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More wrong ballots mailed

Conejo, Ojai valleys both report mix-ups

By Charles Levin, clevin@VenturaCountyStar.com
October 27, 2006

The company that prints Ventura County's absentee ballots has mailed incorrect cards to some voters in the Conejo Valley, potentially tainting election results and robbing people of doing their civic duty in three races.

This is the second region of the county where voters got wrong absentee ballots from Sequoia Voting Systems, Gene Browning, chief of the county's Elections Division, said Thursday.

Absentee ballots are mailed as two cards with some pages targeting races in specific geographical areas.

In the Conejo Valley, at least three voters in the past week said their cards did not show races for the Ventura County Community College District Area 2, Conejo Valley Unified School District and the Conejo Recreation and Park District, Browning said.

Instead, they were asked to vote for candidates seeking spots on the Casitas Municipal Water District board, which serves the Ojai Valley.

It's unclear how much of the Conejo Valley was affected, Browning said. At least one of the three voters lived on Calle Pecos near Thousand Oaks, he said.

The area, known as "Ballot Type 57," covers four precincts and potentially affects 870 voters who received absentee ballots, Browning said.

The mix-up has also affected the Ojai Valley community of Miramonte, where 15 voters confirmed they had received incorrect ballots.

Instead of the Casitas Water District race, they got cards with candidates seeking the Simi Valley-based Fourth District seat on the county Board of Supervisors.

That area also involved four precincts and could have affected up to 220 registered absentee voters.

Sequoia has sent letters to all the absentee voters in both areas, informing them of the problem.

The explanation in both situations has been the same: An employee at Sequoia's Porterville printing operation stuffed envelopes with the wrong cards, Browning said.

No envelopes are opened yet

The Elections Division can send out new ballots but only if voters contact the county before officials open the envelopes, Browning said.

Sequoia and the county had mailed out a total 140,600 absentee ballots as of Thursday. Browning estimated that 13 percent, or roughly 18,278, had returned them so far.

None have been opened yet, Browning said.

To ensure accuracy, officials with the Elections Division compare the names and addresses on ballot envelopes with those in county registration records, Browning said.

The envelopes are then piled signature side down according to precincts. They are not opened until seven days before Election Day, Browning said.

Once they are opened by automated machines, the envelopes are packed away in boxes, and the ballots are run through scanning machines that record the votes, Browning said.

The county can not send out new ballots once the envelopes have been opened, Browning said.

Browning and County Clerk-Recorder Philip Schmit were dismayed over the snafu, saying they would demand improved quality control from Sequoia.

"This is exactly the kind of thing I don't want to happen," Schmit said.

"It puts a black mark against us, and it's out of our hands. So there will definitely be some changes made, so we can have some control over it."

The Oakland-based company has printed county election ballots for more than 20 years without a problem, Browning said.

Howard Cramer, Sequoia's vice president of sales, said Thursday that company officials would discuss ways to prevent the mistake from happening again.

"We certainly strive for perfection," Cramer said. "We prefer the number (of affected voters) was zero. Printing paper ballots is a human process, and people make mistakes."

Several experts said the mix-up could taint some races.

"If you wipe out one precinct, you possibly give advantage to one candidate and remove it from another," said Eric Smith, professor of political science at UC Santa Barbara, who specializes in voting and elections.

"It's not certain. It's just possible."

John Broesamle, a retired professor of political history at CSU Northridge, agreed. "Any time you have a snafu on this kind of scale, it can alter outcomes," Broesamle, an Ojai Valley resident, said.

Voters may miss warnings

Not everyone will see warning letters or read news media reports of the problem.

Some people vote absentee because they plan to leave town before Election Day, Broesamle said. Others will toss the warning letters, thinking they're junk mail, he added.

Studies show that voters with higher education and incomes are more likely to read the newspaper or open such letters, Smith said.

Browning declined to speculate on potential impacts to races.

Schmit doubted the mix-up would cause any problems, citing the low number of affected absentee voters.

Cramer agreed. "There's always a presumption that the voter has a certain amount of responsibility on their part of the process to cast their ballot," Cramer said.

"In this particular case, no one is being stopped from voting. We're making sure that they're voting with the correct ballot. I find it hard to believe it's a material issue, frankly."

The only solution to allegations of a tainted race is a special election, Smith said.

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