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Snafus, irregularities at Bay Area polling stations. (CA)
San Francisco Chronicle. November 7, 2006. By Marisa Lagos, Demian Bulwa and Carl Nolte, Staff Writers

Bay Area voters weighed in on local, state and national matters at the polls today amid concerns of minor voting irregularities, including problems with electronic scanners at polling stations.

Several voters in San Mateo, Alameda and San Francisco counties worried that their votes would not be counted after being asked to place their ballots in boxes instead of scanning them. Voting officials acknowledged some problems with the electronic scanners, but said the issues were immediately fixed and reassured the public that every vote will be counted.

Still, Menlo Park resident John Liu, who placed his completed ballot into an unlocked cardboard box after voting at the Menalto Baptist Church this morning, wasn't mollified.

"There are many highly contested seats and measures at the local level in Menlo Park and I question the integrity of this particular voting station," he said.

Jeff Gilbert and John Ringelman, of San Mateo and Alameda counties, respectively, reported similar problems with voting. Gilbert said he voted at Burlingame City Hall at 7:30 a.m., and had to drop his ballot in a cardboard box because the scanner and an electronic voting machine both were broken. Ringelman said he was unable to scan his ballot because the scanners did not match up with the precinct they were placed in.

Officials at the San Mateo County Elections office could not be reached immediately for comment.

In Alameda County, Guy Ashley, a spokesman for the Registrar of Voters, acknowledged that several precincts in that county had problems with scanners, mostly due to human error. The county this year switched back to paper ballots, after using electronic machines in the past.

"That was the biggest problem we've encountered. It's not widespread, and it's because we have new equipment," he said. In one case, he said, poll workers had forgotten to turn on the machine. "I have to say, the great part about our switching back to paper ballots is that even though the problem has occurred in some precincts, it has not impeded voting."

Ashley said there was a backlog of ballots that needed to be scanned, but "at this point I think we're pretty well caught up." He reassured the public that their votes would be counted.

"We have procedures in place to secure those ballots ... and poll workers are trained on this, and hopefully on how to deal with voters," he said. "At this point for the voters voting now and into the evening I don't think there will be much of a problem. Activating the machines and getting them working was the biggest challenge."

San Francisco voters also complained that the scanners used to tally ballots were broken, including at two precincts in the Sunset district.

Sue Oliver, who voted at a church on 43rd Avenue, wrote in an e-mail that she had to put her ballot in an "auxiliary box" so it could be counted later, after the machine broke down. Gordon Chan, who voted at a polling place on 25th Avenue, added that the machine he used would not accept the first page of voters' ballots.

"It refused to take the first ballot page it didn't get counted," he said. "(Poll workers) put it in a box and said they would count it later. It's kind of disconcerting, it says you voted but it doesn't tell you whether you voted completely."

Chan said everyone at the precinct was upset.

"Basically our vote for the national elections was not counted," he said. "The first page is so crucial we are voting for the House of Representatives."

Campaign officials for San Francisco Supervisor Chris Daly, who is running a tight race for reelection in District 6, sent out a press release at mid-day, complaining of "problems ranging from late openings to voting machine failures to incomplete ballots," in the district.

Poll workers at a precinct at 109 Oak Street confirmed that one worker had given out incomplete ballots four pages instead of five to about 15 voters. The error was corrected, workers said, the poll worker was moved, and the affected voters were able to recast their ballots.

John Arntz, head of the San Francisco's department of elections, said that two polling stations in the city opened late one on Hoff Street and another on Kamille Street because a worker didn't show up.

In both instances, Arntz said, voting was conducted on the sidewalk outside until the buildings were opened. There are always problems on election day, he said. In District 6, he added, there are a disproportionate number of observers because it is a hotly contested race between Daly and his chief opponent, Rob Black.

Arntz said his department immediately sends out technical support staff to any place where a problem has been reported. If the a machine cannot be fixed, it will be replaced and the ballots will then be scanned by a working machine, he said.

Many voters, particularly in San Mateo County, reported lines this morning at polling places possibly because of the packed ballot that some described as overwhelming.

Voters said they were spending longer than usual in the ballot box on average, about 15 minutes.

At a Castro district precinct on Beaver Street around 8:30 a.m., several voters said the 192-page state voter information guide had been daunting not to mention the host of local issues they were expected to decide.

"I always vote," said 49-year-old Michael Baker, but "this ballot is so big this year, this is the first time I haven't read through it (ahead of time). It's too much. I am basically voting no on everything."

Max Spector, 31, agreed, saying it had taken him 30 minutes to cast his ballot.

"It could be confusing if you're not prepared," added Denise Corona, 42, who said it took her 15 minutes to vote despite the fact that she studied the ballot ahead of time.

Janice Hough was one of several Palo Alto residents this morning who reported a long line at her polling place, at a church on Waverly Street. Hough said it took her over 30 minutes to vote at 9 a.m., and she was the 110th person to cast a ballot at the location.

"I usually vote in the morning, and there are usually one or two people in line," said Hough, 47. "This time there were 20 people waiting and only five polling spots. I saw one person leave, and a couple others said would come back later."

In San Francisco, lines of about 10 people greeted voters at several polling places.

"It's good to see so many people voting," said 46-year-old Marea Murray, surveying a line of about 10 people at a Castro district polling station. "There aren't usually lines."

The turnout may not play out statewide: today's statewide general election is expected to attract only about 51.5 percent of registered voters, according to a Field Poll estimate released today.

Despite the anticipated low turnout, an estimated 45 percent of California's 15.8 million registered voters were expected to use absentee ballots for this election, up from 27.1 percent in 2002 and 40 percent in last November's special election.

With races for governor and U.S. Senate at the top of the ballot, turnout is expected to be 51.5 percent, second worst in history for a regularly scheduled election, behind only the 50.6 percent of registered voters who showed up four years ago to re-elect Democrat Gray Davis as governor. Secretary of State Bruce McPherson's slightly more optimistic prediction of a 55 percent turnout still would be second from the bottom historically.

Nancy Wakeman, an eight-year resident of the Castro, said she was pleasantly surprised by the turnout in her neighborhood. Wakeman, 64, had to stand in line 10 minutes to vote.

"It took longer than I thought," she said, noting she has never seen a line at the polling station. "I hope lots of people vote."

Several voters said they expected turnout to be high. Bruekner, voting in Noe Valley, said he predicted that most of his friends would to come to the polls, and 33-year-old Nathan Coles said he was filling out his ballot bright and early "because I believe in our political process."

"I still don't know who I am going to vote for for governor," Coles mused as he stood behind about eight people in line to vote. "I don't like Phil Angelides, but I'm still going to vote for him because the other option is so bad."

Chronicle staff writers John Wildermuth and Rob Selna contributed to this report.


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