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Unforeseen errors complicate Santa Cruz County vote counting
The Mercury News. Melissa Weaver - Sentinel correspondent, June 5, 2008

The final vote tally for Tuesday's elections was hours behind schedule due to host of complications that cropped up throughout the night, county election officials said.

Results were anticipated around 11 p.m. but didn't appear until after 1 a.m. Wednesday.

The complications ran the gamut: everything from a voter who took so long casting her ballot that she made a polling station close 40 minutes late, to voting machines breaking, to problems running vote-counting software.

County Clerk Gail Pellerin said many of the delays were caused by an overworked, under-trained staff and new technology.

"There were just too many tasks, too soon, and the clock just kept on running," she said.

The hold-up started soon after the polls closed at 8 p.m., when a voter arrived 10 minutes before closing and remained in the booth until around 8:40 p.m. She didn't leave until election officials asked her to finish, Pellerin said.

There is no law limiting the amount of time a voter has to cast a vote, provided there are no people waiting in line, according to the county clerk. Since the polling station was in the County Government Center where the final vote count is performed, the tallying couldn't begin until the voter was done.

Later Tuesday night, human error caused by unfamiliarity with new technology resulted in a delay in beginning the count.

Further complications arose because three touchscreen voting machines broke during the day. Replacement machines were brought to the polls immediately and people resumed voting. All the votes were counted, including from the broken machines, but the problems took time to sort out.

"All votes have been recovered from broken machines," said Pellerin, adding that the county is in the process of accounting for all votes cast. The numbers released Tuesday night are not a final tally. A certified tally won't be available until July 1, following a mandatory 28-day canvas during which all votes are manually recounted.

Pellerin doesn't expect the results to change much, but she admitted that she has no way of knowing or guessing what the final numbers will be.

This is especially pertinent in the case of the Scotts Valley school bond, which has a narrow lead of 54.01 percent to 46.99 percent of votes but not the 55 percent of votes required to pass.

Errors in vote tallies can result from damaged or unreadable ballots, late-arriving absentee ballots and military ballots.

"It is my responsibility to count the votes accurately," said Pellerin Tuesday night, apologizing for the delay but emphasizing that accuracy is more important than speed.

Voter turnout Tuesday was lower than expected, Pellerin said. Only 31.65 percent of 139,827 total registered county voters cast a ballot.

November voting turnout is typically much higher, she said.

"A presidential election is always the crowning jewel," said Pellerin, adding that she wished more people exercised their right to vote.

As to the errors that slowed vote counting, Pellerin expects to have them resolved by November. She is meeting with technicians later this week to resolve any electronic problems.

Contact Melissa Weaver at 706-3279 or jcopeland@santacruzsentinel.com.

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