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Mail-in ballot count trying patience
Long lines, machines that didn't go online among unresolved issues

Californians' growing fondness for absentee voting is affecting how elections are counted and certified.
State election officials won't know until next month how many voters in the Nov. 7 general election voted absentee, but Secretary of State Bruce McPherson was expecting 44 percent would choose that option. The 2008 presidential election could be the first in which more than half of state voters cast ballots without going to the polls.
Source: California Secretary of State

Keith Matheny
The Desert Sun
November 29, 2006
Marguerite Butler showed up at her polling place at Carillo Ranch Elementary School in Indio to vote in the Nov. 7 general election. That's when a civic right became an ordeal.

After more than 90 minutes of waiting in line, with most of the on-site voting machines not working, Butler said she and her husband voted by absentee ballots a poll worker had retrieved - Palm Desert absentee ballots.

"We had to scratch out the names of their candidates and write in our candidates from Indio," Butler said.

Butler didn't get to vote on Measure M, a locally important proposed zoning change, because it wasn't listed on the non-Indio absentee ballot, she said.

"It was a nightmare," she said. "I don't even know if my husband's and my votes were counted."

Other prospective voters weren't as patient, Butler said. Many simply went home.

"One lady said she was coming back for the third time," Butler said.

"The people in Iraq had an easier time (voting) than we were having."

County officials are seeking to form a blue-ribbon committee to examine the problems surrounding the election - long lines in some polling places, voting machines that were delivered but never went online, machines that ran out of receipt paper, and more.

"There's just so many things that have to be looked at," said county Supervisor Marion Ashley.

County Registrar of Voters Barbara Dunmore did not respond to multiple messages left by The Desert Sun over Monday and Tuesday.

Among the issues county officials want examined is the two weeks after the election it took to count absentee ballots, leaving the outcome of numerous races in limbo, including the 80th State Assembly District.

Indio City Council candidate Rick Diaz still isn't conceding defeat. He trails Melanie Fesmire by 634 votes for the final available council seat. But thousands of provisional votes still haven't been counted in Riverside County, three weeks after they were cast.

"As far as I'm concerned, it's unresolved," Diaz said.

"I think it's unacceptable to everybody, not just because I was a candidate - or am a candidate, actually."

Coachella Valley Unified School Board member Gloria Maldonado was tied with candidate Manuel Jarvis Martinez after the initial vote count, then had to wait two weeks to discover absentee ballots gave her an 82-vote cushion.

"It was nail-biting to say the least," Maldonado said.

"I think something needs to be done."

On the county's election Web site, Dunmore earlier announced the opening and counting of absentee ballots not included in election night semi-official results would commence on Nov. 16 - nine days after the election.

"It makes everything at a standstill," Maldonado said. "We're all assuming that everybody is doing their job at that end, and then we're told, 'Guess what? You're going to have to wait now,' when we thought the counting was going on all along."

By state standards, however, all is well. California law does not require counties to certify their votes until 28 days after an election, which for the Nov. 7 election means Dec. 5.

"Obviously as technology advances and with instantaneous messaging, we all want results right away," said Nghia Nguyen, spokesperson for Secretary of State Bruce McPherson.

"But the important thing is to make sure the law is followed and the process is done correctly, so the integrity of the vote is intact."

County Supervisor Ashley said he believes a combination of a long, complicated ballot and a record- or near-record number of absentee voters led to more people leaving their votes on their kitchen tables, longer.

"You can't count them quick if you have all of these absentee ballots coming in at the last minute," he said.

In fact, state law says county election officials can prepare received absentee votes for counting up to a week before election day, but can't actually start counting them until the polls close.

As absentee voting becomes increasingly popular, that may become more of a headache for county election officials, candidates and citizens wanting quicker resolution to races.

"We have to figure out a way we can carry out the state laws faster," Ashley said.

When asked if Dunmore or her office has any culpability in the perceived election problems, Ashley responded, "I'm not going there at all."

"That's why we will have this panel," he said. "I think we need somebody who's not involved in the daily process to sit down, evaluate everyone's story, and look at here's what happened, here's how we can do it better next time."

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