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Local absentee ballots lost

County voting officials speculate they may have been misplaced in mail.

By Doug Hoagland / The Fresno Bee 01 November 2004

Record numbers of voters in the central San Joaquin Valley have been sent absentee ballots this year, but some report they have not received them on the eve of Tuesday's general election.

Election officials in Fresno County report issuing the ballots to 36% of registered voters. The figure is 32% in Tulare County, 44% in Kings County and 46% in Madera County.

In Fresno County, however, some people are frustrated because their ballots have not yet arrived in the mail. Officials in Kings, Madera and Tulare counties said some absentee voters also have reported not getting their ballots.

Officials say relatively few people have been affected ? not enough for them to consider it a major problem.

Absentee voters who don't have their ballots yet still have options. Today and Tuesday, voters can go to their county election office and vote with a replacement absentee ballot.

Tuesday, they also can go to their designated polling places, where they will be given what is called a provisional ballot. It's the same ballot that other voters get, and it's counted after the absentee voter's eligibility is verified, election officials say.

California has allowed provisional voting since 1984, and now it's possible across the country because Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, also known as HAVA. The act provided $3.9 billion for states to make voting changes and educate voters and poll workers about them.

Fresno County was awarded more than $275,000. Tulare County was awarded $175,000 and Madera County nearly $40,000. Kings County did not apply for HAVA money.

HAVA was conceived in the aftermath of Florida's debacle with hanging chads, confusing ballots and disputed votes in the 2000 presidential election.

One absentee voter in Fresno worries that there could be a repeat of that Tuesday because she has not yet received her ballot.

"What is happening to our system?" asked Ilda Meacham of Fresno. "When did it get so hard to vote?"

Fresno County Clerk Victor Salazar said, "Certainly we are receiving some calls. We fully expected that."

As of Friday, his office had reissued 1,537 absentee ballots, most of them to voters who reported not getting their ballots in the mail. Fresno County issued 129,948 absentee ballots.

"I'm not saying we're error-free, because we're not," Salazar said. "But we address those problems. It's not a foolproof process, but the safety net is that they can always vote provisionally at a polling place."

In Tulare County, Elections Division Manager Hiley Wallis said 300 absentee ballots have been reissued to people who requested a ballot but didn't get one.

"I would say 300 is a pretty low percentage for us," Wallis said.

In Madera County, 395 absentee ballots have been reissued, some because people made mistakes in marking their first ballots, said Rebecca Martinez, county clerk-recorder.

Susan Conner, Martinez's chief assistant, does not know what happened to the ballots that didn't reach voters. "We put them in the mail and they don't arrive. ? They're leaving our office and weeks later, people say they haven't received them. We just don't know where the breakdown is."

Kings County has reissued 68 absentee ballots. Some people reported accidentally throwing away the first ones, and the U.S. Postal Service might have delivered others to the wrong addresses, said Elections Manager Ed Rose.

In Fresno County, Salazar said his staff might have misaddressed absentee ballots because they were unable to read the handwriting on registration paperwork. He could not identify anything else that might qualify as human error by his staff, and he added that his office experienced no computer problems with the absentee ballots.

Salazar said voters might not have the ballots because their requests arrived after the deadline last Tuesday, or the Postal Service might have made mistakes.

He said he is trying to be methodical about the absentee problems. "What's important is that it be a fact-finding approach rather than naturally assuming there's an error or mistake. The first thing we have to do is assess a particular individual's situation."

Absentee voter Meacham presents this situation: She is a Republican and plans to vote for President Bush. She is a permanent absentee voter, as allowed by a bill the California legislature approved in 2001. She said she was told by county election officials that she should have received her ballot around Oct. 1, but it never came.

"It's scary. This whole election thing is scaring me," Meacham said. "Four years ago, we had such a mess. ? If my candidate doesn't win, I'm going to feel that this election was stolen."

Meacham, who owns a hair salon, has switched customers' appointments Tuesday so she can go to her designated polling place and cast a provisional ballot.

Jean Wilson of Kingsburg didn't get her absentee ballot, and she intends to drive to the Fresno County Election Office to vote. Wilson, a retired teacher who proudly calls herself a liberal, supports Sen. John Kerry. She also is a permanent absentee voter.

Wilson has called the election office three times and has been told that her absentee ballot would arrive soon. Wilson said county officials did not explain to her what caused the problem.

She fears this will keep others from voting. "I can see it happening to a whole lot of people who aren't as determined as I am," she said.

Madera County's Martinez predicts absentee voting will grow in the future. "I think with everyone's busy schedules, people like the luxury of voting in their home. They don't feel pressure and they don't have to wait in lines."

In Madera County, 23,443 absentee ballots had been issued as of Friday. The numbers are 46,597 in Tulare County and 23,239 in Kings County.

Absentee ballots must be returned by 8 p.m. Tuesday to the county election office or any polling place in the county where the voter lives.

There's a message in such big absentee numbers, Salazar says. "It's clear to me that this election is resonating with the voting public."

Absentee votes should be among the first to be counted after the polls close at 8 p.m. Tuesday and county computers start spitting out numbers.

In Fresno County, the counting process will be different this year.

Salazar is taking extra precautions because of reports that terrorists might try to disrupt the national election.

Fresno County votes will not be transmitted over phone lines from polling places to the county computer that tabulates votes. Instead, drivers will bring voting machines from as far away as Coalinga and Shaver Lake to a downtown Fresno warehouse. From there, officials will bring the machines' memory cards to the nearby election office, where the cards will be fed into the county's computer system.

"The end result is that the final report will be delayed one to two hours, but given the concern for security, we think it's well worth it," Salazar said.

He agreed it's unlikely that terrorists would target Fresno County, but he added: "Nonetheless, we're safeguarding the process. It's much too valuable and much too important not to."

Officials in Kings and Tulare counties plan to transmit vote totals over phone lines. Rose in Kings County said the votes can be verified in the canvass that is always done after an election.

Wallis in Tulare County said extra steps have been taken to secure the system, but she declined to provide details.

Madera County does not use telephone lines.

Wilson, the absentee voter in Kingsburg, sees irony in Fresno County taking extra steps to protect the vote counting while she doesn't yet have the ballot she requested.

"I don't understand what's taking so long."

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