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S.D. runs short of absentee ballots
Photocopies mailed; registrar says all votes will be counted
By Leslie Wolf Branscomb

November 3, 2006

If you got your absentee ballot in the mail and it looks suspiciously like a photocopy of a regular ballot, that's because, well, it is.

Unusually high demand and a printing order that wasn't filled fast enough caused the San Diego County Registrar of Voters to run short of absentee ballots this week. About 5,000 photocopies were mailed out instead, said Registrar of Voters Mikel Haas.

But there's nothing to fear, Haas said. “Their votes will be counted.”

When those ballots are returned, registrar's employees will copy voters' choices by hand onto regular card stock ballots that can be run through the optical scanners that count the votes.

Photocopied ballots were mailed in the same envelopes as regular absentee ballots. As with all absentee votes, the envelopes must be signed by the voter and verified by the registrar's office.

Although barely more than 1 percent of the 427,000 absentee voters will be affected, it has caused consternation in an election season that has seen a growing mistrust of new electronic voting machines.

“I just think it's bizarre that they literally transfer people's votes from one piece of paper to another,” said San Diego County Democratic Party Chairman Jess Durfee. “Any time you do that, there have got to be mistakes.”

“It's just another example of poor planning,” he said.

It's not illegal for a registrar's office to issue copies of ballots. The state Elections Code allows counties to use “reasonable facsimiles” of ballots.

Nor is it unprecedented. In the 2004 presidential election, 23 polling places in Sacramento County ran out of ballots on Election Day, and the registrar's office rushed photocopied ballots to the sites.

 Some didn't get there in time because of rush hour, and voters ended up tearing pages out of their sample ballots to vote on, said assistant registrar Alice Jarboe.

“In California, you can vote on a piece of scratch paper and send that in,” Jarboe said. “Photocopies, scratch paper, copies from the sample ballot book are all valid forms of voting.”

Haas said he realized a couple of weeks ago that the registrar's office was likely to run out of absentee ballots, so his office placed a supplemental order for 29,000 more. Such orders are usually filled within a day or two, he said.

“We waited and waited, and by Sunday, they still had not arrived,” Haas said. “It was my call to get the (photocopied) ballots out there, to get people something to vote on, so they're not getting their ballots three days before the election.”

Haas said the ballots were to be printed by Diebold, the same company that makes the electronic touchscreen machines that will be used Tuesday. Diebold officials told him there had been problems with the printing press operation, Haas said.

“Believe me, this isn't the way we wanted it to go,” Haas said. “But when 24 to 48 hours turns into three or four days, you finally say enough is enough.”

The supplemental ballots have since arrived, he said.

But not before about 50 confused voters had called the registrar's office to complain.

Alma Thigpen of Poway was among them. “When I opened it, the first thing I noticed was that it was a Xeroxed copy,” she said. “I just didn't think (it) was kosher.”

Registrar's employees explained the ballot remaking process, but Thigpen wasn't satisfied. “There just seem to be so many ways errors could be made,” she said.

Instead, she may go to the registrar's office and pick up a regular absentee ballot, or vote at her precinct on Election Day, Thigpen said.

The Democratic Party has asked to have observers on hand when the ballots are remade, which Haas said will be allowed. Haas said the photocopied ballots will probably not be processed on Election Day, but during the 28-day period allowed to finish counting votes before election results are certified.

To remake a ballot, one registrar's employee reads it, another marks a new ballot, then both check the results and sign off on it, Haas said.

It's done every election – although not with so many ballots, he said.

Ballots are remade for a variety of reasons. Absentee ballots that come in damaged or torn must be remade. Voters who cast provisional ballots at the wrong precinct must have their votes copied onto the correct ballot.

Military personnel and citizens living overseas may fax in their ballots, which also must be remade. In the 2004 presidential election, for example, 1,400 military members faxed their ballots to San Diego, although in this year's primary, only 30 did so.

“The votes still count,” Haas said. “It's just more work for us on the back end, because they can't be run through the scanner.”

This will most likely add time to what is already predicted to be an unusually long vote-counting process, which could leave close races in limbo for days or weeks.

A lawsuit demanding that all of the votes be counted on Election Day was filed this week, but it was summarily denied yesterday by the 4th District Court of Appeal.

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