Orange County Register said they got about three hours of lectures on the new devices but only about 10 minutes apiece of practice with the machines themselves.

"Half the people were not able to operate (them)," said precinct inspector William Fitzgerald, 60, of Anaheim. "My clerk-judge went through the class three times and the poor guy still struggled with it."

Orange County was the only county in California to use the paperless Hart voting system, featuring cyber-ballots and computer screens. Volunteers said they felt like they were cast into the deep end of the pool without swimming lessons as they opened their polling places.

"The training was abysmal," said Paul Kay, 59, a volunteer clerk from Fullerton.

"Many of us left the sessions exhausted, confused and with more questions than answers," said volunteer and former Democratic Party leader Howard Adler, 60, of Laguna Beach. "The next time we saw the machines was Election Day."

The training was designed by Hart and taught by Maximus Inc., a Reston, Va., government-services firm hired by the county to provide the system and the classes. More than 7,000 volunteers were trained over four to six weeks. While the sessions included hands-on time with the machines, some classes were so large that it's not known if everybody got a turn.

Inspector Joe Blasdel, 87, of Tustin figures he got five minutes. So he took the four-hour class again.

Clerk Gloria Duce, 76, was allowed to cast one practice vote on the machine during her class.

"We should have done that five or six times," Duce said.

Officials from Hart InterCivic said several factors contributed to the problems. First, training suffered because volunteers swamped the classes that were closer to the election rather than taking earlier sessions. Also, California's recall took about two months of preparation time away from Orange County's new system. Moreover, many election workers were first timers who had to learn basic polling instruction as well as operation of the new devices.

Add in a primary ballot with 22,000 different versions and mistakes were bound to happen, said Bill Stotesbery, spokesman for Hart InterCivic.

The same system was unveiled in Arlington, Va., for its Feb. 10 primary, with only minor problems, said Alexandria Registrar Tom Parkins.

"I probably had 15 complaints, and half of those were complaints from people who just didn't like the system," Parkins said.

Alexandria had only one ballot. And training sessions in Alexandria were limited to 25 people, Parkins said. Orange County sometimes had as many as 70 volunteers in a class.

In Orange County, Election Day mishaps began almost immediately, with some polling places unable to open as scheduled at 7 a.m. because volunteers couldn't get the machines assembled.

Voter Frank Acosta, 33, of Santa Ana was among the first in line in his polling place, but didn't get into a booth until 7:20 a.m., only to get the wrong ballot. He didn't get done until 7:45 a.m.

"In that time, eight or 10 people left (without voting) because they were frustrated with waiting. Some of those people had to get to work on time. So they couldn't vote," said Acosta, an investigation assistant with the District Attorney's Office.

For some poll workers, the day got worse. The voting system consists of a central device, called a judge's booth controller, that is hooked up to the individual voting machines, called eSlates.

Voters are given a four-digit access code from the controller, which they punch into the voting machine to see their ballot.

However, at some polling places, voters were given erroneous codes and got ballots for the wrong precincts, according to a Register computer analysis of county voting records.

The Los Angeles Times last week estimated that 7,000 incorrect ballots were given to voters in Orange County.

An Orange County Register analysis showed that at a minimum, 1,281 voters at 19 polling places were given wrong ballots.

More than half of the county's 1,122 polling places served people from more than one precinct. Voters at some of those polling places, it appears, were given a ballot for the wrong precinct.

This became evident when the Register found that in 20 of the county's 2,055 precincts, more votes were cast than there are registered voters in the precinct. The Register analyzed data provided by the registrar.

Some precincts with more than 100 percent of voters supposedly voting shared a polling place with precincts with abnormally low voter turnout.

For example, at Maple School, a polling place in Fullerton, records showed that 169 percent of those registered voted in one precinct, while only 5 percent cast votes in a neighboring precinct.

Given that the countywide average turnout was 37 percent, it appears some voters from the 5 percent precinct used the ballot intended for the overvoting precinct.

The number who got wrong ballots could be much higher than 1,281, but because of the way the new computer system records data, the full extent of the problem probably will never be known, officials said.

However, election officials contend that the ballots belonging to the neighboring precincts were virtually identical in most cases, so no races were affected.

The data kept by voting officials doesn't allow for analysis of the extent of another problem: Many poll workers told the Register that they allowed some frustrated voters to cast their ballots twice.

Some mistakenly pressed the button to cast their ballots before they were finished voting.

"I had six people vote twice," said Anaheim inspector Fitzgerald. "They take a bus in the rain to get to the polling place and you're going to tell them, 'You just sent an empty ballot?'"

Fitzgerald said he took people's word that they didn't get to vote on the original ballot.

"One guy, 32, with pierced ears, didn't look like an activist or anybody who would vote twice," said Fitzgerald. "and I didn't want him embarrassed in front of his wife and kids."

By Tony Saavedra, Martin Wisckol and Natalya Shulyakovskaya

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