Election results from the 40th Congressional District Democratic primary were thrown into turmoil Tuesday as volunteer poll workers from a Costa Mesa precinct admitted they had mistakenly blocked voters from casting write-in ballots for Orange County Democratic Party Chief Bruce Sumner, who opposed Lyndon H. LaRouche Jr. follower Art Hoffmann.
"I told voters that there could be no write-in votes because that's what I had been told by somebody else," said poll inspector Delora E. Elling.
"I had never done this before," Elling added. "All I could think of that night (last Tuesday) was those write-ins. It really bothered me."
It was not clear how many voters were affected at Elling's Costa Mesa polling place, but the admissions raise the possibility that similar problems may have occurred in other precincts.
In the June 3 election, Sumner ran as a write-in candidate against Hoffman. Although an initial computer tally of votes indicated Sumner was the winner, an ongoing hand count of ballots has shown him to be lagging behind Hoffman by about 220 votes.
Sumner said this week that he will demand a recount once Hoffman is certified the winner.
"I am absolutely convinced that something is wrong somewhere," said attorney Frank P. Barbaro, whom Sumner has appointed to oversee the recount next week. "We've received complaints that some people were given a hard time about write-ins."
Several 40th District voters contacted The Times on Tuesday and said they were denied a chance to cast write-in votes for Sumner. Some said they were refused write-in information and pens or pencils, even though an elections guide provided to poll workers specifically stated that such services must be provided, along with detailed demonstrations of how to cast a write-in vote.
Not all of the complaints involved the same Costa Mesa precinct where workers admit they initially conveyed false information to voters. However, that precinct was the only one to be positively identified late Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Registrar of Voters A. E. Olson said, "This looks like a case of miscommunication" when told about the denial of write-in votes. "I definitely want to check into it further," he added.
Earlier, Olson disclosed that 14 precincts had failed to file a mandatory report on write-ins and the election workers from those precincts were being called into the county elections department to hand count the write-in ballots.
Over the weekend and again early this week, the hand count narrowed Sumner's deficit to only about 200 votes, but this was not enough to change the outcome. The recount requested by Sumner is expected to begin June 19.
Sumner, 61, a retired judge, waged a costly write-in bid to prevent Hoffmann, a supporter of political extremist LaRouche and the only Democrat listed on the 40th District ballot, from becoming the party's standard-bearer against five-term incumbent Rep. Robert E. Badham (R--Newport Beach).
Olson said he expects to certify Hoffmann as the winner next Tuesday. Although he is making no prediction about the outcome of a recount, Olson gives Sumner an excellent chance of winning, based on Olson's experience with a 1982 congressional write-in campaign in a neighboring district and the probability that some of Sumner's write-in votes were "missed" by precinct workers on election night.
Election officials said that a computer tally of write-in votes can differ from a hand count because the computer counts only the holes punched in a ballot card and does not determine whether there is a candidate's name written on the ballot. By contrast, a hand count verifies whether a hole is matched with a name.
As hand counts of Sumnner's write-ins continued late Tuesday, Elling said she regretted any mistakes that were made at her Costa Mesa precinct.
"The day before the election I got this call from someone who said there weren't any legal write-ins, and I figured that she knew what she was talking about," Elling said. She identified the caller as a veteran county elections department employee, but Olson said he strongly doubted that the person named by Elling would have passed on write-in information that was incorrect.
Efforts to reach the employee were unsuccessful late Tuesday.
"It's true," said polling clerk Robert E. Sankey, whose home at 687 Senate St. in Costa Mesa served as the precinct polling location. "People were routinely told they could not cast a write-in vote.
"The rest of us (election workers) argued with her (Elling) all day long. . . . She kept reading the instructions and saying that write-ins weren't allowed. . . . We didn't do anything about it because eventually she got a call that straightened it all out and we allowed write-ins after that."
Elling said only two voters were actually told they could not write in Sumner's name. Sankey said there were more but could not recall how many. Of the four poll workers assigned to Sankey's home, two were registered Democrats and two were registered Republicans.