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Gaming initiatives in lead as voters crowd polls  (CA)

John Cote,Jonathan Curiel     San Francisco Chronicle    06 February 2008

(02-05) 21:52 PST San Francisco -

After precincts in Alameda County ran out of ballots today, a judge ordered polling places with waiting voters to stay open until 10 p.m., the Alameda County Registrar of Voters said.

An Alameda County Superior Court judge made the decision to remain open after several cities in the county - including Berkeley - had no real ballots for voters to use. Some voters used ballots that were paper copies of genuine ballots.

But even as Alameda County polls remained open tonight, ballots were being tallied everywhere else, with initial results favoring the four state propositions - 94, 95, 96 and 97 - that would allow four Southern California Indian tribes to add new slot machines.

In early returns, state voters were also rejecting Proposition 93, which would put limits on terms of state legislators; Proposition 92, which would have reduced Community College fees; and Proposition 91, which would have limited the way transportation taxes are used.

In San Francisco, early returns had voters passing all three city measures: Proposition A, which would pour money into improving city parks and playgrounds; Proposition B, which would change police officers' retirement plans and likely put more police on the street. Also in front: Proposition C, which urges the city to buy Alcatraz from the federal government.

In Alameda Country, the voting problems overshadowed everything.

"We've ordered all 810 polling places in Alameda County to stay open if anybody is waiting to vote - to stay open as late as 10 p.m. due to the ballot shortages that plagued some of our polling places," said Guy Ashley, spokesman for the Alameda County Registrar of Voters.

Fourteen precincts, located in Oakland, Berkeley, Hayward and Fremont, ran out of ballots. Ashley said the judge who ordered the precincts to stay open consulted with a state administrative office, which oversees the court, and "advised us that that was the best course of action," Ashley said.

"This is a unique situation in that we've only been using paper ballots for two years. You have paper ballots and a turnout that is beyond our wildest dreams," Ashley said.

Polling places in Santa Clara County also stayed open past 8 p.m., to accommodate waiting voters, but in other Bay Area counties, precincts reported no serious problems despite high turnout.

The biggest problem in Santa Clara was at the Sunnyvale Elks Lodge, where voters had to use sample ballots from their election packets. The polling station was prepared to let voters use electronic voting machines that had been decertified by the state. Some who voted Democratic were given ballots whose primary language was in Vietnamese or Tagalong but that also listed the candidates in English.

Polling places across Santa Clara County ran short of Democratic primary ballots, forcing poll workers in some places to turn to Vietnamese and Chinese language ballots, sample ballots torn from election pamphlets and ultimately notebook paper.

"We had to use everything we had to survive," said Willie Regalado Jr., the county elections inspector assigned to the Sunnyvale Elks Lodge.

More than a dozen people trying to vote in the Democratic primary at that polling station were almost turned away without casting ballots after paper ballots ran out and the only electronic voting machine at the polling place malfunctioned. The Republican ballots did not run out there.

Only the determination of an independent election observer and the quick thinking of a software engineer waiting to vote who fixed the touch-screen machine saved the day for the 13 people waiting to cast their ballots. The last ballot was cast there about 40 minutes after the scheduled 8 p.m. closing time.

Regalado, after a frustrating series of phone calls to the county elections office, at one point told those who had been in line since before the doors closed at 8 p.m. that they couldn't vote. An independent election observer, James Beaufore, then stood up and said voters could hand-write their choices on blank pieces of paper.

As voters began doing that, Marc Lavine, a bespectacled 43-year-old software engineer, began tinkering with the voting machine, and ultimately got it to work, prompting a burst of applause from those in line.

"Unbelievable," said Lynn Hawkins, 53, the second-to-last to vote. "That's America."

In Contra Costa County, so many independent voters showed up at the polls to vote Democratic that the county registrar of voters had to deliver stacks of extra Democratic ballots to polling stations. Eight precincts reported they were running short of ballots. In lieu of actual ballots, the county registrar was prepared to let voters use sample ballots.

In some precincts in Contra Costa County, independent voters showed up to the polls and poll workers told them erroneously that they could not get a nonpartisan ballot, a Democrat Party ballot or American Independent party ballot. The county sent workers out into the field trying to fix the situation, and called the precincts to explain that they needed to give those voters ballots.

The issue was not confined to Contra Costa County. There were sporadic reports from around the region of decline-to-state voters getting to the polls and receiving conflicting reports of what and how they could cast their ballots, including one man who e-mailed from El Granada to say he was given no choice in voting for president.

The big draw was the presidential primary, fueled by excitement over highly anticipated races on both the Democratic and Republican sides. As such, the local issues also on the ballot got little attention.

On the statewide ballot, Propositions 94, 95, 96 and 97 would allow four Southern California Indian tribes to add a total of 17,000 new slot machines to their existing casinos in exchange for providing the state with much more of their revenue.

Proposition 93 would alter state legislative term limit rules by trimming the number of years state lawmakers can spend in office from 14 to 12 years, but allowing them to spend their entire careers in either the state Senate or Assembly.

Proposition 92 would give schools - kindergarten through community college - an additional $900 million in state money over the next three years. It needs a simple majority vote to pass and would increase the guaranteed funding for community colleges by altering the complex formula that now guides state allocations to schools.

Proposition 91 would ban the state from moving gas tax money into the general fund, but even the people who put the initiative on the ballot are urging a "no" vote because Prop. 1A in 2006 accomplished their goal.

From Sonoma to San Jose and several cities in between, voters were weighing in on 10 school tax measures, including a bond to build a new swimming pool complex at Albany High School and an indefinite extension to a $195-per-parcel tax in Oakland. Seven of the measures are facilities bonds, requiring 55 percent voter support, while three are parcel taxes, which require two-thirds backing.

Voters in El Cerrito, Richmond and San Mateo County voted on new taxes to improve roads, fund police and fire departments, and provide other city services.

Measure A in El Cerrito was a half-cent sales tax to fix neighborhood streets, which are among the worst in the Bay Area, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

In Richmond, voters were asked to decide on Measure B, a revised telecommunications tax that's expected to raise money for police and other services. If it passes, Measure B would lower the city's telecommunications tax by 5 percent but raise more money because it would apply to a broader range of technologies.

Voters in unincorporated San Mateo County just west of the San Mateo city limits were deciding on Measure I, a property tax continuation that would pay for police, fire and emergency services.

San Francisco voters were deciding whether to finance $185 million in spending on city parks, whether to offer retiring police officers generous pay packages to stay on the job, and whether the city should try to buy Alcatraz Island and convert it into a peace center.

Some voters interviewed early Tuesday said the local issues were overshadowed by the excitement of the presidential election, and they had to make decisions on the fly.

California's record turnout for a primary election - 7.9 million in 2000 - will be shattered if 8.9 million voters went to the ballot today as expected. And the 56.6 percent turnout of registered voters predicted in a new Field Poll would be the highest since the 63.3 percent turnout in 1980, when Ronald Reagan defeated George H.W. Bush for the GOP nomination and Sen. Edward Kennedy challenged incumbent President Jimmy Carter for the Democratic nod.

"These are the type of numbers we see in a general election," said Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll.

Four years ago, with President Bush a lock on the Republican side and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry the overwhelming Democratic favorite, only 6.7 million Californians voted in the March primary, a turnout of 44.3 percent.

"Usually it's only the advocates, the partisans and the regular voters who turn out for a primary race," DiCamillo said. "But the early primary, along with the enthusiasm about the contests, has brought out a vote that looks a lot like a general election."

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