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Absentee ballots flood offices
Inside Bay Area  By Ian Hoffman, STAFF WRITER 08 November 2006

Huge numbers of Californians trooped to the polls Tuesday bearing yellow envelopes last-minute absentee ballots that contain the outcomes for the state's closest contests.

Elections officials said as much as 15 percent of the statewide vote could remain to be counted, leaving tallies uncertain for a swath of races from Lieutenant Governor, Secretary of State and at least one congressional seat down to dozens of local contests for city council, school board and water district.

Sonoma County has a love affair with the mail-in ballot, and its offices were flooded by more than 18,000 absentees over the last two days with another 15,000 expected at the polling places. In all, about 30,000 ballots remain to be counted.

"Some of my polling places get more absentees than walk-in voters," said Assistant Registrar of Voters Janice Atkinson.

The largest three counties with voters in the 11th U.S. House District, where Republican Richard Pombo trailed Democratic challenger Jerry McNerney, all have large numbers of outstanding ballots an estimated 25,000 or more in San Joaquin County, perhaps 30,000 in Alameda County and perhaps 27,000 in Contra Costa County.

In San Mateo County, said elections manager David Tom, "We may get as many as 15,000 in tonight."

Those are just absentees. There are provisional ballots as well, thousands of them in large counties. Statewide, the outstanding vote could number several hundred thousand and in the opinion of some officials top historical levels. By the end of the unofficial count, about one in 10 absentees remains to be counted.

"I think statistically with this much absentee, it'll be about 15 percent," said Steve Weir, chief elections official for Contra Costa County and president of the California Association of Clerks and Elections Officials.

Why did Californians hang on to their ballots until the 11th hour? Weir blames a long ballot. That's his excuse at least for putting off his own absentee until late in the game.

Pundits spread their bets between voter fatigue five statewide elections in five years and an uninspiring slate of contests, from a lopsided governor's race to just two barely competitive congressional races out of 52.

Sonoma County's Atkinson has a simpler answer. The popularity of absentee voting has been climbing steadily since the Legislature opened mail-in voting to ordinary folk, not just the ailing and afield. Typical absentee voters now include procrastinators, Atkinson said, and people plain curious about the final words of their politicians.

"They do like to hear the last-minute rhetoric. They don't want to miss a thing," she said.

The price is patience, though. In her county, a half dozen local races routinely are within 10 votes and will take days to decide. Likewise, the Secretary of State's race may be 10 percentage points apart and could take until as late as Dec. 16 to decide who California's elections chief will be?

"When you have this many absentee votes coming in late those candidates just have to take a deep breath because there's just no way of knowing," said Atkinson.

Voters ran into a veritable zoo of problems at polls across California, from power outages to jammed ballot scanners to electronic voting machines designed for access to disabled voters that either wouldn't work or weren't handicapped accessible.

Problems with touch screens and electronic ballot marking devices were reported in San Joaquin, San Diego, San Bernardino, Orange, Sacramento and Contra Costa counties, representing the products of every major voting machine vendor.

But those problems were largely isolated, not systematic breakdowns but evidence of persistent poor quality controls, bugs and lax training.

"They're all scattered, all normal Election Day issues," said Nghia Nguyen Demovic, spokeswoman for the Secretary of State's office.

Poll workers and voters in Ohio, Utah, Indiana and other states had more profound problems adjusting to new voting systems. In Chicago and surrounding Cook County, voters piled up outside when poll workers ran out of pens.

"There are lots of fender-benders, but no pileups," said Doug Chapin, head of the nonpartisan election reform clearinghouse, Electionline.org. "These are all relatively minor problems, but if we have those in a place that's really close then those turn into something really drastic."

Even places moving to less technology had some trouble. Alameda County hit a snag in its retreat from touch screens back to paper ballots for the first time in four years.

Poll workers in an estimated 100 polling places or about one in eight had ballots jam in legions of new optical scanners supplied by Oakland-based Sequoia Voting Systems.

The problem apparently was the ballot itself, printed by a private contractor, K&H Integrated Print Solutions, in Everett, Wash.

The ballots featured a perforated strip at the top with a voter number that poll workers were to tear off and hand to the voter before ing the rest of the ballot in the optical scanners.

But the perforations were poor to non-existent, according to poll workers and county elections officials, leaving a ragged edge that jammed in the scanners.

As late as 4 p.m., some poll workers still were trying to wrest ballots free of the machines and get them working again, said Guy Ashley, spokesman for the Alameda County registrar.

"We've had frazzled poll workers because when the machines don't work, they're worried that voters are going to be unhappy," he said.

But unlike in past years, when breakdowns in electronic-voting equipment caused long lines at the polls and sent some voters home without voting, the county's paper system allowed poll workers to continue taking ballots for scanning later. Boxes of ballots were being carried to high-speed central scanners capable of handling thousands of ballots an hour.

"The voters have been able to vote, and we're going to get their ballots scanned and counted tonight," Ashley said.


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