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Voters head to polls

By Chuck Carroll   San Jose Mercury News    08 November 2005

Californians headed for the polls this morning to pass judgment on a series of ballot propositions including some pushed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger amid early reports of fairly light turnout in Santa Clara County.

There are also a number of local elections being contested, including ballot measures in Cupertino and Sunnyvale, and council races in Gilroy, Palo Alto, Cupertino and Sunnyvale.

No major problems with the 7 a.m. opening of the polls were reported, said Elma Rosas, spokeswoman for the Santa Clara County Office of Voter Registration. ``At this point, it does sound very smooth,'' Rosas said.

As of 11 a.m., she said, ``All in all, we're running about 30 to 35 percent of voter turnout at the precincts.'' She described turnout as ``fairly light'' so far, but said officials are still predicting a turnout of between 40 percent and 45 percent by the time the polls close at 8 p.m. That's in line with what officials are predicting statewide a turnout that they would consider reasonably good for a special election.

Four hours after the polls opened, most precincts had seen far fewer than 100 voters, but a few in San Jose, Campbell and Cupertino had as many as 119, Rosas said.

In Santa Clara County and elsewhere, absentee balloting is growing in popularity. In Santa Clara County, about 30 percent of the roughly registered 227,000 voters were issued absentee ballots. A little more than half of them had been returned to the main registrar's offices by today. That doesn't include those turned in at polling places today.

Rosasa said voting supervisors spent the first few hours making certain that the touch screen machines were working properly and that poll workers were in place. Once they were satisfied, they were to turn their attention to reporting on other matters, such as turnout.

The few early reports that were available, Rosas said, indicated turnout was ``fairly light.'' County and state officials have been predicting a turnout percentage in the low 40s.

The polls are open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Voters have shown little enthusiasm for the special election from the beginning, according to opinion polls. Led by labor unions, opponents have spent heavily to defeat the Schwarzenegger-backed measures. Total reported spending by all groups on both sides of the propositions is already at more than $262 million, making it the most expensive election in California history.

The governor, whose re-election ambitions may hang in the balance of today's outcome, called the special election now instead of waiting until the regular election scheduled for next spring, saying the ``reformist'' propositions he has championed were too important to wait.

Proposition 74 would make public school teachers wait five years instead of two to get tenure. Proposition 75 would require members of public unions such as teachers, firefighters and police officers to annually give written approval to the unions to use their dues for political purposes. Proposition 76 would cap state spending, force lawmakers to salt some money away during boom times as a cushion against falling revenue in the future, and allow the governor to make midyear across-the-board cuts to balance the budget. Proposition 76 would allow a panel of retired judges, instead of state lawmakers, to draw up political districts.

Other statewide measures, not proposed by Schwarzenegger, deal with energy re-regulation (Proposition 80), parental notification for a girl under 18 to have an abortion (Proposition 73), and competing prescription drug programs (Propositions 79 and 80). In some places, there are also local ballot measures and local races for elective offices.

A few voters called the Mercury News to report problems or complaints they encountered at the polls.

Joseph Gallegos Sr. of South San Jose, for example, said he was concerned that he had to try three times before he was satisfied that the machine he used recorded his vote correctly. Gallegos said he pushed the ``No'' button on the Schwarzenegger propositions, but a ``yes'' vote was indicated on the screen.

``I yelled out, `Do you have Arnold in there?' '' he said. The military veteran asked poll workers if he could use another machine, but they said no. Gallegos then remembered that the voting instructions mailed to his house told him to fix the problem, so he did. But when the vote-review page popped up for him to verify his ballot, it again showed he voted yes on some of those measures he opposed. After he cleared the machine and did it all over, the same thing happened. On the third try, the machine got it right, he said.

Gallegos said the poll workers were no help to him. ``If they were trained, they sure didn't show it today.''

Jeff Kahn, a voter in the Oakland Hills, said he had the same experience.

``My concern isn't about my vote, because I was able to figure out how to change it,'' Kahn said. ``My concern is all those other machines out there. Are they doing the same thing? Is this an honest vote?''

Also in Alameda County, voting officials said they heard from several voters who were confused when they saw system totals appear on their touch screens that seemed impossibly high. For example, a man who identified himself as Mr. Whister complained in a voice mail to the Mercury News that three machines at his precinct in Hayward had recorded hundreds of votes by the time he cast his ballot at just after the polling place opened at 7 a.m.

Since he was the first person to vote, Whister said he suspected there was ``something fishy'' going on. An election official, however, told the Mercury News that the number that appears on the bottom right of the screen represents a cumulative total of all the votes ever cast on that machine, not the number cast for the current election.

Santa Clara County uses a machine that doesn't show system totals.

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