Thursday, April 20, 2006

Vote counting woes in Long Beach signal what may be ahead in June

Problems with California's voter registration verification process are leading lots of folks to worry about trouble at the polls June 6 when California holds its first statewide election of 2006. A high percentage of new registrants aren't getting verified despite the fact that they qualify as voters. While the Secretary of State, lawmakers and county officials scramble to alter policies that will relieve the problem, the only known fail-safe at this point is that voters who have fallen through the verification crack will still be able to cast provisional ballots at the polls.

A significant number of voters will also request absentee ballots. The increased reliance on voting by mail in California needs greater attention by policymakers, since a larger proportion of all the ballots are being cast through the mail. Are all the ballots getting delivered on a timely basis? Is there adequate coordination between the county and local post offices heading into an election season? Do these ballots have an equal chance of getting verified for accuracy during the post-election manual count of one percent of the precincts?

Problems with absentee voting inevitably spill over into provisional voting, as voters who requested absentee ballots but for whatever reason didn't return them show up at the polls to vote.

Consequently, county election offiials end up having to spend a lot more time inspecting ballots and voter information and ensuring that only legitimate ballots are counted. Unfortunately, many key players in the election process, such as candidates and the media, are anxious for results and put a great deal of pressure on county election offices to get it done fast. In fact, one key selling point for computerized voting systems has been the promise that such systems can deliver fast and accurate results.

There's no doubt that computers can do this, but the vote counting process happens within an election process that itself gets more complicated every year. If there are close contests in California's June 6 primary election, we may find ourselves waiting for weeks before all the votes can be counted. We need to be patient during this process and let the officials take the time that's necessary to get it right. Fast results are good, but accurate results are better.

For a preview of what's to come in June, take a look at this article by Kristopher Hansen published April 18 in the Long Beach Press Telegram. Excerpts are featured below.


Did everyone who requested an absentee ballot receive it in the mail?
Why were registered voters' names left off the list at their polling places?

Why were so many provisional ballots cast during the April 11 municipal elections?

The questions came fast and furious Monday for City Clerk Larry Herrera during a session with several office seekers and election consultants anxious to know their political futures.

A week after voters went to the polls in a citywide election to pick a new mayor, five council members, city auditor and attorney and a slew of school board members, some of the race's outcomes remain unknown as authorities work to verify more than 6,000 provisional and absentee ballots.


"I know people are frustrated, but we have to give it a little more time," Herrera said. The city is working this week to verify the validity of 6,202 absentee and provisional ballots received citywide April 11 that remain sealed as workers prepare to examine them for proper signatures, addresses and registration.

One of the biggest questions is why so many provisional ballots were cast. The city collected about 2,200 April 11, compared with the average 500 or so received during a typical municipal election, Herrera said.

Provisional ballots refer to ballots cast by voters who go to the wrong polling place on Election Day, fail to receive an absentee ballot or who recently moved.

Becki Ames, a consultant for front-running mayoral candidate Bob Foster, said she's heard from a dozen or so voters in East Long Beach who complained of not receiving requested absentee ballots and being forced to cast provisionals.

Herrera plans on getting some answers this week as he checks names and signatures on provisional ballots against a database of voters who requested absentee ballots. If there are a large number on both lists, it could signal a serious breakdown in how absentee ballots were delivered.

"We're gonna get to the bottom of it," Herrera said. "We're being as open as we can and letting everyone see what's going on good or bad."

Herrera could not say if the business contracted to print and send the absentee ballots, Orange County-based Martin and Chapman Co., failed to deliver the absentee ballots on time, but said his office is investigating all possibilities.

In March, Martin and Chapman Co. botched Spanish translations on 196,000 sample ballots, which had to be reprinted and redelivered at a cost of roughly $80,000.

"As we're driving down the road to June 6 (runoff elections), we're also looking in the rearview mirror and mopping up whatever mess we had and working to make sure it doesn't happen again," Herrera said.

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